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Domestic affairs (1775–1787)

Much of Catherine's fame rests on what she accomplished during the dozen years following the Pugachev uprising. Here she directed her time and talent to domestic affairs, particularly those concerned with the way the government functioned. Catherine was also concerned with expanding the country's educational system. In 1786 she adopted a plan that would create a large-scale educational system. Unfortunately, she was unable to carry out the entire plan, but she did add to the number of the country's elementary and secondary schools. Some of the remaining parts of her plan were carried out after her death.

The arts and sciences also received much attention during Catherine's reign. Not only because she believed them to be important in themselves, but also because she saw them as a means by which Russia could earn a reputation as a center of civilization. Under her direction St. Petersburg was turned into one of the world's most dazzling capitals. Theater, music, and painting flourished with her encouragement.

As she grew older, Catherine became greatly troubled because her heir, Paul, was becoming mentally unstable and she doubted his ability to rule. She considered naming Paul's oldest son, Alexander, as her successor. Before she was able to alter her original arrangement, however, she died of a stroke on November 6, 1796. While her legacy is open to debate, there is no doubt that Catherine was a key figure in developing Russia into a modern civilization.

Although Catherine the Great corresponded with Voltaire, Diderot, and Montesquieu, her reforms never infringed on her autocratic principles as absolute ruler in Russia.

Catherine the Great died in 1796, several years after the start of the French Revolution. Despite her openness to Enlightenment ideas, her correspondence with pre-revolutionary thinkers like Voltaire and Diderot, and her attempts at internal reform, the violent phases of the Revolution turned Catherine against her earlier inclinations. In the end, she considered sending an army to France to restore the monarchy. Catherine’s depiction as an enlightened despot has left open the door of debate: to what extent did Catherine accept the progress and reform associated with Enlightenment belief?

Catherine as Empress After 1762

With the assistance of highly placed government officials and the elite Guards units in St. Petersburg, Catherine engineered a bloodless coup in 1762, deposing her inept and highly unpopular husband, Peter III. Intelligent and exceptionally literate, Catherine was devoted to Russia, embraced Orthodoxy, and determined to reform government and foreign policy.

Catherine became an avid art collector, filling the Winter Palace (later the Hermitage) with priceless masterpieces. She came to the throne as the most literate and best educated autocrat in the history of Russia. She spoke French fluently, wrote plays, essays, and treatises on a number of topics. Catherine valued books and acquired the libraries of both Voltaire and Diderot upon the deaths of those great thinkers.


She invited both Voltaire and Diderot to St. Petersburg. Denis Diderot accepted her invitation and spent afternoons discoursing, freely advising what progressive changes she could facilitate in Russia. Yet, as she admitted in her writings, neither Diderot nor the other philosophes fully appreciated what it was like to govern. Her foreign policy hardly reflected Enlightenment ideas as with the three partitions of Poland. In 1778, the Prussian king, Frederick II, commented that “the empress of Russia is very proud, very ambitious, and very vain.”

Catherine’s reforms, such as in administration and law, were tempered with a sense of paranoia that engulfed her entire reign. Within a two year period, there were 13 pretenders to the throne, some claiming to be Peter III. This culminated in the 1773 Pugachev Revolt, perhaps the greatest peasant uprising of the century.

An Enlightened Monarch or True Autocrat

Catherine rose at five every morning. Referring to herself as the “first servant of the state,” (much like Frederick the Great said of himself), she worked long hours. Under her rule, more books were published in Russia than in all previous years and the modern Russian language replaced the older “church Slavonic” language. Moscow University was founded and Catherine encouraged the building of elementary and intermediate schools.

No reforms, however, limited her role as the autocratic ruler of Russia. As with other so-called Enlightened monarchs (Frederick the Great, Joseph II of Austria), Catherine was willing to reform certain aspects of civic and social life, but not at the expense of her own power. Under Catherine, serfdom expanded and became more firmly entrenched. Censorship prohibited the publication of books that criticized her reign or the autocratic system.

By the time the Bastille fell in Paris in 1789 to French mobs, Catherine had already become reactionary. Events in France, at least for Catherine, represented the effects of unbridled Enlightenment thinking. Additionally, she recalled all too vividly the peasant challenges to her own legitimacy. What she owed Russia was order and stability rather than chaos and turmoil. Hence, she retreated from liberalism.

Before the end of the 1760s Catherine was to test, and abandon, two other methods of achieving a radical alteration in the character of the Russian people. In her studies of Russia as a young woman she had been particularly struck by the fact that Peter the Great's initiative in founding a country-wide network of secular schools had been abandoned by his successors, and after her accession she aimed not only to bring Peter's plan to fulfilment but also to refashion the educational system in such a way as to create 'a new breed of people'. In this project she was supported by Ivan Betsky who, as President of the Academy of Arts and Director of Public Works and Gardens, was also responsible for the embellishment of St Petersburg. Betsky was convinced that bad morals were merely the result of bad family upbringing and bad schooling, and that 'noble citizens' could be produced without difficulty by removing young children altogether from parental influence and educating them by special methods in conditions which precluded any contact with the outside world. After experiments with a school for foundlings in Moscow, both the gymnasium attached to the Academy of Sciences in St Petersburg and the Cadet Corps of the Nobility were opened to children aged 4-5 years, who followed a special curriculum designed by Betsky to inculcate moral virtues rather than learning. At the same time Catherine founded a society for the education of young noblewomen (later known as the Smolny Institute) which was to be run on identical lines.


For a short time, too, Catherine herself assumed the role of preceptor by offering moral guidance to the educated society of St Petersburg in the pages of a satirical journal. At the time social satire was a relatively new feature of Russian journalism. Its first exponent was the dramatist Sumarokov, whose Busy Bee (1759) had tilted at the arrogance and ignorance of the country nobility. Catherine, in her Omnium Gatherum (Vsyakaya Vsyachind) which first appeared in 1769, tried to improve the manners of her readers. She complained, for instance, that women spoke too loud in society, that they discussed unsuitable topics in front of their children. In one issue an imaginary correspondent, probably Catherine herself, asked the editors to distinguish between 'inborn and Russian' and 'evil and Tartar' habits. The editors replied that it was a Tartar habit to break promises, an ancient Russian custom to observe them. Impoliteness, greed and envy were all Tartar habits. Five or six other journals of this type appeared during 1769. Some of them played the role of admiring pupil to Catherine's Omnium Gatherum, trying to show how well her lessons had been learnt: but one, The Drone, had stronger meat to offer. Its editor, Nikolay Novikov, had been secretary of one of the committees in the commission of 1767, and in The Drone he criticised the nobility for their attitude to the merchants and their treatment of the serfs. Catherine's journal reproved him for striking too serious a note. Their first literary skirmish lasted barely a year, but it was to be resumed in earnest before the end of the reign. The empress's abandonment of her venture into journalism marked the end of her preoccupation with good principles as the best recipe for good living and good government.

Catherine the Great
On December 25, 1761, Peter III, a grandson of Peter the Great, was crowned Tsar. Peter was thirty-four, dissolute, and imperceptive. He was not accompanied by his wife Catherine, a year younger but far more mature, not dissolute but also no puritan. The couple had been married for eighteen years. Both had been newcomers to the Russian court as teens, and for a few years after their marriage they had been on friendly terms. By 1762, however, their relationship had long since been in name only. Peter had grown into a fool, while Catherine had become a complete success, respected as much for her intellect as for her winning personality. Although the court atmosphere in which they lived was much more cosmopolitan than that inhabited by their royal predecessors, politics was as always a deadly serious pursuit--and everyone knew that Catherine was the more capable politician.

By the following summer the conflict between Peter and Catherine had become quite serious. In only six months of rule, he had managed to offend and outrage virtually the entire court by diplomatic bumblings and large segments of the population through his hostility to the church and his evident disdain for Russia. Support for Catherine was widespread, and Peter was suspicious. Early on the morning of June 28, Catherine left her estate at Peterhof, outside of St. Petersburg, and departed for the city. Everything had been prepared in advance, and when she arrived she was greeted with cheers by both the troops of her factional supporters and the populace. By the next morning, Peter was confronted with a fait accompli--and a prepared declaration of his abdication. A week later, he was dead.

Catherine went on to become the most powerful sovereign in Europe. She continued Peter the Great's reforms of the Russian state, further increasing central control over the provinces. Her skill as a diplomat, in an era that produced many extraordinary diplomats, was remarkable. Russia's influence in European affairs, as well as its territory in Eastern and Central Europe, were increased and expanded. Catherine was also an enthusiastic patron of the arts. She built and founded the Hermitage Museum, commissioned buildings all over Russia, founded academies, journals, and libraries, and corresponded with the French Encyclopedists, including Voltaire, Diderot, and d'Alembert. Although Catherine did in fact have many lovers, some of them trusted advisors and confidants, stories alleging her to have had an excessive sexual appetite are unfounded.

With the onset of the French Revolution, Catherine became strikingly conservative and increasingly hostile to criticism of her policies. From 1789 until her death, she reversed many of the liberal reforms of her early reign. One notable effect of this reversal was that, like Peter the Great, Catherine ultimately contributed to the increasingly distressing state of the peasantry in Russia.

When Catherine the Great died in 1796, she was succeeded by her son Paul I. Catherine never really liked Paul, and her feelings were reciprocated by her son. Paul's reign lasted only five years and was by all accounts a complete disaster. His most notable legacy is the remarkable and tragic Engineer's Castle in St. Petersburg. Paul was succeeded by his son Alexander I, who is remembered mostly for having been the ruler of Russia during Napoleon Bonaparte's epic Russian Campaign.

Catherine II (l762-1796), a German princess who became Empress of Russia after disposing of her ineffectual husband was one of the most successful European monarchs. She followed Peter the Great in seeing Russia (which had been part of an Asian Empire for centuries) as European Power. Among her other achievements, added some 200 000 square miles to the territory of the Russian empire. The following letter was written by a French diplomat in Moscow.

From Letter of Baron de Breteuil
This princess seems to combine every kind of ambition in her person. Everything that may add luster to her reign will have some attraction for her. Science and the arts will be encouraged to flourish in the empire, projects useful for the domestic economy will be undertaken. She will endeavor to reform the administration of justice and to invigorate the laws; but her policies will be based on Machiavellianism; and I should not be surprised if in this field she rivals the king of Prussia. She will adopt the prejudices of her entourage regarding the superiority of her power and will endeavor to win respect not by the sincerity and probity of her actions but also by an ostentatious display of her strength. Haughty as she is, she will stubbornly pursue her undertakings and will rarely retrace a false step. Cunning and falsity appear to be vices in her character; woe to him who puts too much trust in her. Love affairs may become a stumbling block to her ambition and prove fatal for her peace of mind. This passionate princess, still held in check by the fear and consciousness of internal troubles, will know no restraint once she believes herself firmly established.
A Source Book for Russian History, G. Vernadsky, trans. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972), Vol. 2.

In 1767 Catherine summoned an assembly to draft a new code of laws for Russia and gave detailed instructions to the members about the principles they should apply. (The proposed code never went into effect.) The code drips with "enlightend language": the reality of government in Russia was rather different.

From Catherine II. Proposals for a New Law Code
6. Russia is an European State. 7. This is clearly demonstrated by the following Observations: The Alterations which Peter the Great undertook in Russia succeeded with the greater Ease, because the Manners, which prevailed at that Time, and had been introduced amongst us by a Mixture of different Nations, and the Conquest of foreign Territories, were quite unsuilable to the Climate. Peter the First, by introducing the Manners and Customs of Europe among the European People in his Dominions, found at that Time such Means as even he himself was not sanguine enough to expect.... 8. The Possessions of the Russian Empire extend upon the terrestrial Globe to 32 Degrees of Latitude, and to 165 of Longitude. 9. The Sovereign is absolute; for there is no other Authority but that which centers in his single Person, that can act with a Vigour proportionate to the Extent of such a vast Dominion. 10. The Extent of the Dominion requires an absolute Power to be vested in that Person who rules over it. It is expedient so to be, that the quick Dispatch of Affairs, sent from distant Parts, might make ample Amends for the Delay occasioned by the great Distance of the Places. 11. Every other Form of Government whatsoever would not only have been prejudicial to Russia, but would even have proved its entire Ruin. 12. Another Reason is: That it is better to be subject to the Laws under one Master, than to be subservient to many. 13. What is the true End of Monarchy? Not to deprive People of their natural Liberty; but to correct their Actions, in order to attain the supreme Good. 14. The Form of Government, therefore, which best attains this End, and at the same Time sets less Bounds than others to natural Liberty, is that which coincides with the Views and Purposes of rational Creatures, and answers the End, upon which we ought to fix a steadfast Eye in the Regulations of civil Polity. 15. The Intention and the End of Monarchy, is the Glory of the Citizens, of the State, and of the Sovereign. 16. But, from this Glory, a Sense of Liberty arises in a People governed by a Monarch; which may produce in these States as much Energy in transacting the most important Affairs, and may contribute as much to the Happiness of the Subjects, as even Liberty itself.... 33. The Laws ought to be so framed, as to secure the Safety of every Citizen as much as possible. 34. The Equality of the Citizens consists in this; that they should all be subject to the same Laws. 35. This Equality requires Institutions so well adapted, as to prevent the Rich from oppressing those who are not so wealthy as themselves, and converting all the Charges and Employments intrusted to them as Magistrates only, to their own private Emolument.... 37. In a State or Assemblage of People that live together in a Community, where there are Laws, Liberty can only consist in doing that which every One ought to do, and not to be constrained to do that which One ought not to do. 38. A Man ought to form in his own Mind an exact and clear Idea of what Liberty is. Liberty is the Right of doing whatsoever the Laws allow: And if any one Citizen could do what the Laws forbid, there would be no more Liberty; because others would have an equal Power of doing the same. 39. The political Liberty of a Citizen is the Peace of Mind arising from the Consciousness, that every Individual enjoys his peculiar Safety; and in order that the People might attain this Liberty, the Laws ought to be so framed, that no one Citizen should stand in Fear of another; but that all of them should stand in Fear of the same Laws.... 123. The Usage of Torture is contrary to all the Dictates of Nature and Reason; even Mankind itself cries out against it, and demands loudly the total Abolition of it. 180. That Law, therefore, is highly beneficial to the Community where it is established, which ordains that every Man shall be judged by his Peers and Equals. For when the Fate of a Citizen is in Question, all Prejudices arising from the Difference of Rank or Fortune should be stifled; because they ought to have no Influence between the Judges and the Parties accused. 194. (1.) No Man ought to be looked upon as guilty, before he has received his judicial Sentence; nor can the Laws deprive him of their Protection, before it is proved that he has forfeited all Right to it. What Right therefore can Power give to any to inflict Punishment upon a Citizen at a Time, when it is yet dubious, whether he is Innocent or guilty? 250. A Society of Citizens, as well as every Thing else, requires a certain fixed Order: There ought to be some to govern, and others to obey. 251. And this is the Origin of every Kind of Subjection; which feels itself more or less alleviated, in Proportion to the Situation of the Subjects. 252. And, consequently, as the Law of Nature commands Us to take as much Care, as lies in Our Power, of the Prosperity of all the People; we are obliged to alleviate the Situation of the Subjects, as much as sound Reason will permit. 253. And therefore, to shun all Occasions of reducing People to a State of Slavery, except the utmost Necessity should inevitably oblige us to do it; in that Case, it ought not to be done for our own Benefit; but for the Interest of the State: Yet even that Case is extremely uncommon. 254. Of whatever Kind Subjection may be, the civil Laws ought to guard, on the one Hand, against the Abuse of Slavery, and, on the other, against the Dangers which may arise from it. 269. It seems too, that the Method of exacting their Revenues, newly invented by the Lords, diminishes both the Inhabitants, and the Spirit of Agriculture in Russia. Almost all the Villages are heavily taxed. The Lords, who seldom or never reside in their Villages, lay an Impost on every Head of one, two, and even five Rubles, without the least Regard to the Means by which their Peasants may be able to raise this Money. 270. It is highly necessary that the Law should prescribe a Rule to the Lords, for a more judicious Method of raising their Revenues; and oblige them to levy such a Tax, as tends least to separate the Peasant from his House and Family; this would be the Means by which Agriculture would become more extensive, and Population be more increased in the Empire.
Documents of Catherine the Great: The Correspondence with Voltaire and the Instructionof l767 in the English Text of l768, W. F. Reddaway, trans. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1931), pp. 216-17, 219, 231, 241, 244, 256 258.

From Decree on Serfs (1767)
Although Catherine liked to use the liberal rhetoric of the Enlightenment, she actually ruled Russia with a heavy hand. Her government enacted this decree f- in the same year that the instructions about the proposed law code were issued.
The Governing Senate. . . has deemed it necessary to make known > that the landlords' serfs and peasants . . . owe their landlords proper submission and absolute obedience in all matters, according to the laws r that have been enacted from time immemorial by the autocratic forefathers of Her Imperial Majesty and which have not been repealed, and which provide that all persons who dare to incite serfs and peasants to disobey their landlords shall be arrested and taken to the nearest government office, there to be punished forthwith as disturbers of the public tranquillity, according to the laws and without leniency. And should it so happen that even after the publication of the present decree of Her Imperial Majesty any serfs and peasants should cease to give the proper obedience to their landlords . . . and should make bold to submit unlawful petitions complaining of their landlords, and especially to petition Her Imperial Majesty personally, then both those who make the complaints and those who write up the petitions shall be punished by the knout and forthwith deported to Nerchinsk to penal servitude for life and shall be counted as part of the quota of recruits which their landlords must furnish to the army. And in order that people everywhere may know of the present decree, it shall be read in all the churches on Sundays and holy days for one month after it is received and therafter once every year during the great church festivals, lest anyone pretend ignorance.
A Source Book for Russian History, G. Vernadsky, trans. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972), Vol. 2, pp. 453-454.

Not many people at European courts believed that Catherine would last long. Another German without a drop of Russian blood in her veins, and the true heir, Peter the Great's grandson murdered? Catherine herself knew how fragile her position really was. She kept the statesmen who had been active under Empress Elizabeth and under Peter. She even kept Chancellor Vorontzov. Nikita Panin was put in charge of foreign affairs.
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