"Catherine the Great"
by Isabel de Madariaga



Catherine ruled Russia from 1762 to 1796. "In an absolute monarchy, everything depends on the disposition and character of the Sovereign," the British Envoy to Russia, Sir James Harris, observed in 1778. The ruler sets the tone in every field far more than in a limited monarchy, as Great Britain was at the time, or in a democracy, as the United Kingdom is today. Peace or war, prosperity or poverty, a free and easy intellectual and social life, or a society isolated from outside influences and dragooned into conformity, all this depended to a great extent on the character of the individual ruler.


The personality of Catherine thus merits some attention. Inevitably it changed a good deal over the thirty-four years of her reign. Yet some features of her character remained present throughout. She was to begin with a woman of an optimistic and cheerful temperament.


Whether she was acting a part or not, Catherine throughout her life showed her ability to get on with people in all ranks of life. Her servants adored her and remained with her for years. . . . She was always well received by the common people on her various travels throughout Russia, and it was the aristocracy, not the people, who cold-shouldered her in Moscow....


Within the mental climate of her time and of her position as ruler, Catherine also showed more originality than any previous ruler of Russia and than most rulers at the time in Europe, except perhaps the Grand Duke Leopold of Tuscany, in her thoughts about changing the nature and the structure of Russian central government by altering the relationship of the central power and the corporate forces in Russian society, forces to which she had herself given legal form. It is here that the influence of William Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England (in a French translation) is so noteworthy. Catherine made over 700 pages of notes from Blackstone and wrote various drafts at different times of the changes in the constitutional structure she proposed to introduce.


It is essential to realize how little opposition there was to the form of government, absolutism, in Russia. The bulk of the population accepted the legitimacy of the regime however much some people might disagree with some policies. Government operated largely as a partnership between the nobility, the townspeople and the Crown, and the political class in a largely illiterate and materially still very primitive country was minute. Individuals might criticize specific policies, but the Russian political system provided no channels for groups to form with common programs. There were only small patronage and clientele circles around specific magnates....


There is one aspect of the opposition to Catherine which has so far been much less well documented. The example which the Empress so glaringly provided of total disregard for the rules of domestic morality-acceptable at that time in a man, totally unforgivable in a woman-turned many of the Church hierarchy, such as Metropolitan Platon of Moscow, and of the more straitlaced nobles, of which there were many, and the Moscow freemasons against her. Catherine's private life was contrasted with the apparent domestic happiness of Paul (he was more discreet). She was accused of corrupting young people and family life by her example, and the Russian court, particularly in its later years, rivaled French society, or the grand Whig society of England, in its dissoluteness, though high standards of decorum were always maintained in public.


Lower down the social scale, there was considerable opposition to Catherine's secularization of Church lands, to the widespread closure of monasteries and convents, and the concentration of monks and nuns in a smaller number of larger establishments. Local minor nobles and townspeople appealed to be allowed to keep open at their own expense small convents which they had often endowed in the past and which acted as refuges for their wives and sisters-requests which were sometimes granted. Unofficially, women's groups in provincial towns set up self-supporting "women's communities," in which women could live a disciplined and religious life, and undertake good works without being officially rated as nuns. What one might call the conservative opposition to Catherine's "enlightenment policies" needs further study.


It is still too early to make a considered judgment on the impact of Catherine's reign in Russia, and to interpret her policies with any certainty.... The traditional view for a long time has been that Catherine was so badly in need of noble support to keep the throne that she deliberately increased the power of the nobles over their serfs, and governed in such a way as to consolidate noble domination and exploitation of the human and material resources of the country.

This theory is still found in some modern histories of her policies, but it no longer commands general agreement. In the light of the work that has been done mainly by British and American historians it is now more possible to see both what the Empress tried to achieve and what obstacles faced her. By temperament, as well as because she was aware that she had no legitimate claim to the throne, Catherine wished to prove herself a reformer, in the spirit of German cameralism as modified by the enlightenment. Her policies were presented to the Russian (and to the European) public clothed in the language of the enlightenment.


But there was a considerable discrepancy between her aims and her achievements. It is this discrepancy between the rhetoric in which she expressed her aims and hopes and the actual performance of the institutions she created which has left her open to the charge of hypocrisy. But she was no hypocrite. She believed in her reforms, but she had to use the human tools to hand, and there is no doubt that, while she found many great administrators, most of the officials on whom she had to rely did not live up to her expectations. Was she informed of these inadequacies? Did she turn a blind eye? We cannot tell at this stage. What remains true however is that Catherine was the first ruler of Russia to conceive of drawing up legislation setting out the corporate rights of the nobles and the townspeople, and the civil rights of the free population of the country. The nobility, the towns people and the free peasants were given a legal framework within which these rights could be pressed. She was also the first ruler ever to establish special courts to which the state peasants had access and in which they could and did sue merchants and nobles. During her reign the individual-other than the serf or the soldier-was allowed more space, more responsibility, more security, more dignity. For a while an increasingly diversified Russian society escaped from the overwhelming pressure of the militarization imposed on it by Peter I and restored by Paul I.


Catherine did not increase the power of the nobles over the serfs, nor did she turn large numbers of Russian state peasants into private serfs. She did not, as we know, free the serfs, or even attempt to regulate relations between serfs and landowners by law. Her hold on the throne was not strong enough to enable her to put through a policy which would have been opposed by the whole of the Russian political elite, both the nobility and the townspeople. She did not have the power of coercion necessary to enforce a policy which would have to be put through by the very people who benefited from the status quo. But that should not be the sole criterion by which she is judged.


Catherine was not a revolutionary like Peter I, who forced his policies on a reluctant society without counting the human cost. She paid attention to public opinion; as she said to Diderot, "what I despair of overthrowing I undermine." Her absolute authority rested, as she well knew, on her sensitivity to the possible.

(from Isabel de Madariaga. Catherine the Great. A Short History (New Haven, 1990), 203-206, 211, 215-218)