The Revolutionary Masses
reign (1762-1796) was one of the most remarkable in Russian
history. It has often been seen as an important complement to
Peter’s period, as an age in which Absolutism established by her
great predecessor was tempered by Enlightenment. In the eloquent
phrase of a contemporary poet Michael Kheraskov:
Peter gave Russians a body,
Catherine gave them a soul.
sentiment would be reiterated by many, including the famous
literary critic Vissarion Belinsky who, in 1841, remarked:
‘Peter had awakened Russia from apathetic sleep, but it was
Catherine who breathed life into her’.
Indeed, Peter’s approach to the
task of Europeanization was one of the hard-headed pragmatism.
The major Western influences that stimulated his reform efforts
were mainly the scientific movement and the rationalism of the
late seventeenth century. He used Western ideas and techniques
to create a powerful empire and to augment the autocratic
prerogative of the tsar. In contrast, Catherine’s emphasis was
more on the intellectual. She was more receptive to the somewhat
more refined arguments of the eighteenth century philosophes and political
thinkers. Despite this distinction in the sort of Western
influences affecting the two reigns, there was more than a
little continuity between them and between the problems that the
two great rulers had to contend with.
Prior to her
appearance on the Russian scene, Catherine was an obscure German
princess known by the name of Sophia Augusta. She was born in 1729
and, when she was about 15 years old, came to Russia to marry the
heir of the Russian throne. With her conversion to Orthodoxy she
took the name of Catherine. In 1762 she secured the Russian throne
against her husband, Peter III.
By the time
of her accession to the throne Catherine was well versed in the
contemporary achievements of the European philosophical, political
and economic thought. She corresponded with Voltaire and most of the
other great men of the age, and her letters show her to be
well-informed and lively if not profound. She had also some definite
ideas of her own of what needed to be done to ensure the well-being
of the state. By absorbing contemporary political theories and
adding her own understanding of Russia’s problems to them, Catherine
had arrived at a political program, which informed her domestic
policies to the end her reign. The ideological base of this program
was the principles of the Enlightenment. For this reason, the period
in Russian history associated with Catherine’s reign is often
referred to as ‘enlightened
eighteenth century is famous as the age of European absolute
monarchy. The term ‘enlightened absolutism’ is usually applied to
several decades of European history that preceded the French
revolution of 1789. The monarchs regarded as ‘enlightened’ were,
first of all, Frederick the Great of Prussia, Joseph II of Austria,
Charles III of Spain and Catherine the Great of Russia. It is
believed that these sovereigns used their absolute prerogatives to
implement reforms based on the ideas of the Enlightenment.
time, the European political thought had come to a new understanding
of the role of the monarch and his relationship with his subjects.
Increasingly the monarch was seen as a first servant of state, as a
caring head of society. Not all analysts are convinced, however,
that the concept of ‘enlightened absolutism’ is applicable to
Catherine’s Russia. Some prefer to speak of
instead. The question that is often asked is whether indeed
Catherine was an enlightened despot.
commentators the ideals of the Enlightenment espoused by Catherine
appear to be incompatible with the reality of serfdom in Russia of
the second half of the eighteenth century. They suspect that all her
talk about Enlightenment and the liberal phraseology of her
correspondence with Voltaire was nothing but a smoke screen which
the empress used to conceal her vanity, lust for power and her own
rather reactionary views. However, in recent decades this rather
unflattering perception of Catherine has been yielding ground to a
more positive view, according to which Catherine did, indeed,
sincerely aspire to imprint an enlightened stamp on her autocratic
rule and even partially succeed.