The Legislative Commission
The Revolutionary Masses
example of Catherine considering ambitious change based on the
Enlightenment was the calling, in 1767, of the
- a temporary consultative body created to revise Russia’s laws.
It was a unique and unprecedented attempt in Russian history of
a state-sponsored and state-organized national debate, involving
a cross-section of the Russian population, on all essential
economic, social and legal issues of the day. The membership of
the Commission consisted of 572 deputies elected by all classes
of the 30 million strong population of Russia, except the serfs.
The peasantry, too, was represented; the peasant deputies were
not, however, elected to the Commission but appointed by the
Catherine requested that the Commission draft memoranda with
suggestions for improvement and change. She herself set the tone for
the Commission in a key-note Instruction that she wrote
personally. It borrowed many of the ideas of the Enlightenment and
was applauded throughout the continent for its liberal spirit.
startled peoples’ representatives by the bold language of the
Instruction, which contained references to universal freedom and
liberty and even included statements like this: ‘Contrary to the
flatterers who daily keep telling the monarchs that peoples were
created for them, We believe and take pride in saying that We were
created for our people’. And she clearly tried to impress the
law-makers of the Commission with more humane ideas, such as
opposition to capital punishment and torture.
Deliberations in the Commission took more than a year, but produced
no immediate results. Its delegates proved poorly prepared for the
law-making activity. Many of them had a low level of education and
culture, and lacked parliamentary experience and legal learning. To
most of them, the question of universal freedom and liberty raised
by the Empress in the Instruction was, apparently, of little
interest. They were much more concerned about protecting privileges
of a group or class they represented. The nobility, especially,
fiercely opposed even a slightest suggestion of other classes
encroaching on the sphere of its economic interests, particularly,
the agricultural production. It did not want to hear about any
weakening of serfdom, let alone abolishing it. The delegates from
the peasantry differed sharply from the representatives of the
nobility over the issue of serfdom. Some other social estates, such
as townspeople and the merchant class, in particular, sought for
themselves some of the privileges enjoyed by the nobility, chief
among them the right to buy land and peasants whose labor they could
use in their factories.
confrontations took place among the delegates, and in December 1768,
using as the pretext the start of hostilities against Turkey, the
Empress dissolved the Commission. Although it failed to provide a
new enlightened code of laws, the Commission did give the Empress a
clearer picture of the conditions in her adopted country.
Catherine’s attempt to effect legislative change in co-operation
with representatives of different social groups led her to the
realization of a deep-seated conservatism of broad sections of her
subjects. She concluded that it was impossible to introduce a
genuinely radical reform. The failure of the Commission discredited
the whole idea of representative legislative assemblies for many
years to come.