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Catherine’s thirty-four-year-long reign represented the second attempt in the eighteenth century to modernize the country’s economy and its social structure. Like her great predecessor Peter I, Catherine had set out to transform the country without  touching the foundations of serfdom and, like him, she achieved considerable success.  

In her reign the economic resources of the country increased substantially. As a result of the wars with Turkey and the partitions of Poland, Russia acquired 11 new provinces. The population of the empire doubled, state revenues increased 4 times. By the end of her reign, the transformation of Russia into a Great Power, begun by her predecessor, was complete.

In addition, Catherine attempted something that Peter would have never thought of doing. She rendered signal service to Russia by her brave attempt to implant in her inhospitable climate the ideas and the liberal spirit of the Enlightenment. In her excellent summation of Catherine’s legacy Isabel de Madariaga observes:   

 
 

Her greatness lies not so much in her territorial acquisitions but in the new relationship between rulers and ruled which she fostered.  Starting with the Legislative Commission the idea of national debate became conceivable... Instruments of public control were multiplied and penetrated deeper into society, new concepts of justice and legality were put before  an untutored public....The élite of Russian society basked in a new-found sense of freedom and self-respect, and the area of private as distinct from state activity expanded immeasurably.  Learning thrived, and the court itself acted as the source of literary, artistic and musical patronage. ...for a brief period, at the end of the eighteenth century, Russia and Western Europe converged: the spatial abyss and the lag in time were reduced.  After Catherine’s death their ways diverged again...  With the advance of the nineteenth century, Russia and the West moved further and further apart; the tempo of Russian development slowed down, while that of European growth accelerated ... Those who remembered Catherine’s rule looked back on it then as a time when autocracy had been ‘cleaned from the stains  of tyranny’, when a despotism had been turned into a monarchy.

 
 

Catherine tried hard, particularly in the early years of her reign, to foster Enlightenment in her adopted country and to purge Russia of some of its more barbaric traditions. Well-educated and intelligent, she came closer than her predecessors to the understanding of the evil of serfdom and was perhaps the first Russian monarch who was personally in favor of abolishing the archaic social relations. Yet the obstacles she encountered were too powerful even for an autocratic ruler to overcome.

Her humane and philanthropic ideas did not find much support in Russian semi-feudal society. The ruling nobility was firmly against any reform of the country’s social structure. Many of its members were probably even unable to conceive of a different condition for their servants than serfdom. The harsh conditions of Russian life and the need to safeguard her place on the throne set limits to Catherine’s ability to implement  change. After the Pugachev revolt and the French Revolution the Empress herself gave up any plans for reform.  Her enlightened absolutism,  based on false premises and unreal expectations, failed to accelerate Russia’s advance along the road of  European progress.

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Catherine the Great

 

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