The social and political theories of the Enlightenment spawned new radical ideas such as individual liberty, checks and balances, and the social contract. Consequently, people disregarded the established authorities of tradition and religion in favor of human reason through the scientific method. The ideas of the Enlightenment eventually spread as rulers attempted to compete with powerful states like France and Russia. In this struggle, Catherine II of Russia was among the leaders who practiced what has been called enlightened despotism (1). Although Catherine did not strive to realize an Enlightenment utopia, she and her advisers used whatever Enlightenment ideas would help in achieving her goal of modernizing Russia (2).
Catherine assumed power in July 1762, after overthrowing her husband Peter III in a palace coup. Her ascent to the Russian throne was fraught with controversy - there were many speculations surrounding her seizure of power from Peter. One conjecture was that Catherine deposed him in order to thwart his plans of getting rid of her (3). Right from the beginning of their marriage, Peter had already made it clear to Catherine that he intended to keep his power all to himself (4). Furthermore, it was said that he had meant to leave Catherine for Elizaveta Voronstova, the sister of Princess Dashkova.
By toppling Peter, Catherine was able to prove that she was more deserving of the Russian throne than he was (5). Being chased out of power by his own wife made Peter forever associated with impotence, incompetence and indecisiveness (6). However, this did not mean that the rest of Europe was immediately receptive to Catherine's reign. Upon learning about Peter's dethronement, some observers outside Russia actually wondered when she herself would be deposed (7). For these people, a woman reigned solely due to the absence of a male alternative.
Aside from her gender, another disadvantage that was stacked against Catherine was her lack of legitimacy to the Russian throne (8). The presence of her son, Paul, deflected attention from the latter (9). Despite court rumors and Peter's own accusations that Paul was sired by another man, the outside world believed that Paul was a direct descendant of Peter the Great and therefore a legitimate heir. As long as Paul was alive (he was a sickly child from birth), even those who challenged the legality of Catherine being empress could tolerate her rule until he was old enough to take over the reins of government.
Despite these drawbacks, Catherine went on to rule Russia for 34 years. Before overthrowing Peter, she had already prepared herself to govern the country as an absolute and unchallenged monarch (10). Catherine spent most of her years at court as Grand Duchess, learning about governance and diplomacy through her husband's dealings with Karl August von Holstein (11). Tutors such as the diplomat Sir Charles Hanbury-Williams and Count Aleksei Petrovich Bestuzhev-Ryumin further increased her knowledge on the aforementioned disciplines.
Catherine likewise used her reading and prodigious correspondence to develop her own theories of governing (12). She read the works of Voltaire-with whom she corresponded for many years-and Charles-Louis de Secondat Montesquieu, as well as the Encyclopaedia of the French philosopher Denis Diderot (13). Although she was not an intellectual, Catherine was intelligent, well-read and very much interested in the theory of government. She believed that it was the only solution to all the problems associated with ruling an empire as vast as Russia (14).
Because Catherine's reign began during the Enlightenment in Western Europe, she was in many ways a child of the Enlightenment (15). She was a staunch advocate of the Enlightenment values of truth, justice and the desire for a modern and efficient government. So supportive was Catherine of these ideas that she planned to apply them to Russia. In the process, she regarded herself as the female counterpart of Plato's hypothetical philosopher-kings (16).
The Enlightenment, however, did not change Catherine's view about the need for an iron-fisted rule over Russia. Throughout her reign, she never entertained the idea of reducing the autocratic and technically absolute powers of the Russian crown (17). Neither did she even consider establishing a limited form of elected assembly that could take part in governing the country (18). For Catherine, the only way for a government to be able to carry out effective reforms was to exert absolute authority over the people (19). She therefore demanded that ultimate authority should lay with her, despite her trust and reliance on some very competent advisors and administrators (20).
This resolute belief in undiluted power at the top was shown early when Catherine rejected Nikita Panin's plan to create a new imperial council that would help govern Russia (21). Panin was an important figure in Catherine's rule-he backed her coup and exerted control over Paul's upbringing. However, one of the provisions in his above-mentioned proposal limited her power to hire and fire officials (22). Not surprisingly, the council was never established.
Catherine instead came up with her own ideas in order to reform Russia's decrepit government and economy. These initiatives were characterized with a radical vision of enlightened economic and legal reform (23). She was left with no choice but to take drastic measures to restore the country's political and economic systems. The Seven Years' War left Russia heavily in debt and its credit so low that Holland had refused a two million-ruble loan which Empress Elizabeth had tried to obtain. When Catherine assumed the Russian throne, the country's revenue was 28 million rubles-an amount that was estimated to fall short of expenditure by the staggering sum of 7 million (24).
In addition, corruption was rampant in the Russian bureaucracy. At the start of Catherine's rule, the country was divided into 11 guberneii (governments), each administered by a governor-general (usually a soldier) who had a tiny staff and was not paid (25). Russia's governor-generals were notorious for using brutal means to ensure peace and order (26). They likewise resorted to bribery to compensate for the absence of salaries.
Catherine's first step was to appoint competent and trustworthy ministers (27). These officials included Prince Alexander Viazemskii, Panin, A. A. Bezborodko and Count Alexander Voronstov (28). Viazemskii worked for her as Procurator General from 1764 to 1792. Panin was the head of foreign affairs from 1763 to 1781. Bezborodko was in charge of foreign policy from 1776 until Catherine's death in 1796. Meanwhile, Vorontsov was the president of the College of Commerce from 1773 until 1793. Under her reign, high officials were well-paid and generously rewarded with pensions, orders and titles, as well as grants of lands and serfs. They remained in their posts as long as they wished or until they were promoted (29). Although a few were dismissed, no one was ever exiled, disgraced or had their property arbitrarily confiscated. Hence, government service finally lost its reputation as a dangerous occupation (30).
Catherine then proceeded to increase Russia's wealth. Because Russia was a predominantly agricultural country, its economic policies prioritized the modernization of agriculture (31). She sent experts to outlying regions to study soil and propose suitable crops, as well as gave grants to landowners to study England's advanced farming techniques (32). Catherine also encouraged the development of new industries such as silkworm cultivation and the rearing of honeybees. Modern methods of breeding sheep and cattle, along with scientific horse breeding, were also introduced and promoted.
She advanced immigration to come up with a large amount of labor that was necessary to work Russia's vast, under-populated lands (33). A board headed by Gregory Orlov placed advertisements in foreign newspapers, inviting settlers and offering attractive terms such as free lodging for six months; seeds, livestock and ploughs; and exemption from taxes for five, ten or thirty years, depending on the landowner's skills. The response was tremendous-thousands migrated to southern Russia to settle and farm its rich black soil. These settlers were said to be responsible for feeding the Russian population in the next three decades (34).
Catherine also paid special attention to mining (35). Geologists, including the English mechanical engineer and naval architect Samuel Bentham, were sent to collect and assess ores from Russia's seemingly desert lands. Their efforts proved to be successful-Bentham, for one, collected half a ton of assorted minerals, mainly copper, iron ore and loadstones in Siberia (36).
After the discovery of new deposits, Catherine allowed merchants to own and work the mines. This was a sharp contrast to previous reigns, which granted access to the mines only to the gentry (37). To come up with Russian mining technicians, she founded Russia's first School of Mines in Saint Petersburg (38). This mining academy included a simulated underground mine, with shafts and tunnels, where trainees could learn under realistic conditions.
Catherine was most interested in silver because this metal belonged to the crown under Russian law and the country experienced a grave shortage of silver rubles at the start of her rule (39). So severe was this scarcity that it was estimated that there were only four silver rubles per head of the population (40). In 1768, however, Catherine's prospectors found valuable silver deposits on the Mongolian frontier. By 1773, supplies from these mines were already swelling her budget. Under her reign, Russia's mining revenue increased by 30% annually or 13 million rubles per year (41).
Another important item in Russia's natural wealth was furs. Russian furs were traditionally known for their excellent quality - the tailor of the English king used the fur of Arctic squirrels caught by Russian trappers as material for coats as early as 1245 (42). Catherine encouraged Russia's existing fur trade (based mainly in Siberia) and promoted hunting expeditions to the recently-discovered Alcutian Islands. These hunting trips had promising results-the five-year expedition of Dmitri Bragin brought back 200,000 rubles' worth of fur, mostly sea otter (43).
After developing Russia's natural resources, Catherine focused on the country's manufacturing sector. Under Elizabeth, senators, especially Peter Shuvalov, had established a tight system of monopolies and controls (44). Catherine, in sharp contrast, was inclined towards free enterprise-she preferred working from common sense and her observations of human nature rather than using economic theories (45). Therefore, she issued decrees that ended government control over the Russian economy. In October 1762, Catherine declared that any Russian could start a manufactory except in Moscow (which was overcrowded) and in Saint Petersburg (which was a show city with its own needs).
She called on foreign expert help, mostly from England, to develop more sophisticated enterprises. Naval experts such as Admiral Knowles were brought over from England to build warships and dockyards (46). Catherine also sent Russian steelworkers to England to study the latest methods of making barometers, thermometers, mathematical instruments and spectacles (47). She opened manufactories in specific regions across Russia to develop their respective industries-Moscow for textiles, the Yaroslav region for linen. and central Volga for leather, tallow and candles. Craftsmen from Germany, Austria and France were also brought in to improve the imperial porcelain works.
By 1779, Catherine had already abolished the need for state licensing of industrial enterprises. Consequently, smaller enterprises were formed and illegal businesses could finally operate in the open. The number of linen factories, for instance, rose from 35 in 1741 to 318 in 1799 (48).
With Russia's local economy finally stabilized, she then ventured into foreign trade. At the beginning of Catherine's reign, China had just seized a district on the River Amur containing silver that allegedly belonged to Russia. To reclaim the area, Catherine strengthened the Russian army in Siberia to eleven regiments and sent a special envoy to settle the dispute and to reopen trade (49). These measures resulted in the Treaty of Kyakhta, which was signed in October 1768 (50).After this treaty, China began exporting to Russia cotton, silk, tobacco, porcelain, lacquerware, preserved and jellied fruits, silver and tea. Russia, in turn, sent China furs, leather, linens and foreign-made cloth, as well as Bengal and Turkish opium. In one of their early correspondences, Voltaire asked Catherine if she could sell Swiss watches to China (51). She agreed, further increasing Russia's profits from foreign trade from zero to 1,806,000 rubles in 1781-yielding a customs and exercise revenue of 600,000 rubles (52).
Catherine's economic measures quickly produced remarkable results. She was able to repay three-quarters of the debt from Elizabeth's rule as early as 1765 (53). Catherine likewise turned a budget deficit of seven million rubles into a surplus of 5.5 million (54). State revenue during her reign, meanwhile, was increasing by 3% annually (55).
Catherine was now in the position to reform Russia's bureaucracy. She increased the number of guberneii from 11 to 15 by dividing those that were said to be unmanageably large (56). She also replaced the Hetman or Military Commander of Ukraine with a governor-general acting for a Little Russian Board. Furthermore, she declared that Linovia (a Baltic province which retained many German ways) must be assimilated into Russia through peaceful means (57).
Catherine then took concrete and decisive steps to rid the Russian bureaucracy of corrupt officials. The Governor of Smolensk and his staff, for instance, were brought to trial for taking bribes (58). The Governor of Belgorod and his staff, meanwhile, were taken to court for running an illegal vodka distillery (59). These two parties were replaced with honest bureaucrats and all governors were paid adequate salaries.
In April 1764, Catherine issued the following instructions to the governor-generals:
They were to rule in an enlightened and rational manner; they were to take an accurate census, map their provinces, and report on the people, their customs, agriculture and trade. They were no longer just to keep order: they were to build and repair roads and bridges, fight fires, and ensure that orphanages and prisons were properly run. (Cronin 1978, 163)
These directions reflected the Enlightenment beliefs that the government existed to serve the people and that the people should participate in government affairs (60). For the governor-generals to be able to carry out the aforementioned duties, they needed staff. Consequently, Catherine doubled the number of provincial civil servants. By 1767, Russia was already spending nearly a quarter of its budget on provincial government and services (61).
A failed Cossack rebellion from 1773 to 1774, however, showed that her administration was still far from achieving its goals (62). Catherine, therefore, composed her Fundamental Law on the Administration of the Provinces between January and May 1775. This edict reduced the size of administrative units, increasing their number from 15 to 42 (63). In addition, a Board of Public Welfare was established in each province. Catherine provided each board with an initial endowment of 15,000 rubles, to which local gentry added according to what they could afford (64).
Each board was composed of local representatives, whose tasks were to run the schools and hospitals that Catherine was beginning to build and to ensure that the local people participated in administering justice (65). Since the institution of the board, therefore, the judge and the members of the gentry's court, the burghers' court and the peasants' court were all elected locally.
Her reforms were not limited to Russia's political and economic sphere. Catherine opened Paul's Hospital on the outskirts of Moscow on September 14, 1763. The hospital, a wooden house formerly owned by Alexander Glebov, started with 25 beds and three members of staff (66). Financed entirely by Catherine, it offered free treatment to the curable poor of both sexes.
She established the Moscow Foundling Home and lying-in hospital for unmarried and destitute mothers on her 35th birthday on April 21, 1764. Catherine set up another in Saint Petersburg in 1771. Intended to discourage infanticide, the foundling homes allowed unwed mothers to give birth in safe conditions and in secret. A mother could ring the doorbell and a basket would be let down into which she could place her baby, with a note of its name and whether it had been baptized. Then the basket would be drawn back up and the woman would go on her way.
The Moscow Foundling Home had already received 523 babies by the end of 1764 (67). Meanwhile, about 14 births occurred at Paul's hospital during the course of the year (68). But the mortality rate at the Moscow Foundling Home, as well as in its Saint Petersburg counterpart, was disturbingly high. As a result, these two establishments became known as angel factories (69).
Being a child of the Enlightenment, Catherine believed that education was the only way to improve society. During her time, however, most Russians were uneducated. The only educational institutions present were seminaries and Peter's technical colleges for future army and navy officers (70). It did not help that Peter opted to keep the Russians uneducated-he viewed ignorance as a means of suppressing ingenuity that could inspire rebellion (71).
Appalled with the dismal state of Russian education, Catherine wrote A General Statute for the Education of the Youth of Both Sexes and published it in March 1764. This essay argued that education is the responsibility of the State. In addition, it must start early-at age five or six. Lastly, education must provide both book-learning and character training for both girls and boys.
In the mid-1760s, she opened the Smolny Institute, a boarding school for young gentlewomen and a day school for middle-class girls. The institute was said to be one of Europe's earliest ventures into lay education for women (72). Girls entered the institute at age five or six and remained there until they reached eighteen. The students from the gentry were taught religion, Russian, foreign languages, arithmetic, geography, history, heraldry, the elements of law, drawing, music, knitting, sewing, dancing and society manners. The middle-class students also studied the same subjects, except that foreign languages were replaced with domestic skills.
The Smolny Institute was eventually followed with more schools. On December 5, 1786, Catherine issued Stature for Schools, the first educational act that covered the entire Russia (73). This law mandated the formation of a "minor school" with two teachers in every district town and a "major school" with six teachers in every provincial town. By 1792, every Russian province except the Caucasus had a major school (74). Four years later, in 1796, Russia already had 316 schools, which had a population of 744 teachers, 16,220 boys and 1,121 girls (75).
Improvements in every aspect of Russian society-politics, economics and education-resulted in openness to novelty. As people became increasingly exposed to knowledge and rationality, they became open to innovations. Differences in thinking and values were not looked down upon, but were accepted and even respected. People can finally express what they believe in without being censured.
Being an avid writer herself, Catherine was a patron of literature in Russia. Her reign was characterized with the emergence of intellectual and artistic achievements. Almost every literature genre, fiction and nonfiction alike, exhibited new activity, with some even producing distinguished results. Russian literature flourished alongside literature that was brought in from other European countries.
Prior to Catherine's reign, Russian literature was composed mostly of Church service books. Only about twenty books were published every year (76). The Autobiography of Archpriest Avvakum was regarded as the most significant contribution to Russian literature 600 years before her rule (77). Foreign books, on the other hand, were very difficult to obtain-it took Catherine two years to get hold of a copy of Amyot's French translation of Plutarch's Lives (78).
One of the first things that she did to revive the Russian literary scene was to spend 5,000 rubles for the founding of a society for the translation of the classics and other important books (79). As a result, the translated versions of the Greek and Roman classics arrived in Russia for the first time. The translated works of Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire, Montesquieu and Beccaria soon followed. Under Catherine, an estimated six novels were translated from English, seven from Italian, 107 from German, and 350 from French (80).
This massive influx of European literature in Russia produced a new generation of Russian writers (81). Most Russian writers during Catherine's reign patterned their works after those of noted European writers (82). The novel A Russian Pamela, for instance, was based on Samuel Richardson's narrative. Edward Young's Night Thoughts, meanwhile, inspired Russian poets to describe the national character of Russia using a deep strain of melancholy.
Catherine's reign also encouraged the development of other art forms, such as painting and theater. She was believed to be a compulsive collector of paintings. Represented at all important auctions and frequently buying collections in bulk, she was said to have already acquired about 2,658 paintings by 1785 (83). In order to house her extensive collection, she began building the Hermitage on the banks of the Neva in Saint Petersburg in 1767.
Other nobles started to follow suit. They hired teachers and tutors from different parts of Europe, transforming their country estates into centers of architecture, painting, sculpture, and landscape art in the process. Patrons and connoisseurs of art eventually emerged from the aristocracy. These experts initiated the custom of long travels throughout Europe, both at their own expense and that of the state (84).
Catherine used the theater as a means of promoting Enlightenment philosophy, Russian cultural pride, and her belief in the value of authoritarian rule. Her plays, therefore, criticized superstition, religious zealotry and mysticism. Catherine's raisonneur characters, for one, advocated rationality in dealing with personal and social problems. Her comedies, meanwhile, reflected her support of Russian cultural identity by satirizing Gallomania and other forms of foreign influence. Catherine's operas were known for glorifying Russian history and folk traditions.
One distinctive quality of her plays and operas was that most of them were written in Russian. This is often interpreted as a vote of confidence-Russian during Catherine's rule was a relatively new literary language (85). Thus, by writing plays and operas in Russian, she managed to reach out to patriarchs and serf owners who can impart Enlightenment values to the rest of the empire. Catherine further achieved this goal by creating theater buildings, training academies and repertories.
However, as mentioned earlier, Catherine's staunch belief in Enlightenment principles did not eliminate her adherence to an iron-fisted rule. She remained watchful of criticisms which she perceived to be seditious. Catherine used the Secret Chancellery (also known as the Secret Bureau) to investigate and arrest those who are allegedly trying to incite rebellion against her. Those who were proven guilty of this wrongdoing were punished severely.
In the early 1780s, for instance, the wife of Alexander Mamonov, one of Catherine's former lovers, began circulating malicious stories about the trysts that occurred between him and the Empress. Catherine retaliated by ordering the Moscow police to break into Mamonov's apartment and beat Madame Mamonova up. Before leaving the apartment, the police chief warned the couple that they shall be sent to Siberia if ever they antagonize Catherine again.
Catherine the Great was indeed an enlightened despot. She used the ideals of the Enlightenment in order to increase the power and security of Russia. Catherine improved the Russian economy through free trade, turned the country's bureaucracy into a more efficient one, and provided the people with social services such as education and health care. However, she constantly made it clear that absolute power must remain in her hands-it is she who must have the last say in all decisions concerning the country's affairs. Furthermore, Catherine will not tolerate any form of criticism against her.
It would be fair to say, therefore, that she resorted to enlightened despotism in order to maintain her hold on the Russian throne despite her lack of legitimacy to the position. By being a leader who led Russia into peace and prosperity, Catherine might make her detractors think that she is deserving of the title of Empress after all. In addition, the people will not find any reason to stage an uprising against her. However, by being a dictator, Catherine still managed to protect her position against those who attempt to steal it.
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