Russian Studies                                                                                                     09/12/08



Catherine the Great : Reading Guide


Catherine’s reign is controversial, as you can gather from de Madariaga’s purpose in writing this essay for a “popular” history journal.  From this essay, in addition to laying out the major episodes in Catherine’s career, you should keep track of the evidence and arguments that de Madariaga evinces to defend her “friend”.


In class I (PJ) will argue that de Madariaga’s assessment is far too rosy.  You, then, should decide who makes the better case.


Quiz Question: To the modern mind, enlightened despotism seems oxymoronic. List a goodly number of Catherine’s policies that support the notion that autocrats can be progressive.


What was likeable about Catherine the Great?


She became a philosophe by educating herself in Enlightenment science and political philosophy. Her goal was to be a truly Enlightened monarch. She read Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws, studied Blackstone’s Commentaries, corresponded with Voltaire, and published Diderot’s Encyclopedie in Russian.


She survived in the lethal world of Russian power politics (by having her husband murdered and then remaining unmarried for the rest of her life, choosing lovers who could assist her in the changing situations.)


She conceived and attempted to implement liberal reforms: judicial reform, political representation, civil rights, and reform of serfdom. Unfortunately, she did not succeed at anything beyond westernizing the upper class. Put more fairly, she introduced reform for consideration by the nobility and did not try to implement these reforms unilaterally. (She did not try shock therapy, as was attempted with catastrophic results in 1992.)


As Tsarina,

she led a largely secular existence,

she encouraged limited religious tolerance,

she pursued comprehensive legal reform,

she simplified the legal code,

she opposed torture,

she remodeled the judiciary and

she encouraged the development of local assemblies on the English model,

she gave the nobles a bill of civil rights, modeled on English rights of man,

she supported freedom of speech,

she created schools on the western model which gave the nobility a secular education,

she opposed serfdom and even took some steps to reform the vast system.

she treated her servants and subjects as human beings,

she was loyal to her chief advisors over many years (Potemkin), 
she led an adventurous romantic life.


She crushed the Pugachev rebellion and quickly backed away from reform of serfdom.

She over extended Russia into the Balkans and Central Europe, creating obligations that Russia did not have the power to meet.

She used her position and gender to maneuver rivals.



Discussion Notes:


She led Russia in the WRONG direction:


Accession Consequences

She came to the throne in a coup by murdering her husband. She was a woman, which in those days, was a handicap, and she was a German, not a Russian. Catherine had all these strikes against her, so she had to be a stronger ruler than she could have been otherwise. She could not modify autocracy and rule simultaneously. It is possible that Russia’s organic development would have gone differently, partly because of the circumstances in which she came to power and who she was.


Foreign Policy


She was the most successful expander of Russian power and territory in Russian history.

A) Ottoman Empire: Catherine gained territory as far as the Black Sea. Also, she forced the Turks to agree to allow Russia to be the protector of Balkan Christians. (Slavs) Russia had a legal and recognized right to come to the aid of these Balkan Christians: a bad thing because it brought Russia into competition with the Austrians in the Balkans, and in 1914 when Franz Ferdinand was assassinated and th Austrians started to beat up on the Serbs, the Russians were obligated to intervene. A catastrophe for Russia. So she overextended Russia as A Great Power and made Russia vulnerable.


B) Polish Partition: Poland disappears in three partitions. When Austria Prussia and Russia got together, they divided the regions amongst themselves. Result? Poland is wiped off the face of the map, and the bulk of Poland belonged to Russia. (Poland was not autocratic enough. Its nobility had too much power.) Again, one can argue that this is a bad thing. How is Russia going to digest all these Poles. In 1939 Germany and Russia invade Poland and the territory becomes a battleground. Again it can be argued that Catherine over extended the power of Russia.


Nobles: Charter to the Nobility (1785) Catherine’s attempt to bring the nobles over to her side: gifts of new territories that she had conquered. She also offered the nobility a deal which took the coercion out of the Table of Ranks service obligation. They are freed from that obligation and allowed to party on. She gives the nobles a great deal more power of the serfs: more property rights.



Catherine made serfdom worse by expanding serfdom into the territories she had conquered (In the Ukraine and in Southern Russia). When she gave land to her noble friends, she sent along thousands of serfs to make the land more productive.



In consequence of Catherine’s actions, a huge peasant rebellion arose. (peasants, recently conquered peoples) This was a huge rebellion which engulfed much of Eastern Russia. Pugachev claimed to be Peter III, the long lost pretender. He nearly succeeded but wound up being drawn and quartered (despite Catherine’s opposition to torture.) As a result of the rebellion, Catherine turned back from reform having realized the danger of revolution and reform. She is unwilling to go along with any change that weakens the state or challenges her authority.



She gave power to local assemblies to create an education system. She imported scholars and created schools. What is the down side? Now the children of the nobility are receiving Western education which will radicalize them. There were lots of members of the Russian nobility who could not speak Russian. The language of the upper class was French. So bringing Western education to Russia exacerbated the class differences between the nobility and the peasants.




Now discuss the pros and cons of Catherine’s changes from the perspective of members of the following ideological schools. What did Mr. Julius leave out in his discussion which would support the argument that Catherine was much better than for Russia than he thinks?


Interpretive Schools


Liberal: Locke (Eng 1689, US 1776, Fr. 1789) Does Russian join the stream moving in the liberal direction?


Statist: Hobbes Does Catherine strengthen the power of the state so that the Russian state can perform the basic function of the Hobbesian state. Autocracy is the best form of government because people are basically bad. Even a lousy government is better than no government and civil war. This approach has a ring to the Russians because they have gone through eras when there was no government.


Marxist The Marxist is going to focus on the movement of the Russian state from the feudal state to the necessary but ugly capitalist stage. The ruling class, though, will need to be destroyed.


Slavophile What is happening to good old Russian values? Autocracy. Nationalism, Nobility looking out for Peasant Commune.