Catherine theGreat
Catherine theGreat; drawing by David Levine

Some years after the empress’s death in 1796 the conservative historian Karamzin declared that “should we compare all the known epochs of Russian history, virtually all would agree that Catherine’s epoch was the happiest for Russian citizens.” Almost two centuries later, on the evidence of Isabel de Madariaga’s extensive and judicious survey of the period, we may be inclined to think the same. Happiness is notoriously the commodity in shortest supply for Russian citizens. There was a spending spree of ill-founded hopes in the spring and early summer of 1917, but for most of their history the Russian people have schooled themselves to endurance. However limited though Karamzin’s view was—he had in mind the novel freedom of the upper classes, no longer in bondage to the state, or at the mercy of arbitrary decisions by a ruler accountable only to himself—the age of Catherine still glows with some of the benign light in which Europe basked until the hurricane of the French Revolution.

Isabel de Madariaga’s book is, surprisingly, the first large-scale study of Russia during Catherine’s reign in one hundred years. It is a broadly conceived work which sees Russia in the general perspective of eighteenth-century Europe. Catherine was born three years before Washington, eight before Gibbon, and in the same year as Lessing. She is recognizably the contemporary of all three. Even though Benjamin Franklin displeased her as “an inciter to rebellion,” Catherine’s ideas were often not unlike those of the enlightened Virginians among the founding fathers of the United States. They have sometimes been dismissed as a smokescreen behind which the empress pursued the traditional aims of autocracy, and certainly she retreated from them under the shock of the French Revolution. All the same, in our time we may respect a ruler who was able almost to eliminate the use of torture in her dominions, and whose treatment of political adversaries could be positively magnanimous by the standards today of her own country and at least half the world. It was only to her lover of long before, Stanislaus Poniatowski, the unhappy king of Poland from 1764 (two years after her own accession) until its final partition in 1795, that Catherine showed extreme callousness. But her conduct toward Poland forms one of the darkest chapters in the sore history of that country’s relations with Russia.

Catherine’s most prosperous years were from 1775 to 1785—the very middle of her reign. In 1782 she unveiled Falconet’s famous equestrian statue of Peter, which bears the inscription, superb in its assurance, “To Peter the First—Catherine the Second.” This stands in the heart of the city Peter had established upon the Finnish marshes, at enormous cost in human lives. Falconet’s masterpiece, which took sixteen years to complete, had not been achieved without a similar determination in the face of difficulties. Its huge pedestal, a 1600-ton granite block, had to be hauled seven miles to St. Petersburg. Before it, runs the Neva—within the granite-faced embankments Catherine had provided—together with stone bridges and newly paved streets.

“These are Imperial Works, and worthy of Kings,” as Pope says in his epistle to Burlington; and like others holding sovereign power Catherine understood their significance for her own authority. Like the Renaissance rulers she fully appreciated the uses of spectacle; and nothing could have been more spectacular than this sublime effigy of an autocrat, in the majestic capital he had planned, where Catherine was now continuing his heroic labors. There can be no more eloquent statue in Europe, and not only because of Pushkin’s finest major poem, The Bronze Horseman. But is the eloquence of princes to be trusted? And how strange that it should have been Diderot, like Voltaire a busy correspondent of Catherine’s, who nominated Falconet as the sculptor. But literary men are often attracted by the powerful, and it is hardly surprising that a monarch of genius like Frederick the Great should have impressed them. Does Catherine, also styled the Great, display the genius of Frederick, or of Peter with whom by implication she claims equality?

The fourteen-year-old Princess Sophia, from a minor German royal house, who arrived in 1744 to marry her second cousin the Grand Duke Peter, would herself seize the Russian throne from him in 1762. Charles Peter, reigning Duke of Holstein, and Peter the Great’s grandson, had been chosen by the Empress Elizabeth as her heir. Sophia’s mother spared no effort to bring her daughter to Elizabeth’s notice, and the girl herself wanted this marriage, in spite of all the hazards. They proved to be many. The bridegroom was far from attractive, both in character and person. He had been maimed psychologically by the German pedants who educated him—he was motherless at three months, and lost his father when he was eleven years old. He grew up hopelessly immature, without tact or concentration; and he particularly loved military parades. There was one redeeming feature: he played the violin very well. To Catherine’s chagrin, it took almost eight years to consummate their marriage. She herself was attractive, sensual, and under her ease of manner prepared to be reckless. In 1752 she miscarried in secret the child of her first lover, Saltykov, “le beau Serge.” When two years later a son Paul (destined to become emperor on her death) was born, Saltykov was generally suspected to be his father. But the Romanovs needed an heir, and she had done the trick.


Catherine was learning fast how to conduct herself in a court where her position was as difficult as that of the young Elizabeth of England. Catherine had a quick mind, and she knew how to please. Not long before her wedding she had fallen dangerously ill, and although brought up a Lutheran did not hesitate to send for a priest of her new confession, the Orthodox Church. She had to accept without complaining the removal of her son by Elizabeth the moment he was born. But she weathered her marriage, and the worse crisis of being suspected of complicity with the chancellor Bestuzhev in his alleged treason. Not losing her nerve at this perilous moment she sought an interview with the empress, in the presence of her abusive husband with whom she was now on the worst of terms. But she placated Elizabeth, although for the remaining three years or so of the reign her position was not one in which to relax.

This did not prevent her from leading a private life, daring in its moral and intellectual freedom. Her passionate affair with Stanislaus Poniatowski was followed by one with a more dynamic lover, Grigori Orlov, a man as reckless as herself. She had also been pursuing a private and thoroughly modern education so that eventually correspondence with Voltaire, Grimm, and Diderot would come easily to her. She read Bayle’s Dictionnaire historique et critique, the Annals of Tacitus with their emphasis on republican virtue, and Montesquieu’s Esprit des lois, which became her bedside book. After the first confrontation with Elizabeth in the crisis of 1758, she made a start on the Encyclopédie.

Elizabeth died at the end of 1761. Peter III ruled for six months, during which, in spite of some useful reforms, he contrived to alienate both the Church and the army, seeking to secularize the lands of the one and remodel the other on Prussian lines. At the moment of Elizabeth’s death, Russian troops in alliance with Austria were poised to descend upon Berlin. To the consternation of his generals Peter called off the action, and offered Frederick II astonishingly favorable terms, so anxious was the tsar to secure Prussian neutrality in a war he intended against Denmark, in the interests of his native Holstein.

A conspiracy soon began to form, with Nikita Panin (foreign minister for the ensuing twenty years but then tutor of the young Paul) as one of its prime movers, and Orlov with his four brothers the most active of all. Catherine was taken to the barracks of the Izmaylovsky regiment, and proclaimed empress by the Orlovs. Soon two other regiments had rallied to her, and then the Horseguards. The hierarchy then legitimized her proclamation, not as regent on Paul’s behalf, but as empress herself with Paul as heir. Catherine rode out at the head of her troops the following day to arrest Peter at Oranienbaum. He abdicated, was sent to a country estate, and a few days later died conveniently in a drunken brawl. Catherine was at any rate an accessory after the fact to his death, and the stain on her name deepened when in July 1764 the former Tsar Ivan VI, the boy from whom, in 1741, very early in his reign, Elizabeth had wrested the throne, was put to the sword in the fortress of Schlüsselburg. This second death, at the hands of his guards, could only have been murder.

The memory of Peter III and Ivan VI smoldered on in the countryside. It was rumored from time to time that they had come back, and one impersonator of Peter III, the Cossack Emelyan Pugachov, raised a menacing rebellion in 1773-1775 on the middle Volga and in the Urals.

Catherine reigned for thirty-four years after this violent beginning, and showed herself to be shrewd, determined, tireless, and extremely self-confident. She had wanted power, and had not scrupled to get it. Now with her head full of Montesquieu and the Encyclopédie she set to work. Russian society was in many ways resistant to her ideas, as it had been to Peter the Great’s. When it was possible for her in 1767 to muster a grand Legislative Commission, Catherine was able to apprise herself of all the difficulties in her situation. True to the spirit of the Enlightenment, she wished to educate her people, and for that purpose drew up an “Instruction” for the deputies to the assembly. In this, she sought to make use of her intensive reading, and declared later, “I consulted no one, but was guided solely by my heart and reason.


This Instruction (Nakaz) was not perfectly understood at the time, and even today it is not always recognized that Catherine was not promulgating a code of laws, nor was the Legislative Commission a parliament. She wanted to give general guidance and to sound out opinion. A cynical view that her Instruction resembled Stalin’s Constitution of 1936 would be wrong. H.T. Willetts has quoted with reference to the latter Stalin’s remark, “paper will stand anything.” But Catherine did believe in these principles and she hoped to implement them, so far as the condition of Russia would allow.

The main body of the Instruction, as Isabel de Madariaga shows, is derived from Montesquieu and the Italian jurist Cesare Beccaria whose humane notions of penal law had newly become available to her in French translation. Catherine wished to make hers a legitimate monarchy in accord with fundamental laws, and supported by “estates” or corporations. Montesquieu had considered that it was not possible to govern a large empire without despotism. Catherine could not allow this definition of her rule, but insisted that “the extent of the Dominion requires absolute power to be vested in the person who rules over it.” However, that absolute power must respect the fundamental laws, of which the most important for Montesquieu, a law of succession, was still lacking in Russia. This Catherine put right, ensuring that she would reign for her lifetime and be succeeded by her son.

Another source of her ideas was German cameralism, the system of expert administration which saved the Austrian empire from upheaval until 1848. But the shortage of trained administrators in Russia was damaging to Catherine’s hopes. She had become a stanch patriot, and would not let herself think ill of her people. However the whole edifice of reform depended on not very many coadjutors. Hence the value to Catherine of Grigori Potemkin, who became her lover in 1774 and virtually achieved the status of prince consort until his death in 1791. He was for seventeen years her deputy in control of the enlarging territories of the South.

If Catherine seldom changed her servants, it was because capable men were scarce. In theory, a Russian nobleman had to be educated so that he might serve the state as soldier or official. But education was haphazard, and improvements slow to be carried out. Neither the gymnasium in St. Petersburg which prepared students for the equivalent of a university there nor the new university in Moscow could get enough students. The navy depended very much on foreigners in the higher command—the Scotsman Greig, the Englishman Elphinstone, the Danish-born Admiral Arf. Germans were very prominent in the administration and the armed forces, as they would continue to be until the collapse of tsarism.

The Russian state that Catherine sought to modernize in continuation of Peter the Great’s policy was one where, as Dr. de Madariaga observes, “bondage, in one form or other, extended all the way.” Every individual was assigned to his “estate”—noble, townsman, serf, state peasant, Church or Court peasant, or the odd category of odnovorets, somewhere between nobility and serfdom. Peter had established the duty of all noblemen to serve the state, with a Table of Ranks instituted in 1722, for both the civil and military branches, by which at a certain level the status of nobleman could be earned. Peter’s innovations served to reinforce the idea of public position: a man was to be judged solely by his place in the scheme. Peter III made a very significant breach in the system in his brief period of power, when he issued a manifesto releasing the nobility from the obligation to serve, and Catherine did not go back on this. It was probably more important than any of her own reforms, since in Dr. de Madariaga’s words it allowed the “private man” (as opposed to the “service man”) to develop in Russia. She has good reason to claim that the manifesto, by setting young men free to follow their interests, led directly to a cultural flowering in the latter part of Catherine’s reign.

The happiness Karamzin claimed for this epoch was enjoyed by the nobility, in their newly acquired freedom, and especially by the magnates, who had never been so wealthy. This was the golden age of the privileged few, and their great houses are left to remind us of it. The lesser nobles were often impoverished, and sometimes scarcely to be distinguished in their mode of life from the peasants or the poor clergy in the villages. There was still conflict in the minds of the nobility between the claims of birth and official rank. The magnates themselves wanted to see something developed on the lines of the French system, with noblesse de l’épée and noblesse de robe, the latter promoted for their services, but when they asked the empress to comment on their proposals, she decided to let things be.

Now that her empire consisted of much besides the Great Russian core, diversity of customs affected this class like any other. There were the Baltic lands of Estonia and Livonia, where the nobles had their own privileges and definition of status. In “Little Russia”—some half of the Ukraine—the gentry and the Cossack leaders wanted to enjoy the same status as the Russian nobility. When the Crimea was annexed in 1783 and some Tartar notables stayed on, the pattern became still more complicated. Catherine sought to extend one and the same system throughout the empire. She had no respect for the traditional liberties of Little Russia or the Baltic provinces. It is understandable that a former German princess should be impatient with local variations when Germany itself was wrinkled all over with irregularities, a crazy patchwork of local particularism. Catherine, like many of her generation, was clear-headed, but de Madariaga shows her to be lacking in sensitivity and finesse. She had, again in accord with many others in her time, no imaginative understanding of religion. Her toleration made her suspect Catholics of fanaticism—especially Polish Catholics.

It is to her credit, however, that she brought a fresh mind to the question of serfdom. Its eventual abolition appears to have been a thought never entertained by the nobility. On the other hand Catherine’s ukase of 1783 deprived the Little Russian peasants of their right to move from one landowner to another. While wishing to see the relations between master and serf better regulated, she came to accept the necessity of peasants being “firmly attached” to the soil. In spite of her good intentions, it is ironical that the last great peasant uprising, led by Pugachov in defense of the old Cossack liberties, should have taken place in her reign. The savagery of his followers and the hatred shown by them to the nobility tended to panic landowners throughout Russia. Catherine saw it was prudent not to push too hard on the issue of serfdom.

The reign of Catherine, like so much else in human history, is at once glorious and disappointing, to say no worse. Isabel de Madariaga’s account examines virtually every aspect of Russia in the period. She says justly that Russian political history is too often neglected, especially by Marxists, for the sake of economic and social interests. Her book emphasizes the political life of the age, including foreign policy and war, and she is fully justified in placing Catherine at the center. Anna Akhmatova has remarked of the next great epoch in Russia that it is universally known as the Pushkin period, and so the portrait of Nicholas I resplendent in his white buckskin breeches hangs appropriately in the Pushkin museum. Catherine cannot be deposed from her prominence, and she willingly took responsibility for what happened in her reign. Dr. de Madariaga, while not being partisan, ensures that on every count she gets a fair hearing.

Her strongest criticism of Catherine is reserved for her foreign policy. The wars she waged were the source of great national pride: her sea victory over the Turks at Chesme in 1753 ranks with Lepanto and Trafalgar; the capture in the Second Turkish War of Ochakov and Ismail on the Danube were notable actions; and Field Marshall Suvorov, though ruthless in his methods, is a land equivalent for Nelson. But de Madariaga points out that twice Catherine precipitated a war when she was not ready. She had not intended that Prussia should share in the destruction of Poland. Her treatment of Poland was insensitive and in the end ignoble.

Catherine is more to be admired for her policies at home. Hers was a civilizing reign in Russia. She tried to soften barbarities and to spread education. The court had an almost excessive splendor, with much conspicuous waste; but it also attracted and fostered talent in the arts and literature. In 1783 she ended the state monopoly of printing and this meant, as de Madariaga says, “the coming of age of Russian intellectual life.” It is true that in 1790 she dealt harshly with an early dissident, Radishchev—though his case would not come very high on Amnesty’s list today. Catherine like other monarchs was shaken by the French Revolution and the death of Louis on the guillotine. In a poem celebrating a survivor from her reign Pushkin refers to events in France as “a league of intellect and the furies.” It was fear of this league triumphing on her doorstep that led to the repression of Polish liberty.

It could be said that she was remarkably tolerant, even liberal-minded, except when reasons of state intervened. Thus she punished the enlightened journalist Novikov because he was secretly printing books for the Rosicrucians, who were directed from Prussia. In 1790, when the liberal writer Radishchev used his own press to publish a plea for peasant emancipation, she had his books destroyed and exiled him to Siberia. After this a sharp separation between literature and government began to set in. Within fifty years the intelligentsia would become a fourth estate in the realm.

Catherine’s chief problem is defined by de Madariaga—in this wonderfully exact and very fair-minded study, which must surely become the standard work on her reign—as one of balance, and it is common to all authoritarian rulers. How was she to “teach people to act freely in an unfree society”? But at least she initiated a new relationship between ruler and ruled, and by contrast with the military discipline of Peter the Great and its savage return under her martinet son Paul I, Russia in her day was much more of a civilian society. “For a brief period,” de Madariaga writes, “Russia and Western Europe converged.” St. Petersburg had not yet revealed itself as spectral; the window on the West remained open; and the notions of personal freedom and respect for the law, always at risk in every society, were at least present in the Russian air, for all the rigors to come.

This Issue

May 28, 1981