Great Catherine's Many Dimensions

February 28, 2012 Topics: History Regions: Russia

Great Catherine's Many Dimensions

Mini Teaser: With his usual literary lilt, Robert K. Massie captures Catherine the Great's stirring story. But by focusing on her personal life, he slights her role as absolute monarch obsessed with the enlightenment and power of her adopted Russia.

by Author(s): Richard S. Wortman

The most important of the new journals, the Drone (1769–70), satirized the ignorance of the serf-holding gentry. While All Sorts of Things satirized treatment of the serfs in muted tones, the Drone was outright in its condemnation and suggested that the serfs should have the right to own property. The Drone also derided the exaggeratedly French behavior of the upper levels of the imperial court. In 1770, the debate became sharper, and Catherine closed the journal. But Nikolay Novikov, the Drone’s editor, then proceeded to found other publications, and he later was empowered to establish the first nongovernmental printing establishment in Russia.

Catherine was the first Russian ruler to practice a principle of tolerance, and her policies brought into being a small but important educated public—intellectuals, poets and playwrights—who also satirized noble conduct and preached civic virtue. But tolerance in an absolute monarchy has its limits, and the French Revolution caused Catherine to reach the limits of her own tolerance. Novikov was dispatched to Schlusselberg prison, presumably for engaging in a plot to place the heir, Paul, on the throne. Alexander Radishchev, the only member of the Catherinian intelligentsia to appear in Massie’s book, was sent into penal exile for his polemical survey of Russia’s problems, Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow. Massie makes clear that the punishment was relatively mild, but he doesn’t capture the magnitude of the intellectual milieu Catherine created.

IF CATHERINE as writer played the role of instructor of virtue and manners, Catherine as lawgiver strove to instruct the officials of government and the members of the estates in the principles of law. In 1767, she established a legislative commission comprising representatives of the different estates, noblemen, townspeople, clergy and even peasants. The purpose was to codify Russian laws. Massie makes clear that her Nakaz, written as instructions to the commission and culled from writings of Montesquieu and Beccaria, aimed to acquaint the deputies with the principles of law. But it was also intended to play a didactic role—to show them their importance in creating an enlightened citizenship. Article 15 proclaimed that the intention and end of monarchy was “the Glory of the Citizens, of the State, and of the Sovereign,” and Article 16 added that

from this Glory, a Sense of Liberty arises in a People governed by a Monarch; which may produce in these States as much Energy in transacting the most important Affairs, and may contribute as much to the Happiness of the Subjects, as even Liberty itself.

Massie provides a concise discussion of the Nakaz and the assembly, as well as the assembly’s failure to compile a code. He credits Catherine with the effort and points out that it did succeed in collecting information about the empire that she would use in future decades. However, her efforts had more enduring results. They identified the monarchy with the advancement of law in Russia, acquainting the ruling elite with principles that the most progressive members, such as Novikov and Radishchev, would expect to realize. The Nakaz appeared in six editions between 1767 and 1771. Copies were placed in central and provincial offices, and on occasion its principles would provide the grounding for future administrative and judicial decisions. It was Catherine the Great who established legality (zakonnost’) as a central goal for future rulers and officials.

The Nakaz and the commission represented only the beginning of Catherine’s legislative activity. She continued to draft projects of reform and statutes with the aim of drawing the Russian nobility into state life and enhancing the power of the state in the provinces. Russia lacked a tradition of local self-government such as the noble estate governments of the principal monarchies of Europe. Following the example of the Baltic estate government in the empire, Catherine’s reform of 1775 (not mentioned in the book) brought the provincial and district nobles, who much preferred to serve in Petersburg, into elective offices in charge of police, fiscal and judicial matters. For the first time, courts were separated from administrative institutions. The preamble to the reform made clear that their service would also inculcate civic virtue. It would instill in those holding office a love for justice and virtue and an aversion to “idle time spent in luxury and other vices corrupting to the morals.” They should regard with shame laziness, carelessness, and most of all “dereliction of duty and indifference to the general good.”

At the same time, Catherine’s reforms enhanced the power of governors of the provinces who supervised the branches of local government. She introduced the office of governor-general, an official who would assume authority over several provinces. A governor-general enjoyed access to the empress, attended the senate and appeared as her emissary in the provinces. His arrival in a provincial capital was the occasion for great balls and receptions that allowed the provincial nobility to participate in the life of celebration centered in the capital around the figure of the empress. She introduced a Muslim spiritual assembly, including Muslim holy men who helped defined the laws of Islam for the Tartar population and incorporated them into the confessional structure of the empire.

In 1785, Catherine’s “Charter to the Nobility” rewarded them with rights, the first instance in Russian history for an estate to be so favored. The charter confirmed their right to own serfs and landed property, their freedom from service, and the right to be tried by a court of their peers in cases involving loss of life, property or noble status. It vested noble assemblies with a corporate identity and empowered them to certify and register the members of their noble assemblies. Catherine continued to draft laws for the duration of her reign. In 1779, she began work on a law of hereditary succession. One incomplete draft asserted that the stability of the throne depended upon hereditary succession. “The first and fundamental law of this monarchical rule should be issued and drafted by Our Imperial hand—that is the steadfastness of the throne and stability in its inheritance.” The final version appeared as the fourth and largest section of her Nakaz of 1787, but it was not enacted. Her son Paul I promulgated a law of hereditary succession at his coronation in 1797, obviously to prevent a repetition of previous coups. (He was murdered by the leaders of his military in 1801.) All of the major provisions of his succession law repeated articles from Catherine’s projects.

These, of course, are only a few of Catherine’s achievements as enlightener. She also introduced educational reforms and sponsored scientific expeditions to study the physical and ethnographic variety of the empire. The expansion to the south under the aegis of Potemkin not only brought Russian culture and institutions to the shores of the Black Sea but also invigorated a feeling of kinship with Greek classical culture.

Catherine’s greatest failure was at the impossible task of improving the condition of the vast majority of the enserfed peasants. Indeed, under her rule the legal status of the serfs declined further. She granted thousands of serfs to her favorites, extended serfdom into western Ukraine and increased the authority of landlords over their serfs’ lives. Massie attributes this to the necessity to reward her supporters among the gentry, but there was a larger dynamic at work. The Petrine monarchy promoted Westernization at the expense of the serf population, much as Stalin later advanced industrialization by dispossessing the peasantry. Catherine’s successes in domestic and foreign policy helped consolidate the power of the landlords over the peasantry. Her successors would inherit a monarchy whose cultural ideals depended on a social system that increasingly contradicted the fundamental ethical principles of both the monarch and the educated elite that she helped foster.

Massie has written an engrossing and informative narrative describing Catherine’s personal life that satisfies our curiosity about her amours and entanglements. But the professional historian seeks more than an absorbing chronicle of the lives of personages of the court and boudoir. He seeks to understand these figures on a historical stage, fathoming the social and intellectual world they inhabited, the ideas and visions that inspired them, and their legacies, both beneficial and tragic. Catherine appeared in many personas: thinker, legislatrix, reformer, savior of Russia and conqueror of new territories. All the while she proved a firm and, when necessary, ruthless empress, strengthening the institutions of the state and furthering the subjugation of the masses. In these roles, she continues to bedazzle us—a prodigious, almost superhuman ruler who happened to be a woman.

Richard S. Wortman is the James Bryce Professor Emeritus of European Legal History at Columbia University. His latest book, Scenarios of Power: Myth and Ceremony in Russian Monarchy: From Peter the Great to the Abdication of Nicholas II (Princeton University Press, 2006), is a revised and abridged version of his previous volumes on Russian monarchy.

Pullquote: Catherine’s rise from the neglected daughter of a minor German prince to the throne of the Russian Empire is indeed an amazing one, combining the pathos of a Cinderella tale with an epic narrative of triumph.Image: Essay Types: Book Review