Throughout history, Russia has been viewed as a regressive cluster of barely civilized people on the verge of barbarism. In the eighteenth century, ideas of science and secularism grasped hold of Europe, and Russian Czars, realizing how behind Muscovite culture was, sought out this knowledge, attempting to imbed it into Russian society. Catherine II was one of these Czars. She listened to both the ideas of the philosophes and the problems of her people and strove to enlighten Russia by codifying the laws, establishing an elected government, funding hospitals, and forming a functioning school board.
Her attempts, however, were met with only partial success. Her reforms received much criticism, especially from the serfs, and Catherine was forced to realize, through the Pugachev Rebellion in 1773, that enlightening all of Russia was an impossibility. Catherine IIs greatest glory was seen in her foreign policies, as she solved two fundamental problems for Russia by winning victories over Turkey and Poland. As well, she established a League of Armed Neutrality and spoke out against the French Revolution.
Catherines reign created both prosperity and poverty for Russia. In order to decide whether she was truly great, one must evaluate her accomplishments upon the foundation of Russian ideals. At the end of the seventeenth century, Russia was a country in transition. The death of Czar Alexis in 1676 marked a change in Russian society, a movement from traditional Muscovite culture toward new, educated concepts. Reforms in the 1650s divided and weakened the Russian Orthodox Church, and a few bold individuals began to adopt a semi-westernized lifestyle.
By western standards, however, Russia still seem backward, and at best, a fringe nation of Europewithout benefit of middle class, universities, academies, or secular culture (Oblensky and Stone 144). The rebellion of the musketeers, or streltsy, in 1682 exposed a web of destructive feuds, religious superstition and xenophobia within Russia. Peter I took the throne in 1682 and reigned until 1725, with themes of war, love of foreigners, and love of the sea marking his rule. He and his army defeated Sweden at Poltava in 1709, he founded a navy at St. Petersburg, and he expanded the policy of hiring foreigners.
Peter wrought numerous changes, attempting to impose order on the Russian society, but, along with these reforms, he forged a gap between the upper Russian classes and the peasant population. After his death, Russia was turned over to several meager Czars: Peters wife, Catherine I, a self-indulged illiterate, from 1725-27; Peter, his 12 year old grandson, from 1727-30; his niece Anna, a woman with no political interests from 1730-40; and Ivan VI, an infant from, 1740-41 (Oblensky and Stone 145).
In 1741, Peters daughter, Elizabeth was raised to the throne, overthrowing Ivan VI. Lavish baroque palaces, an increase in western culture, and the taking of Berlin from Prussia in the Seven Years War characterized her reign. Again, Russia seemed to be establishing itself as a powerful society. However, Elizabeths successor, Peter III, undid much of what she had accomplished, as he returned Russias gains from the Seven Years War to his hero Frederick the Great (Oblensky and Stone 145).
Within six months of his succession, Peter was overthrown by a Guards coup in favour of his German wife, Catherine II. Catherine was thirty-three years old when she ascended the Russian throne. She had survived a loveless marriage, in which ambition alone sustained her (Gooch 6). Ignored by her husband, Peter III, she dedicated her time to learning the Russian language, studying the writings of the philosophes, and adapting cleverly to her new environmentskills which constitute important aspects of her reign.
Schooled by these teachings, she favoured religious tolerance, justice tempered with mercy (Gooch 91), education for women, civil rights determined within the bounds of class and estate, and the classical style in art and architecture. A women quite out of the ordinary, Catherine possessed high intelligence, a natural ability to administer and govern, a remarkable practical sense, energy to spare, and an iron will (Riasanovsky 256).
Along with her determination went courage and optimism, self-control, skill in discussion and propaganda, and a clever handling of men and circumstances to best serve her ends. Yet, together with her virtues, Catherine had certain weaknesses: her determination easily became ruthlessness, just as her ambition became vanity (Gooch 96). Even Catherine IIs admirers sometimes noticed that she lacked something, call it charity, mercy, or human sympathy (Riasanovsky 256).
Indisputably, however, for the first time since Peter the Great, Russia had acquired a sovereign who worked day and night, paying personal attention to all kinds of matters, great and small. Catherine began her reign with numerous enlightened, ambitious ideas, based on her readings of the philosophes. She took the first step toward liberalism by forming the Legislative Commission in which elections were introduced, codifying the Russian laws, creating a uniform school system and establishing a branch of public hospitals.
Upon her inauguration to the throne, Catherine had asked God to help her observe the law of the Orthodox Church, strengthen and defend the beloved fatherland, preserve justice, eradicate evil, all lies and impositions, and finally, to set up state institutions, by means of which the government would work within set limits and each department would have a defined sphere of action so that general good order would be maintained. For these purposes, she investigated every case that had come to her attention in order to discover the shortcomings that existed in Russia and how to best relieve them (Dukes 51).
In the first year of her reign, she noticed the general confusion and the inadequacy existing in the arrangement and the application of imperial laws. Peter the Great attempted twice to codify Russias laws, first in 1700 and again in 1714, with similar attempts made by his successors, particularly Elizabeth. None, however, were successful. For two years Catherine prepared her Instructions, or Nakaza set of principles which reflected her opinions on the political and legal structure desirable for Russia (Hosking 95).
Although Catherine had no intention of granting her subjects a constitution, and although her propaganda greatly exaggerated the radical nature of her intentions, the Nakaz was a strikingly liberal document (Riasanovsky 258). To discover the needs and wants of the Russian people, Catherine formed a Law Code Commission in 1767. The members were elected in local gatherings of the relevant estates: the nobility, the townsfolk, the state peasants, the Cossacks, the odnodvortsydescendants of the militarized peasants who had staffed the frontier linesand the non-Russians. (Hosking 98).
Deputies were sent to Moscow from all districts and towns, each with their own nakaz, or cahier, in which the requests and statements of grievance originating from their electors were drafted. However, the representatives were insensitive to the broad vision of creative statesmanship laid before them by their monarch (Dukes 100) and efforts were directed only at obtaining what they could within the existing system rather than recommending fundamental reforms. Catherine was quick to realize that the members were unaware of the needs of society as a whole and that they were unable to exercise self-restraint for the general good (Dukes 101).
Conveniently, she dismissed the Commission in 1768 when Russia went to war against Turkey. Nevertheless, the drafts written by the electives were not wasted, as the materials were employed in a Description of the Russian Empire and its International Administration and Legal Enactments, published in 1783. This proclamation was the closest thing that Russia had to a law code for the next 50 years (Hosking 100). It denounced capital punishment and torture, it argued for crime prevention and, in general, was abreast of advanced Western thought for criminology (Riasanovsky 259).
Catherine decided that, before positing common interests, which did not exist, she should put more backbone into fragmented Russia by creating institutions which would enable citizens to work together at least within their own estates and orders; Catherine adopted the task of laying the foundation for a civilized Russian society. Catherines first contribution toward forming an enlightened nation was to create a system of hospitals. Although medical science had yet to reach a respected position, Russia lacked, as did many other countries, a method of administering the small amounts of medical knowledge it did possess.
In attempts to alleviate this, Catherine funded the Town Hospital at St. Petersburg, the St. Petersburg House for Lunatics, and the Foundling Hospital; as well, she popularized vaccinations. The Empress donated money to fund the Town Hospital at St. Petersburg, where poor were admitted without payment (Kochan 26). Upon admittance, they were shaved, bathed, and put in tidy dress. The hospital consisted of 300 well spread beds with curtains and a professor of electricity who was permanently employed to relieve diseases. Likewise, the St. Petersburg House for Lunatics was constructed, which became renowned for its gentle treatment.
Unlike other mental hospitals, it did not use chains to subdue raving patients, but instead used thongs, and, it only used gentle remedies, such as a strict diet, for mental disorders (Kochan 26). Finally, Catherine built the Foundling Hospital on the banks of the Muskva. This hospital broke new ground, for it was one of the first establishments of its kind. Through it, Catherine intended to discourage infanticide. A branch was set up in St. Petersburg in 1770, which acted as both a lie-in-hospital, admitting all pregnant women without pay, and a school, teaching girls sewing and boys the arts.
The function of the Foundling Home has been described as the transformation of private indiscretion into national benefit (Kochan 27) since all children were accepted without chargethe mother just had to state the name of the child and whether it had been baptized. Furthermore, it was through Catherine that vaccinations became widespread. Smallpox took the lives of many Russians, and permanently disfigured its survivors. Catherine was one of the first people in Russia to submit to an inoculation against the disease (Kochan 27). In 1768, she summoned the Quaker, Dr.
Thomas Dimsdale to perform the procedure; later that year, she had a Smallpox Hospital built, which, twice a year, inoculated children without charge. Through this, Catherine attempted to both instill scientific ideas in Russiashe decreed that Russia be equipped to produce its own medicines and surgical instrumentsand, to save the lives of many commoners (Riasanovsky 264). However, rather than seek medical aid, unenlightened peasants ran to The Virgin as a cure from the disease. The peasants were unable to appreciate the hospitals along with many of Catherines other broad visions.
Catherines final social reform was in the education system. Not only did the Empress reorganize the schools of elite classessuch as the Cadet Corpsand introduce the first female schoolssuch as the Smolny Institute for Noble Girlsshe also created a successful nationwide education system of elementary and secondary schooling. Russian education was a failure up to the 1760s for several reasons: it lacked textbooks, it had no set curriculum, it used a wide application of over-rigorous discipline, it stressed education for state-service purposes, and it was limited by Russian superstitions.
It was Russian tradition that reading secular books was a temptation from the devil (Miliukov 5), and so, grammar was taught with Church Slavonic print and church books until the 1760s. This practice was harmful because, by the 1700s, Church Slavonic was no longer the vernacular (Dukes 30). Catherine alleviated this by drafting an index of secular books to be used in schools, including The Primer, Rules for Pupils, On the Duties of Man and Citizen, History of the World, Introduction to European Geography, and Russian Grammar.
Prior to Catherine, the curriculum was as useless as the textbooks since it laid emphasis on only a few practical subjects, and was, for the most part, without rhyme or reason (Dukes 31). The Russians of the first half of the eighteenth century tended to view education as general, separate pieces of information, and that to learn these and become an educated man was simple (Dukes 31). Catherine observed this restraint, and formed a system of successive learning, where specific subjects were studied in four grade levels, each level increasing in difficulty.
Through this, Catherine gave her people understanding, not just superficial knowledge. Russians also believed that severe discipline aided knowledge, a belief which stemmed partly from the nature of military Russian education and partly from teachers wanting dumb obedience (Dukes 31). It was also the consequence of the seventeenth century religious theory, that children were naturally wicked and that they had to be purged before they could learn, that led to the physical abuse of children (Dukes 31). This abuse handicapped Russian education by creating mindless followers instead of outspoken thinkers.
Catherine condemned this practice by banning physical punishment in schools, and therefore, taking the first step in creating a non-militaristic, rational education system. Another concept that impeded Russian schooling was Peter the Greats notion that the purpose of education was the preparation of the young for services of the state (Dukes 32). Consequently, people did not learn for curiositys sake, and they did not experiment. The installation of provincial schools was Catherines solution. In 1786, the Statute of Popular Schools was produced and published.
Although F. I. Iankovich, a Serbian graduate, was its chief architect, the Statute reflected, to a considerable degree, the education plans composed by Catherine (Dukes 242). This education system was nationwide, with cost-free elementary and secondary schooling for boys and girls, including serfs with the permission of their land owners. The Education Statute stated that, in every provincial capitol, there must be one major school, consisting of four grades and, in every provincial and district town, one minor school with two grades.
The classes were to study reading, writing, catechism, elementary grammar and arithmetic, drawing, church historyfrom teachers rather than clergyand, rudimentary civics, all in their native tongue, as well as in the foreign language which was most useful for everyday life, depending on where the school was situated (Obolensky and Stone 211). This system recognized that, education is for the prosperity of the individual, and not the state, and in order for Russians to become broad-minded, they must acquire the fundamentals of knowledge.
The final concept that made Russian education a failure was the influence of a peculiar Russian culture, composed of ancient, Slavic superstition and folklore, and simple, but powerful Orthodox Christian faith (Dukes 34). Peter the Great began the struggle against the old culture by creating a strict order with uniform regulations, however, this organization was rejected by the vast majority of Russians who wanted to stick to the old ways. Catherine tried to create a school system that would be embraced by all Russians, with moderate success.
Although the education was free, and open to all classes, just after Catherines death, there were 49 major schools in operation, with 269 teachers and only 7 001 students enrolled; similarly, there were 239 minor schools, with 491 teachers and only 15 209 students. In comparison with the Russian population, these numbers were miniscule, but, in comparison with the number of students of 1727, which was no more than 2 000, her educational reform marked a great leap forward.
In many ways her principles were remarkableself-governing institutions and the spirit of free intellectual enquiry (Hosking 125). The Statute of Popular Schools was Catherines last major act in the cultural field. Three years after its publication, the French revolution broke out and Catherine turned her attention to foreign acquisitions. By the 1780s, Catherine had realized that her dreams of recreating Russia were not possible. Although she was greatly influenced by the philosophes, she argued with Diderot that his theories could not be applied to Russian reality:
Monsieur Diderot, I have listened with the greatest of pleasure to all that your brilliant genius has inspired you with; but all your grand principles, which I understand very well, though they make fine books, would make sad work in actual practice. You forget, in all your plans for reformation, the difference between our two positions. You work only upon paper, which submits everything. Whereas I, a poor empress, work upon human nature, which is on the contrary, irritable and easily offended. (Oblensky and Stone 210)
The bloody rebellion, led by Cossack Pugachev, showed too well that enlightened theories and domestic realities were often at odds. In 1773, a Don Cossack claimed to be the late Peter III, reclaiming his throne and bringing justice to the oppressed. He started his rebellion in southern Russia, and at its height, it encompassed a huge territory in eastern European Russia. The aim of the rebellion was to exterminate all officials and property owners and free the serfs, and to replace Catherine IIs government with a Cossack-style democracy.
The system failed, however, because of lack of coherent program and serious rivalries between different groups (Oblensky and Stone 225). Pugachev was betrayed by his followers, tried in court, and executed. The rebellion demonstrates a major flaw in Russian lower class: the serfs knew they were dissatisfied with Catherines system, but they were too self absorbed and uneducated to be able to work toward the general good.
Catherine had realized long before, during the Legislative Commission, that in order to abolish serfdom Russia would have to be completely re-instituted: priests must become as literate as foreign priests and the nobles as sharp-witted as the English, the peasants must know their ABC, become honest and obey the wrath of God and the rabble must have a better understanding of foreign crafts and become more intelligent (Dukes 31). The Empress realized that it was first necessary to educate the higher classes and to then let the knowledge seep down until it reached the peasantry.
Regardless, Pugachevs Rebellion was a shock to Catherines liberal instincts and it marked the most critical moment of her reign: a turning point in which she replaced her radical internal reforms with an aggressive foreign policy. Shaping foreign policy was one of the principal tasks of the Russian Czar and through it, Catherine accomplished her greatest glory for Russia. Russia had three fundamental problems in foreign relations: the Swedish, the Turkish, and the Polish (Riasanovsky 264).
Peter the Great solved the first and Catherine the Great the final two. In their struggle against Turkey, the Russians aimed to reach the Black Sea, to obtain their natural southern border, and to reclaim the fertile lands lost to the Asiatic in the days of the Kievan state. In The First Turkish War, 1768-74, impressive victories over Turkey were won by Count Peter Rumiantsev on land, and Alexis Orlov on sea. By the summer of 1774, Turkey was ready to make peace.
The Treaty of Kuchuk Kainarji awarded Russia the strategic points of Kinburn, Yenikale and Kerch in and near the Crimea as well as part of the Black Sea coast (Kochan 5). In addition, Russia acquired the right to build and Orthodox Church in Constantinople. The First Turkish War marked the first decisive defeat of Turkey by Russia and, although the Treaty of Kuchuk Kainarji reflected the Russian victory, Catherines ambitions were yet to be fulfilled. The Second Turkish War began in 1787 when Turkey declared war on Russia.
Catherines troops, led by General Alexander Suvorov, scored a series of brilliant victories over Turkish forces, notably in 1790 when Suvorov stormed and won the supposedly impregnable fortress of Ismail. By the Treaty of Jassy in 1792, Russia gained the fortress of Ochakov and the Black Sea shore up to the Dniester River, and Turkey recognized her annexation of Crimea. The conquest of this region freed Russia from many of the chronic disadvantages it had suffered for centuries while hemmed in among the forests and on the poor soils of the north (Hosking 107).
Catherine had won for Russia her natural boundaries in the south, and essentially solved the Turkish problem. Catherine IIs Polish policy turned out to be as impressive as her relations with Turkey. It is often said that Poland was ready for partitioning in the second half of the eighteenth century: elected kings were unable to control their subjects and the only other form of authority, the sejm, or diet, failed almost entirely to function (Riasanovsky 267).
Catherine felt that Poland was constantly overrun with disorder and violence; she always looked with particular sympathy upon the oppression to which the lands and towns adjacent to the Russian empire, which were formerly her property had been subjected to (Oblensky and Stone 214). The conflicting interests of numerous religions and an avaricious gentry accentuated the weaknesses of the Polish government. For these reasons, Catherine felt it necessary that Russia take under her power all the lands, towns, and regions enclosed within Poland.
By the first partition of Poland in 1772, Russia obtained White Russian and Latvian Lithuania to the Dvina and the Dnieper rivers with some 13 million inhabitants; by the second partition in 1793, Russia took more of Lithuania and most of the western Ukraine with a total of 3 million inhabitants; by the third partition in 1795, Russia acquired the remainder of Lithuania and the Ukraine, with 12 million inhabitants, as well as the Duchy of Courland, where Russian influence had predominated from the time of Empress Anne (Riasanovsky 270).
The partitioning of Poland brought tragedy to the Poles, but glory to the Russians. Poland had always been regarded as a hindrance if not a danger to the growth of the Russian state (Kochan 5). Catherine had eliminated an old enemy, rival, and a source of conflicts, while at the same time adding to her own lands, resources and populations. After the division of Poland, Russia, Prussia and Austria cooperated closely on the international scene, holding Eastern Europe completely under their control. Catherine is criticized on the aggressive nature in which she, Austria, and Prussia seized the Polish lands.
However, Russias case differs greatly from those of Prussia and Austria: in the three partitions, Russia took old Russian lands, once part of the Kievan state, populated principally by Orthodox Ukrainians and White Russians (Hosking 60), whereas the two German powers grabbed ethnically and historically Polish territory. The Russians, therefore, came as liberatorsas Catherine had statedthe Prussians and Austrians as oppressors. Catherines foreign policy was not limited to the relations with Turkey and Poland.
Other important developments included the Russian role in the League of Armed Neutrality, a war against Sweden, and the Empresss reaction to the French Revolution. To protect the commerce of non-combatant states against arbitrary actions of the British, Catherine proposed a doctrine of armed neutrality at sea in 1780. It insisted that neutral ships could pass freely from port to port and along the coast to combatants, that enemy goods in neutral ships, except contraband, were not subject to seizure, and that to be legal a blockade had to be enforced, rather than merely proclaimed (Riasanovsky 271).
Several other European countries supported her proposals which eventually became part of international maritime law. In 1788, Sweden attacked Russia while the Russian armies were at war with Turkey. Repeatedly, the Swedes threatened St. Petersburg, however, with no success, as the Treaty of Werala in 1790 confirmed the pre-war boundary. Catherine triumphed in defending her adopted country. The French Revolution made a strong impression on Catherine: the heroes she embraced in her youth became the objects of criticism in her maturity.
I cannot believe in the superior talents of the cobblers and shoemakers for government and legislation, she wrote in 1789, they know ten times more and do ten times more harm than my employes who do not indulge in such fine phrases (Gooch 99). Catherine, however, lived in Russiaa backward country with no middle class, where education and science were rejected in favour of Muscovite superstition and religionand not Francea developing nation with a powerfully educated middle class.
Although Catherine had made the first step in progressivism, by introducing a system of government, laws, hospitals, and schools, the Russian commoner remained unaffected. In France, the peasantry knew their desires; in Russia, they only knew their duties. Consequently, the people of Russia were unable to govern themselves and remained solely dependent on the strength of an enlightened despot; no one need blame Catherine for accepting the prevailing ideology of her time (Gooch 107). Although Catherine IIs list of achievements is of great bulk, merely recording them is not enough to define her as great.
Rather, the reforms imposed by Catherine must be evaluated upon the background of ancient Muscovite beliefs. Catherine adopted a backward and ignorant society, installed provincial governments, codified the laws, created a school board, established hospitals, expanded the borders, and overall, took the first step in progressiveness. Influenced by the thinkers of her time, and observant of her countrys flaws, Catherine was able to combine the new ideas of the eighteenth century with the realities of traditional Muscovite society.
The Empress understood that, in order to bring Russia abreast with western society, she must first build a backbone of government institutions from which knowledge could percolate down through all ranks of society. Her greatness comes, not only through her internal and foreign accomplishments, but also through her appreciation of Russian antiquity, and her ability to apply the new enlightened ideas to its eccentric culture. She won for Russia a place among the Great Powers which since her day, has never been lost.