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Absolutism or Despotism?

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Catherine the Great

Catherine’s reign (1762-1796) was one of the most  remarkable in Russian history. It has often been seen as an important complement to Peter’s period, as an age in which Absolutism established  by her  great predecessor was  tempered by Enlightenment. In the eloquent phrase of a contemporary poet  Michael Kheraskov:  

          Peter gave Russians a body,
          Catherine gave them a soul.

This sentiment would be reiterated by many, including the famous literary critic Vissarion Belinsky who, in 1841, remarked: ‘Peter had awakened Russia from apathetic sleep, but it was Catherine who breathed life into her’.  

Indeed, Peter’s approach to the task of Europeanization was one of the hard-headed pragmatism. The major Western influences that stimulated his reform efforts were mainly the scientific movement and the rationalism of the late seventeenth century.  He used Western  ideas and techniques to create a powerful empire and to augment the autocratic prerogative of the tsar. In contrast, Catherine’s emphasis was more on the intellectual. She was more receptive to the somewhat more refined arguments of the eighteenth century philosophes and political thinkers. Despite this distinction in the sort of Western influences affecting the two reigns, there was more than a little continuity between them and between the problems that the two great rulers had to contend with.

Prior to her appearance on the Russian scene, Catherine was an obscure German princess known by the name of Sophia Augusta. She was born in 1729 and, when she was about 15 years old, came to Russia to marry the  heir of the Russian throne. With her conversion to Orthodoxy she took the name of Catherine. In 1762 she secured the Russian throne through a coup d’état against her husband, Peter III.

By the time of her accession to the throne Catherine was well versed in the contemporary achievements of the European philosophical, political and economic thought. She corresponded with Voltaire and most of the other great men of the age, and her letters show her to be well-informed and lively if not profound. She had also some definite ideas of her own of what needed to be done to ensure the well-being of the state. By absorbing contemporary political theories and adding her own understanding of Russia’s problems to them, Catherine had arrived at a political program, which informed her domestic policies to the end her reign. The ideological base of this program was the principles of the Enlightenment. For this reason, the period in Russian history associated with Catherine’s reign is often referred to as  ‘enlightened absolutism’.

The eighteenth century is famous as the age of European absolute monarchy.  The term  ‘enlightened absolutism’ is usually applied to several decades of European history that preceded the French revolution of 1789.  The monarchs regarded as ‘enlightened’ were, first of all, Frederick the Great of Prussia, Joseph II of Austria, Charles III of  Spain and Catherine the Great of Russia. It is believed that these  sovereigns used their absolute prerogatives to implement reforms based on the ideas of  the Enlightenment. 

By  that time, the European political thought had come to a new understanding of the role of the monarch and his relationship with his subjects. Increasingly the monarch was seen as a first servant of state, as a caring head of society. Not all analysts are convinced, however, that the concept of ‘enlightened absolutism’ is applicable to Catherine’s Russia. Some prefer to speak of ‘enlightened despotism’ instead.  The question that is often asked is whether indeed Catherine was an enlightened despot.

For many commentators the ideals of the Enlightenment  espoused by Catherine appear to be incompatible with the reality of serfdom in Russia of the second half of the eighteenth century. They suspect that all her talk about Enlightenment and the liberal phraseology of her correspondence with Voltaire was nothing but a smoke screen which the empress  used to conceal her vanity, lust for power and her own rather reactionary views. However, in recent decades this  rather unflattering perception of Catherine has been yielding ground to a more positive view, according to which Catherine did, indeed, sincerely aspire to imprint an enlightened stamp on her autocratic rule and even partially succeed.

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Catherine the Great


Tsarist Russia

Pre-Petrine Russia
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