Catherine The Great - Notes



Russia under Catherine the Great

Frederick the Great wrote, about 1776: Of all the neighbors of Prussia, Russia merits most attention, as being the most dangerous; it is powerful and near. Those who in future will govern Prussia will like me, be forced to cultivate friendship of these barbarians."

Always, in thinking of Russia, we most remember its size. Under Catherine the Great it included Esthonia, Livonia, Finland (in part), European Russia, the northern Caucase and Siberia. Its area expanded from 687000 to 913000 square kilometers in the eighteen century; its population grew from thirteen millions in 1711 to thirty million in 1790.

In 1722, 97.7 per cent of the Russian population was rural; in 1790, still 96.4 per cent; so slow was industrialization. In 1762 all but ten per cent of the people were peasant, and 52.4 per cent of these were serfs. Half of the land was owned by some 100,000 nobles, most of the rest by the state or the Russia Orthodox Church, some by semi- free peasants still owning services and obedience to local lords. A landlord's wealth was reckoned by the number of his serfs, so Count Peter Cheremetyev was 140,000 serfs rich. The 992,000 serfs of the Church were a main part of her wealth, and 2,800,000 serfs tilled the lands of the Crown in 1762.

The noble provided military leadership and economic organization; he was usually exempt from military service, but offered it in hopes of favors from the government. He had judiciary rights over his serfs, he could punish them, sell them, or banish them to Siberia; normally, however, he allowed his peasants to govern their internal affairs through their village assembly. He was obliged by law to provide seed for his serfs, and so maintain them through periods of dearth¹. A serf


 ¹Dearth: an inadequate amount, esp. of food; scarcity.



might achieve freedom by owner's consent. Free peasants could buy and own serfs; some of these freemen, called kulaki, dominated village affairs, lent money at usurious rates and exceeded the lords in exploitation and severity. Master and man alike were a tough breed¹, strong m frame and arm and hand; they were engaged together in the conquest of the soil, and the discipline of the seasons lay heavy upon them both. Sometimes hardships were beyond bearing. Repeatedly we hear of serfs in great number deserting their farms and losing themselves in Poland or the Urals or the Caucasus; thousands of them died on the way, thousands were hunted and captured by soldiery. Every now and then peasants rose in armed revolt against masters and government, and gave desperate battle to the troops. Always they were defeated, and survivors crept back to their tasks.

Some serfs were trained to arts and crafts, and supplied nearly all the needs of their masters. At a feast given to Catherine II (the Comte de Ségur tells us) the poet and the composer of the opera, the architect who had built the auditorium, the painter who decorated it, the actors and actress in the drama, the dancers in the ballet, and the musicians in the orchestra were all serfs of Count Cheremeryev. In the long winter the peasants made the clothing and the tools they would need in the coming year. Town industry was slow in developing, partly because every home was a shop, and partly because difficulties of transportation usually limited the market to the producer's . vicinity. The government encouraged industrial enterprises by offering monopolies to favorites, sometimes by providing capital, and it approved participation by nobles in industry and trade. An incipient capitalism appeared in mining, metallurgy, and munitions, and in factory production of textiles, lumber, sugar, and glass. Entrepreneurs were permitted to buy serfs to man their factories; such "possessional peasants," however, were bound not to the owner but to the enterprise; a governmental decree of 1736 required them, and their descendants, to remain in their respective factories until officially permitted to leave. In many cases they lived in barracks, often isolated from their families. Hours of labor ran from eleven to fifteen per day for men with an hour for lunch. After 1734 "free" — non-serf — labor increased in the factories, as giving more stimulus to the workers and more profits to the employer. Labor was too cheap to favor the invention or application of machinery; but in 1748 Pulzunov used a

¹ Breed: a lineage or race.



steam engine in his ironworks in the Urals.

Between the nobles and the peasants a small and political powerless middle class slowly took form. In 1725 some three per cent of the population were merchants, tradesmen in the villages and the towns and at the fairs; importers of tea and silk from China, of sugar, coffee, spices, and drugs from overseas, and of the finer textiles, pottery, and paper from Western Europe. (...)

It was impossible that a people so used up and brutalized by the conflict with nature, so lacking in facilities of communication or in security of life, with so little opportunity for education and so little time for thought, should enjoy, except in the isolated villages, the privileges and perils of democracy. Some form of feudalism was inevitable in the economy, some mode of monarchy in central rule. It was to be expected that the monarchy would be subject to frequent overturns by noble factions controlling their own military support; that the monarchy should seek to make itself absolute; and that it should depend upon religion to help its soldiery, police, and judiciary to maintain social stability and internal peace.

Corruption clogged every avenue of administration. Even the wealthy nobles who surrounded the throne were amenable to "gifts". "If there be a Russian proof against flattery," said the almost contemporary Castéra, "there is not one who can resist the temptation of gold." Nobles controlled the palace guard that made and unmade "sovereigns"; they formed a caste of officers in the army; they manned¹ the Senate .which, under Elizabeth, made the laws; they headed the collegia, or ministries, that ruled over foreign relations, the courts, industry, commerce, and finance; they appointed the clerks who carried the bureaucracy; they guided the ruler's choice of the governors who managed the "guberniyas" (provinces) into which the empire was divided, and after 1761 they chose the vovodi who governed the provinces. Over all branches of the government loomed² the mostly middle-class Fiscal, a federal bureau of intelligence, authorized to discover and punish peculation; but, despite its large use of informers, it found itself foiled³, for if the monarch had dismissed every official guilty of venality the machinery of the state would have stopped. The tax collector had such sticky fingers that scarcely a

¹ Manned: supplied or equipped with men.

² To loom: to dominate.

³ To foil: to baffle or frustrate.



third of their gleaning reached the treasury.

Religion was specially strong in Russia, for poverty was bitter, and merchants of hope found many purchasers. Skepticism was confined to an upper class that could read French, and Freemasonry had many converts there. But the rural, and most of the urban, population lived in supernatural world of fearful piety, surrounded by devils, crossing themselves a dozen times a day, imploring the intercession of saints, worshiping relics, awed by miracles, trembling over portents, prostrating themselves before holy images, and moaning somber hymns from stentorian breasts. Church bells were immense and powerful; Boris Godunov had set up one of 288,000 pounds, but the Empress Anna Ivanovna outrang him by having one cast 432,000 pounds. The churches were filled; the rituals was more solemn here, and the prayers were more ecstatic, than in half-pagan papal Rome. The Russian priests — each of them a papa, or pope — wore awesome beards and flowing hair, and dark robes reaching to their feet (for legs are an impediment to dignity). They seldom mingled with the aristocracy or the court, but lived in modest simplicity, celibate in their monasteries or married in their rectories. Abbots and priors governed the monks, abbesses the nuns; the secular clergy submitted to bishops these to archbishops, these to provincial metropolitans, these to the patriarch in Moscow; and the Church as a whole acknowledged the secular sovereign as its head. Outside the Church were dozens of religious sects, rivaling one another in mysticism, piety, and hate.

Religion served to transmit a moral code that barely availed to create order amid the strong natural impulses of a primitive people. The nobles of the court adopted the morals, manners and language of the French aristocracy; their marriages were transactions in realty. The women of the court were better educated than the men, but in moment of passion they could erupt in hot words. Among the people the language was coarse, violence was frequent, and cruelty corresponded with the strength of the frame and thickness of the skin. Everyone gambled and drank according to his means, and stole according to his station, but everyone was charitable, and huts exceeded palaces in hospitality. Brutality and kindness were universal.

Extracts from The Story of Civilization — Rousseau and Revolution

by Will and Ariel Durant. Simon & Schuster, New York



A few great personalities of the 18th century

in the time of Catherine II

Denis Diderot (1713-1784)

He was the most prominent of the French Encyclopedists. He was educated by the Jesuits, and, refusing to enter one of the learned professions, was turned adrift by his father and came to Paris, where he lived from hand to mouth for a time. Gradually, however, he became recognized as one of the most powerful writers of the day. His first independent work was the Essai sur Ie merite et la vertu (1745). As one of the editors of the Dictionnaire de médecine (6 vols., Paris, 1746), he gained valuable experience in encyclopedic system. His Pensées philosophiques (The Hague, 1746), in which he attacked both atheism and the received Christianity, was burned by order of the Parliament of Paris.

He had made very little pecuniary profit out of the Encyclopedic, and Grimm appealed on his behalf to Catherine of Russia, who in 1765 bought his library, allowing him the use of the books as long as he lived, and assigning him a yearly salary which a little later she paid him for fifty years in advance.

In 1773 she summoned him to St. Petersburg with Grimm to converse with him in person. On his return he lived until his death in a house provided by her, in comparative retirement but in unceasing labor on the undertakings of his party, writing (according to Grimm) two-thirds of Raynal's famous Histoire philosophique, and contributing some of the most rhetorical pages to Helvetius's De I'esprit and Holbach's Système de la nature, Système social, and Morale universelle. In Sainte-Beuve's phrase, he was "the first great writer who belonged wholly and undividedly to modern democratic society," and his attacks on the political system of France were among the most potent causes of the Revolution.

Grimm Friedrich Melchior, Baron Von (1723-1807)

French author, the son of a German pastor, was born at Ratisbon on the 26th of December 1723. He studied at the University of Leipzig, where he came under the influence of Gottsched and of J.A. Ernesti, to whom he was largely indebted for his critical appreciation



of classical literature. ... His acquaintance with Rousseau, through a mutual sympathy in regard to musical matters, soon ripened into intimate friendship, and led to a close association with the encyclopaedists. He rapidly obtained a thorough knowledge of the French language, and acquired so perfectly the tone and sentiments of the society in which he moved that all marks of his foreign origin and training seemed effaced.

In 1753 Grimm, following the example of the abbé Raynal, began a literary correspondence with various German sovereigns. Raynal's letters, Nouvelles Littéraires, ceased early in 1755. With the aid of friends, especially of Diderot and Mme d'Epinay, during his temporary absences from France, Grimm himself carried on the correspondence, which consisted of two letters a month, until 1773, and eventually counted among his subscribers Catherine II of Russia, Stanislas Poniatowski, king of Poland, and many princes of the smaller German States.

His introduction to Catherine II of Russia took place at St Petersburg in 1773. In 1777 he again left Paris on a visit to St Petersburg, where he remained for nearly a year in daily intercourse with Catherine. He acted as Paris agent for the Empress in the purchase of works of art, and executed many confidential commissions for her. In 1792 he emigrated, and in the next year settled in Gotha, where his poverty was relieved by Catherine, who in 1796 appointed him minister of Russia at Hamburg. He died at Gotha on the 8 of December 1807.

The correspondence of Grimm was strictly confidential, and was not divulged during his lifetime. His notices of contemporaries are somewhat severe, and he exhibits the foibles and selfishness of the society in which he moved; but he was unbiased in his literary judgments, and time has only served to confirm his criticisms. In style and manner of expression he is thoroughly French. He is generally somewhat cold in his appreciation, but his literary taste is delicate and subtle; and it was the opinion of Sainte-Beuve that the quality of his thought in his best moments will compare not unfavorably even with that of Voltaire. His religious and philosophical opinions were entirely negative.

Voltaire (1694-1778) (pseudonyme of François-Marie Arouet)

French writer, satirist, the embodiment of the 18th century Enlightenment. Voltaire is remembered as a crusader against tyranny and bigotry. Compared to Rousseau's (1712-1778) rebelliousness and



idealism, Voltaire was skeptical about the solution of the great philosophical problems. Voltaire disliked his great contemporary thinker, but their ideas influenced deeply the French Revolution. In 1761 he wrote to Rousseau: "One feels like crawling on all fours after reading your work." "Liberty of thought is the life of the soul." {Essay on Epic Poetry, 1727)

François-Marie Arouet de Voltaire was born in Paris into a middle-class family. His father was a minor treasury official. Voltaire was educated by the Jesuits at the Collège Louis-le-Grand (1704-11). From 1711 to 1713 he studied law, and then worked as a secretary to the French ambassador in Holland before devoting himself entirely to writing. Voltaire's essays did not gain the approval of authorities, but he energetically attacked the government and the Catholic church, which caused him numerous imprisonments and exiles. In his early twenties he spent eleven months in the Bastille for writing satiric verses about the aristocracy.

Voltaire settled in 1755 in Switzerland, where he lived the rest of his life, apart from trips to France. He had his own chateau, Les Delices, outside Geneva, and later at nearby Ferney, in France. Anybody of note, from Boswell to Casanova, wanted to visit the place; Voltaire's conversations with visitors were recorded and published and he was flattered by kings and nobility.

Voltaire died in Paris on May 30, 1778, as the undisputed leader of the Age of Enlightenment. He had suffered throughout his life from poor health, but at the time of his death he was eighty-four. Voltaire left behind him over fourteen thousand known letters and over two thousand books and pamphlets.

As an essayist Voltaire defended freedom of thoughts and religious tolerance. In his Dictionnaire Philosphiqne (1764) he defined the ideal religion ' it would teach very little dogma but much morality. The work was condemned in Paris, Geneva, and Amsterdam. For safety reasons Voltaire denied his authorship. In Essay on the Manner and Spirit of Nations, Voltaire presented the first modern comparative history of civilizations, including Asia. Later he returned to the Chinese philosophy is his Dictionary, praising the teachings of Confucius: "What more beautiful rule of conduct has ever been given man since the world began? Let us admit that there has been no legislator more useful to the human race."

* * *



Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778)

He was born on June 28, 1712 in Geneva, Switzerland. His mother died shortly after his birth. When Rousseau was 10 his father fled from Geneva to avoid imprisonment for a minor offense, leaving young Jean-Jacques to be raised by an aunt and uncle. Rousseau left Geneva at 16, wandering from place to place, finally moving to Paris in 1742. He earned his living during this period, working as everything from footman to assistant to an ambassador.

Rousseau's profound insight can be found in almost every trace of modern philosophy today. Somewhat complicated and ambiguous, Rousseau's general philosophy tried to grasp an emotional and passionate side of man which he felt was left out of most previous philosophical thinking.

In his early writing, Rousseau contended that man is essentially good, a "noble savage" when in the "state of nature" (the state of all the other animals, and the condition man was in before the creation of civilization and society), and that good people are made unhappy and corrupted by their experiences in society. He viewed society as "artificial" and "corrupt" and that the furthering of society results in the continuing unhappiness of man.

Rousseau's most important work is The Social Contract that describes the relationship of man with society. Contrary to his earlier work, Rousseau claimed that the state of nature is brutish condition without law or morality, and that there are good men only a result of society's presence. Man joins together with his fellow men to form the collective human presence known as "society." The Social Contract is the "compact" agreed to among men that sets the conditions for membership in society.

Rousseau was one of the first modern writers to seriously attack the institution of private property, and therefore is considered a forebear of modern socialism and Communism. Rousseau also questioned the assumption that the will of the majority is always correct. He argued that the goal of government should be to secure freedom, equality, and justice for all within the state, regardless of the will of the majority.

One of the primary principles of Rousseau's political philosophy is that politics and morality should not be separated. When a state fails to act in a moral fashion, it ceases to function in the proper manner and ceases to exert genuine authority over the individual. The second important principle is freedom, which the state is created to preserve.



Rousseau's ideas about education have profoundly influenced modern educational theory. He minimizes the importance of book learning, and recommends that a child's emotions should be educated before his reason. He placed a special emphasis on learning by experience.

Potemkin, Prince Grigori Aleksandrovich (1739-1791)

Russian field marshal, statesman, and favorite of Catherine the Great. Potemkin was born in Smolensk Province on Sept. 13, 1739. He received considerable education in history, classics, and theology, and distinguished himself at the University of Moscow. But he found the army life more suitable than a seminary to his wild and imaginative temperament. He assisted in the coup d'état of June 1762 which brought Catherine II (the Great) to the throne in place of her husband Peter III.

Catherine who was much in need of reliable supporters, appreciated Potemkin's boundless energy and organizing ability. In 1774, their relation assume a more intimate character. Potemkin became the official favorite and was showered with honors and responsibilities. For the next seventeen years he was the most powerful man in Russia. A colorful extrovert, he reveled in ostentatious display and amassed vast personal wealth. Like Catherine, he succumbed to the lure of absolute power. Although he could be capricious and despotic, in many fields he manifested an enlightened spirit. He was tolerant towards religious dissidents and extended protection to national minorities, particularly the Orientals. As chief of the Russian army he introduced a more humane conception of discipline and exhorted officers to show fatherly concern for the welfare of their men. But the effectiveness of his military reforms was limited by the maintenance of serfdom, which he helped to consolidate.

Potemkin was more successful in strengthening Russia's hold on its newly acquired southern provinces, over which he ruled as virtual dictator. He promoted colonization, by foreign as well as Russian settlers, founded several new towns, and brought into being a Black Sea fleet. In 1783 he carried out the Russian annexation of Crimea. Four years later he arranged a much-publicized ceremonial tour by Catherine and her entourage through the southern provinces.

He died on October 5, 1791.




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