A lady who after-lunched
By Ian Mitchell
If one thing is generally known about Catherine the Great it is that she liked sex. Even before she became Empress, on the death of her estranged husband Tsar Peter III, she was notorious for her love affairs, which were usually consummated during the quiet hour after lunch. The rest of the day, from early in the morning until late at night, she devoted herself to state business and, as a result, became one of the most successful and admired rulers Russia has ever had.
Catherine was intelligent, energetic, grounded yet courageous. She came to the throne, in 1762, in the middle of the European Enlightenment and tried to bring the principles of rational administration, as espoused by Voltaire, Diderot and Montesquieu, to bear on the primitive governance of Russia.
But when she died, in 1796, Russia was not significantly closer to catching up with the advanced countries of western Europe in terms of political organisation. Serfdom was harsher than it had been when she came to power. And censorship had been re-imposed, paving the way for the disappointingly half-liberal regime of Alexander I and the totally illiberal regime of Nicholas I, which lasted until 1855 by which time the slide to Revolution was arguably unstoppable. Catherine was, in other words, a failure in the terms she would have set herself when she deposed her pock-marked, pro-Prussian martinet of a husband. For such a talented and hard-working woman, the biographer’s question is: why?
For anyone interested in the larger question of why Russia has never at any time in its history managed to establish a form of constitutional reciprocity between the rulers and the ruled, Catherine’s failure is key. She had absolute power for more than three decades, longer than Peter the Great or Stalin. She brought Russia’s influence in European politics to its highest point, and expanded its territory by more than any other ruler since Ivan the Terrible.
Yet Professor Dixon’s conclusion is damning:
“[Catherine] had ultimately been unable to trust the Enlightenment’s fundamental belief in self-development [so] a reign which began by fostering a degree of intellectual independence ended by enveloping some of Russian’s most interesting writers in clouds of suspicion. Catherine had not succeeded in her aim of establishing a firm rule of law, and the rational bureaucratic institutions she had worked so hard to establish never emasculated the informal patronage networks by which Russia had long been governed.”
The special relevance of the last observation is that about half-way through Catherine’s reign, when her power and potential were at their height, a document was written half a world away, by men tutored in the Anglo-Scottish Enlightenment, which established a small independent state on the eastern seaboard of the north American continent that was to come to dominate the world. That state was based on the idea of “a government of laws not of men”. Russia, by contrast, had always been governed by men not laws, and continues so to this day, when its power and influence is a fraction of that of the then insignificant United States.
The key to this change of fortune lies in the fact that the European Enlightenment espoused subtly different ideas about rationality and liberty from the Anglo-Scottish Enlightenment. In the end, Voltaire, Diderot and Montesquieu gave rise to the French Revolution and a bureaucratic approach to national improvement, whereas the work of John Locke, David Hume and Adam Smith led on to a liberty-based, free-trade Enlightenment. The tragedy of Catherine is that she thought, rather as President Medvedev is said to do today, that you could command innovation, command culture, command trust.
In 1767, just nine years before the promolgation of the American Declaration of Independence, Catherine published her Nakaz, or Instruction, to a commission that was to reform and improve the laws of Russia. The title is tellingly authoritarian, and its spirit is reflected in paragraph 13, which defined the role of monarchy as ”correcting the actions of the people to attain the supreme good.” In other words, public virtue was to be achieved by command. The American idea was that everyone should have the right to “the pursuit of happiness”, a phrase which implies individual appraoches, not a state-defined one.
Professor Dixon, who holds the Sir Bernard Pares Chair of Russian History at the University of London, re-enforces the sense of tragedy in Catherine’s failure by describing just how well-meaning and intelligent she was. He notes, for example, how a French diplomat once recorded her as saying:
“More is to be learned by speaking to ignorant person about their own affairs, than by talking with the learned, who have nothing but theories, and who would be ashamed not to answer you by ridiculous observations on subjects of which they have no positive knowledge. How I pity these poor savants! They never dare to pronounce these four worlds: ‘I do not know.’”
If the beginning of all knowledge is the consciousness of ignorance, then Catherine had the right equipment to understand. But in the end, for all her German common sense and gumption— she came from Stettin in Pomerania— authoritarian goodness simply did not work as a political system. It is strange that someone with the inner freedom to behave as Catherine did after lunch did not think more about the power of individual liberty during the rest of the day.
Catherine the Great
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