Instruction, Legislative Commission of Catherine II

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In July of 1767 the Legislative Commission met in Moscow and was presented with Catherine II's Instructions. The lengthy Instructions (twenty chapters and 526 articles) were intended to guide the work of the Commission as they came together to discuss the grievances of their electors and the nature of government and the laws in Russia. The Instructions borrowed heavily from writers such as Baron de Montesquieu (The Spirit of the Laws ), Cesare Beccaria (An Essay on Crimes and Punishments ), William Blackstone (Commentaries on the Laws of England ), and Baron Bielfeld (Political Institutions ), as well as from Catherine's correspondence with such enlightenment thinkers as Voltaire and Diderot.

The Instructions themselves were neither a law code nor a blueprint for a constitution (as some historians have claimed), but rather a kind of guide as to the type of government and society Catherine hoped to mold in Russia. Catherine may have been inspired by Frederick II of Prussia, who had also promulgated his own visions as to the proper role of the monarch and the organization of the bureaucracy; when Catherine finished writing and editing her Instructions, she sent a German translation to Frederick II. Certainly one goal of the Instructions was to proclaim Russia's place as a modern European state rather than the Asiatic despotism Montesquieu had named it. The Instructions deal with political, social, legal, and economic issues, and in 1768 Catherine issued a supplement that dealt with issues of public health, public order, and urban life.

Catherine's reasons for promulgating the Instructions as well as her success in achieving the stated goals have been the subject of considerable debate. The Legislative Commission disbanded in 1768 as war broke out between Russia and Turkey, and the Commission never succeeded in finalizing a draft of a law code. Several partial codes were issued later, and some refer back directly to Catherine's Instructions. However, a complete body of law code was never produced in Catherine's time. The other perceived failure of the Instructions was the fact that it did not deal with serfdom. Catherine's criticisms of serfdom were deleted from her final draft after consultations with her advisers. Chapter 11 of the Instructions does note that a ruler should avoid reducing people to a state of slavery. However, Catherine had originally included a proposal that serfs should be allowed to accumulate sufficient property to buy their freedom and that servitude should be limited to six years.

Because Catherine did not abolish serfdom, reduce the power of the nobility, draft a constitution, or promulgate a complete law code, Catherine's Instructions have often been considered a failure. Many people have assumed that Catherine was simply vain or a hypocrite or that she hoped to dazzle the west with visions of Russia's political progress. De Madariaga disagrees, noting that the Instructions were never intended to limit Catherine's power. Catherine made it clear that she saw absolutism as the only government suitable for Russia, but that even in an absolute government fundamental laws could and should be obeyed. In states ruled by fundamental laws (a popular concept in the eighteenth century), citizens could not be deprived of their life, liberty, or property without judicial procedure. In her Instructions Catherine made the case for the importance of education, for abolishing torture, and for very limited capital punishment. Perhaps just as importantly, the Instructions disseminated a great deal of important legal thinking from the West and created a language in which political and social discussions could be held.

See also: catherine ii; enlightenment, impact of


Alexander, John. (1989). Catherine the Great: Life and Legend. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Catherine II, Empress of Russia. (1931). Documents of Catherine the Great: The Correspondence with Voltaire and the Instruction of 1767, in the English text of 1768, ed. W. F. Reddaway. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

De Madariaga, Isabel. (1990). Catherine the Great: A Short History. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Dukes, Paul. (1977). Catherine the Great's Instructions to the Legislative Commission. Newtonville, MA: Oriental Research Partners.

Raeff, M. (1966). Plans for Political Reform in Imperial Russia, 17301905. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Michelle DenBeste