Women in the 16th, 17th, and 18th Centuries: Politics

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SOURCE: de Madariaga, Isabel. "Catherine the Great: A Personal View." History Today 51, no. 11 (November 2001): 45-51.

In the following essay, de Madariaga explores the life, accomplishments, and political writings of Catherine the Great.

Since I first took Catherine seriously as a ruler, some forty years ago, I have grown to like her very much. This is not therefore going to be an exercise in debunking, it is a personal portrait of someone who has become a close friend.

For nearly two hundred years the Empress Catherine II of Russia (1762-96), or Catherine the Great, as she is known, has had a very bad press as a German usurper from a minor ducal family, without any claim to the Russian throne. Women on the throne were an anomaly and it was expected that they would rule through favourites or husbands. But Catherine had blotted her copy book in a more serious way: she had mounted the throne as the result of a military coup d'etat in June 1762, over the body of her murdered husband, Peter III, the grandson of Peter the Great. From Catherine's point of view at the time it was a question of 'who whom', as Lenin later put it. Peter was supposed to have been about to repudiate her, disinherit her son and marry his mistress. Catherine's many friends in the army joined in a plot to de-throne Peter and seized power with her full approval and participation. She circumvented the men who helped her to seize the throne in 1762 and was wise enough never to enter into a publicly recognised marriage. She shocked opinion even further by having many publicly acknowledged lovers at a time when virtue was still demanded of a woman. By modern standards, Catherine was not really promiscuous. She had only twelve well-documented lovers in some forty-four years. But neither Victorian England nor Victorian Russia approved. Alexander Herzen (1812-70), the great Russian revolutionary, who later sought asylum in England, exclaimed in the mid-nineteenth century that 'the history of Catherine the Great cannot be read aloud in the presence of ladies'.

The prejudice was so great that for a long time it prevented an objective study of the events of Catherine's reign, and fostered the assumption that she had achieved nothing. Nineteenth-century historians, often populists or Marxists viewed her proclamation of the tenets of the French enlightenment as hypocrisy—as did the poet Alexander Pushkin in his young days—because she did nothing to free the serfs. With the coming of the Bolsheviks, the publication of Catherine's official papers ceased almost entirely and study of the class war superseded study of the action of individuals. It is only since the fall of Communism that Russian historians have been freed to undertake fresh documentary research, and to approach their past in an objective spirit. Historians have thus rescued their most impressive and intellectually distinguished ruler from the undeserved neglect she has suffered in the country she ruled over so successfully for thirty-four years.

Sophia of Anhalt-Zerbst, the name of the girl baptised Catherine on her conversion from Lutheranism to the Orthodox religion, arrived in Russia in 1744, aged fourteen, and was married at sixteen to a seventeen-year-old who failed to consummate the marriage for some years. The reigning Empress Elizabeth, Peter the Great's daughter, was so perturbed at the lack of an heir to the throne that she conveyed a message to Catherine urging her to produce one, if not by her husband, then by someone else, which Catherine duly did, and her son Paul, probably fathered by a courtier known as 'handsome Serge' Saltykov, was born in 1754.

The Empress Elizabeth died in 1762, and Catherine's husband became emperor. He soon showed himself as unsatisfactory as a ruler as he had proved as a husband. It was not so much what he did, but the way in which he did it. His gracelessness and his lack of judgement alienated all the powerful social groups, including his wife for whom he had ceased to have any regard: 'she will squeeze you like a lemon', he had said 'and then she will throw you away'. But Catherine through her lover, the guards officer Grigory Orlov and his four dashing brothers, won over the army to her cause, and by sheer force of personality, many of the high officials as well, even those close to Peter III. Her supporters proclaimed her not as regent for her son Paul, as some had hoped, but as ruler in her own right, as Empress regnant.

What sort of woman was she? By the time she came to power, she had spent eighteen years steering her way through the many pitfalls of the Russian court. During this time she had given birth to one son by a lover, to a daughter, who died, by another lover, Stanislas Poniatowski, and to a second son by her lover Grigory Orlov, born in secret only four months before her coup, who was not recognised by Peter III. She had had to manoeuvre between the many factions in the Russian court, her friends had been removed, some disgraced and sent into exile, leaving her at times in considerable solitude. And yet always she had had to share a bed with a totally uncongenial man, who for instance court martialled a rat caught in her bedchamber and executed it. She took refuge from boredom in reading, mainly history, politics, and philosophy, a great deal of French literature and a life of Henri IV of France, who became her model of a king. In this way Catherine accumulated a considerable fund of knowledge of the theory of government, and of comparative politics. She was greatly influenced by Montesquieu's Esprit des Lois which became for a while her bedside book and profoundly affected her legislation; she read Voltaire, of course, with whom she began a regular correspondence. When Diderot met with obstacles over the publication of the Great Encyclopedia in France, Catherine offered to publish it in Russia. A translation fund she established published works by Voltaire, Rousseau, Mably, Gulliver's Travels, Robertson's History of America, and in 1778 a translation of Sir William Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England (from the French) which exercised a great influence on her political and legal thinking until her death.

Brought up a Lutheran, religion sat very lightly on her. She fulfilled all her Orthodox religious duties punctiliously, was courteous to the Russian hierarchy but gave the Church no access to political institutions, and confiscated its lands. She turned a blind eye to the presence and activities of the Old Believers, wound down Orthodox missionary activity among Muslims and pagans and allowed 'reputable' religions to build churches, run their own schools and practise their religion freely though under state inspection of their organisation and finances. In theory, religion was no obstacle to participating in elective local government posts—even for Jews whose number within the borders of Russia increased considerably after the first partition of Poland in 1772. Who knows what she believed in? She would attend all-night services in church but sat at a little table out of sight where she could pass the time with a pack of cards, playing patience.

Catherine was also extremely hardworking. She rose early, read or wrote, copied out her drafts, and discussed them with her advisers. Thousands of sheets of paper covered in her handwriting have survived, and her writings, both political and belles lettres, occupy twelve substantial volumes. The most outstanding of them was her Great Instruction, published in 1767 in order to lay before an assembly of elected representatives of the nobles, the townspeople, cossacks, tribesmen and state peasants (not the serfs) the general principles on which laws should be codified by this assembly. The Instruction, comprising some 650 articles in all, defined the functions of social estates and laid down the means of establishing the rule of law and the welfare of the citizens. Catherine drew on a number of important German and French thinkers of the time, and there is even a suggestion that she may have known about the work of Adam Smith. She was very proud of her compilation, which was published in over twenty-five languages, including English. It was so radical that it was condemned by the Sorbonne in Paris.

From the Italian jurist Cesare Beccaria, Catherine drew her condemnation of torture in judicial proceedings in her Great Instruction:

The innocent ought not to be tortured; and in the eye of the law every person is innocent whose crime is not yet proved.

This axiom, which sounds so familiar to an English ear, was completely novel in eighteenth-century Russia. One cannot say that the Empress succeeded in eliminating torture entirely from Russian legal procedure, but she did succeed in reducing its sphere of operation. It is not unfair to Catherine's predecessors to state that she was the first ruler of Russia to have any sense of legality, of what the rule of law meant. Indeed, there was no university in Russia until 1755, no teaching of jurisprudence except by Germans who taught in Latin. The first professor of Russian law (trained in Glasgow) teaching in Russian was appointed by Catherine II in 1773. As a result Russian officials were prone to override the decisions of judges in favour of what they might regard to be common sense, convenient, or politically desirable.

In a document intended to teach her subjects how to draft laws, Catherine spent some time in defining how laws should be written: in the vernacular, in simple, concise language, bearing in mind that they were written for people of moderate capacities; they should be published as a small book which could be bought as cheaply as the catechism, and which should be used in schools to teach children to read. Napoleon had the same idea.

What is striking about Catherine's Instruction is that it formed part of a plan to shake up the political culture of Russia in a dramatic way. It was a pedagogical instrument designed to instruct public opinion in the assembly which was to draft her new code. It was read through in public every month from cover to cover from August 1767 until the Assembly was disbanded in autumn 1768 on the outbreak of war with Turkey. The deputies were thus subjected to a flood of unheard of ideas in what amounted to a speech from the throne.

It is worth pausing for a moment to consider this aspect of Catherine as a ruler. She had a profound understanding of the nature and importance of public opinion, and of the need to mould it. Her correspondence with Voltaire, Diderot, Falconet, Grimm and others, served to promote her interests and to portray her personality and ideas in the most attractive light. Thus the proceedings of the Assembly were public, and accounts of its activities were published in the Moscow and St Petersburg gazettes. No such gathering had been held in Russia since the seventeenth century, nor was one to meet again until after the revolution of 1905. It is a tribute to Catherine's political courage, that a mere five years after seizing the throne, she did not fear that such a gathering might provide a focus for opposition to her rule. Indeed, the sluices were opened for a freedom of speech unheard of in Russia and rendered possible by the fact that the deputies needed only to start their contributions with the words: 'As the Empress says in para xyz of her Instruction '.

Much of Catherine's future programme of legislation is to be found in embryo in her Great Instruction, and in the documents collected by the Assembly, which provided her with a vast amount of information about the state of her realm. What of the serfs who were not represented? There was of course much information about them available in the form of the murder of landowners and local risings on private estates which had to be put down by troops. Catherine herself was opposed to serfdom and she took some steps to introduce non-servile tenures on imperial estates which proved highly unpopular with the serfs. Chapter XI of her Instruction dealt with serfdom and slavery. She showed it to some of her advisers who cut out vast portions. The leading Russian dramatist of the period, A. P. Sumarokov, complained that the nobles would have neither coachman nor cook nor lackey, for they would all run away to better paid jobs, whereas at present the nobles all lived quietly on their estates. Catherine did not agree; she noted in the margin of Sumarokov's comments: 'and have their throats cut from time to time'.

It was only in 1907 that the suppressed portions of Chapter XI were brought to light, so that the Empress's real views were simply unknown to the general public for more than a century. She had, for instance, suggested that serfs should be entitled to purchase their freedom, or that servitude should be limited to a period of six years. Subsequently she stopped up many holes which enabled people to be enserfed, but she did not pursue total emancipation. Historians have also criticised her for giving away thousands of 'free' peasants to her favourites and public servants, thus enserfing them. Stated bluntly like that of course it sounds terrible, and what actually happened is probably not much better. For, in fact, three-quarters of the peasants she gave away were already serfs on estates acquired in the partitions of Poland. This has been known by historians since 1878, but … shall we say forgotten?

What marks Catherine's approach is the careful planning of a programme of interrelated measures, steadily pursued over a number of years. Local government and the judiciary were remodelled in 1775, with elected participation by nobles, townspeople and state peasants and separation of the new network of courts based on social rank from the administration. Local responsibility for certain welfare functions such as schools, hospitals and almshouses was also established, and a national network of primary and secondary schools, free and co-educational, which even serf children could attend with the permission of their owners. The civil rights of nobles and townspeople were set out in terms which reflect English legal thought in charters issued in 1785. Some of Catherine's work survived until 1864, some until the Bolsheviks in 1917.

Thus far the ruler. What of the woman? After Sergey Saltykov, Catherine found another lover, Count Stanislas Poniatowski, a Polish noble, who came to St Petersburg in the suite of the English ambassador, Sir Charles Hanbury Williams, and may well have introduced Catherine to the pleasures of collecting. Poniatowski was handsome, well bred, cultured, and fell genuinely in love with Catherine, who in turn found a soul mate and an intellectual companion for the first time in her life. In dangerous and sometimes farcical circumstances Catherine conducted her affair and gave birth to their daughter. But a political crisis in 1758 cut short their relationship, and Poniatowski returned to Poland. Love for a handsome guards officer, Grigory Orlov, as well as concern for her own safety led Catherine into a new affair, in which she proved remarkably faithful since it lasted twelve years.



Born a German princess, Catherine was schooled under a French governess, who taught her French and introduced her to the neoclassical plays of such dramatists as Racine, Moliére, and Corneille. She converted to the Russian Orthodox faith, took the name Ekaterina Alekseevna, and married her cousin, Peter Fedorovich, in 1745. She escaped the unhappy marriage by travelling the kingdom, engaging in intellectual pursuits, and involving herself in several scandalous sexual relationships. When his mother died in 1761, Peter Fedorovich took the throne; he reigned for six months while Catherine was in seclusion, pregnant with the son of one of her lovers. Shortly after giving birth, Catherine took the throne from Peter in a coup of 1762, and within a week her supporters had murdered Peter.

Catherine worked hard to demonstrate her competence and to advocate a cultural program designed to bring Russia into the Enlightenment that had already swept across most of Europe. She was a great patron of the arts, encouraging the works of playwrights and poets, and corresponding with major Enlightenment figures. Her first publication, the Bol'shoi nakaz (1767; Great Instruction) reflected Catherine's interest in constitutional law and social reform. She also sponsored a journal, the translation of foreign classics, and attempted serious intellectual endeavors in the fields of Russian language and history. Possessed of a powerful personality and acquainted with some of the leading intellectuals of the modern age, Catherine produced letters and memoirs—containing a detailed and quite lively view of her relationships with Voltaire, Diderot, and others, as well as her observations about court life, political developments, and philosophy—that have remained of great interest to readers and scholars throughout the centuries.

In 1772, kind friends warned Catherine about her lover's infidelities and she dismissed him. Emotionally vulnerable and at a loss, Catherine was also faced with a political crisis: by the winter of 1773, the Pugachev revolt was in full swing, the war against the Ottoman Porte marked time, and her son Paul attained his majority, which might threaten her hold on the throne. At this point her whole emotional life changed gear for good. She summoned to her side Grigory Potemkin, ten years her junior, a man who had reached the rank of Lt General on the battlefields, whom she knew since he had played a minor part in her coup d'etat, and who had the authority to impose himself on the armed forces, the imagination and the political acumen to make his way to the top of the political tree, and the energy to sweep all rivals aside. He also offered her total devotion, both as a woman and as his liege lady. (I use this archaic phrase deliberately because it represents how he thought of her to his dying day.) He was a handsome man (though he had lost an eye), imposing, witty and well-educated. Their meeting was explosive, and led to a stormy, passionate and well-documented love affair. Potemkin was conscious that his position was insecure and was very jealous of Catherine's past lovers. He sulked and made scenes, but so great was Catherine's trust in him that it is generally accepted now that she went through a religious ceremony of marriage with him, thus giving him, as her husband, the security he needed. For after barely two years, the passion between them wore out, though the love remained. Catherine needed him as her partner in government, particularly in military affairs, and he loved her and served her unconditionally. They found a way out of their dilemma by separating sex from love: Catherine chose a series of lovers, one after the other, and he chose his mistresses, starting with three of his nieces who became protégées of the Empress and much loved by her. To the surprise of Catherine's public servants and courtiers, Potemkin continued in greater favour than ever, and remained by the Empress as unacknowledged prince consort until his death fifteen years later in 1791.

But there were occasional difficulties with Catherine's lovers. She seems to have been easily bored, and broke with several of them, sending them away to travel abroad or to live in Moscow, well endowed. Some of them deserted her. We cannot tell how important the sexual aspect of this relationship was to her, but what is clear from her letters to others is that there was a strong dose of maternal feeling for them. She valued them as participants in her intellectual and artistic occupations.

As a woman, Catherine was generous, considerate and humane and not at all vindictive. There are endless examples of her servants' love for her. An early riser, she would make up her fire herself in order not to rouse her stoker. My favourite example of her thought for others occurred one day when she entered a room in the Winter Palace where a young soldier, supposedly on guard, was sitting reading at a table. Horrified at being caught off guard, he sprang to his feet. The empress asked him what he was reading and talked for a while with him. A few days later she gave orders to set aside a room and to establish a library for the palace staff. Her easy manners and lack of social pretensions were commented on by all who attended court. When she travelled to the Crimea in 1787, she stopped in many towns on her way to attend receptions and emerged from the crush with her cheeks covered with rouge from kissing the highly made-up bourgeois ladies. Her simplicity of manner is what made working for her pleasurable. She chose her senior advisers—her ministers—well and kept them on for years. Prince A. A. Vyazemsky, to all intents and purposes her Home Secretary and Finance Minister, worked for her from 1764 to 1792, and when he became too ill to continue, her minister of commerce from 1772 to 1792. When she received the news of the death of Potemkin in 1791 she had to be bled, wept for days, and was never the same again. None of her senior public servants was ever exiled or sent to Siberia, so that high office became a safe occupation. She spoke freely to her advisers and welcomed frank speaking to her; she did not dismiss her staff for making mistakes, not even for losing battles, she merely encouraged them to do better next time. This contributed greatly to the stability of the regime and the sense of security and continuity in government.

Catherine loved the theatre and wrote for it herself. 'I cannot see a sheet of blank paper without wanting to write on it.' She wrote short pieces for a satirical journal, and quite a number of plays, 'because I enjoy it'. She was among the first to take an interest in Shakespeare, whose plays she read in German translation. She commented:

… imitations of Shakespeare are very convenient, for since they are neither comedies nor tragedies and have no other rules but tact, but a feeling for what the spectator can bear, I think we can do anything with them.

She tried to imitate Shakespeare in a play called How to have both the linen and the basket, based on the Merry Wives of Windsor, and also wrote historical plays like 'From the life of Ryurik, an imitation of Shakespeare without the dramatic unities' in which there are many echoes of Henry IV parts I and II. She wrote fairy tales for her grandchildren, treatises on conduct, education and bringing up children (I should perhaps mention that children in the Foundling Homes she established were given muesli for breakfast). She issued an ukaz recommending the cultivation of potatoes with instructions on how to cook them and potatoes were even served in the palace. She even devised a special garment for babies which could be easily pulled off with one tug of a tape, and sent the pattern to the King of Sweden for his wife.

So far I have shown the side of Catherine that won her many admirers. I must now try to find a few faults. First of all she was vain, vain of her achievements, but also of her role as a woman on the throne who outshone many men as a successful modern and reforming ruler, as a correspondent of leading minds in Paris and Germany, as an art collector. She was proud of the victories of her armies, and determined to assert the equality of Russia—a newcomer—with the other great powers in Europe. She was delighted at the successful dispatch of several Russian Baltic fleets to the Mediterranean in 1769-74. It did indeed astound most European countries, and could not have been achieved without the help of Britain. But her letter to her ambassador in London notifying him of her intention reads almost like that of a gleeful little girl:

We have aroused the sleeping cat, and the cat is going to attack the mice and you will see what you will see, and people will talk about us and nobody expected us to make such a rumpus …

As she grew older her vanity took on a Russian nationalist flavour with an unpleasant tendency to browbeat her enemies. Her strong nerves enabled her to overcome the anxieties of indecisive campaigns, but during the Ochakov crisis in 1791 she had to be bullied into climbing down by the pressure of Potemkin, more aware than she of the military danger of a Prussian attack on land and of a possible British naval attack in the Baltic, but she was saved from total surrender by the collapse of Pitt's policy in England. There is one aspect of her increasingly brash attitude to other powers which I personally find unforgiveable and that is her treatment of her ex-lover Stanislas Poniatowski as a man, and of Poland as a nation. The destruction of Poland was carried out with a ruthlessness and an undercurrent of raillery which is extremely unpleasant and Catherine's bullying of Stanislas himself was downright cruel. For she could be ruthless in defence of her own position, and the existing political and social structure.

Yet she had an original and creative political mind, and the disciplined temperament of a statesman. To the end of her life she continued to ponder over possible ways of associating elected representatives of the Russian nobility, towns-people and peasantry with a decision-making body in the government of Russia, drawing often on English models. Her attitude to government can be summed up in a remark attributed to her by Potemkin's one-time secretary, V. S. Popov. When he expressed his surprise to her at the blind obedience with which her every order was treated:

She condescended to reply: It is not as easy as you think. In the first place my orders would not be carried out unless they were the kind of orders which could be carried out. You know with what prudence … I act in the promulgation of my laws. I examine the circumstances, I take advice, I consult the enlightened part of the people and this way I find out what sort of effect my law will have. And then when I am already convinced in advance of general approval, then I issue my orders, and have the pleasure of observing what you call blind obedience. And that is the foundation of unlimited power.

Further Reading

Catherine II, T he Correspondence with Voltaire and the Instruction of 1767 in the English Text of 1768. Edited under the title Documents of Catherine the Great by W. F. Reddaway (Cambridge University Press, 1931); Carol S. Leonard, Reform and Regicide: the Reign of Peter III of Russia (Indiana University Press, 1992); Isabel de Madariaga, Russia in the Age of Catherine the Great (reprint forthcoming, Phoenix Press, January 2002); Isabel de Madariaga, Catherine the Great: A Short History (Yale University Press, 1991); Isabel de Madariaga, Politics and Culture in Eighteenth Century Russia (Longmans, 1998); T. Alexander, Catherine the Great—Life and Legend (Oxford University Press, 1989); Simon Sebag Montefiore, Prince of Princes, The Life of Potemkin (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2001).

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Women in the 16th, 17th, and 18th Centuries: Politics

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Women in the 16th, 17th, and 18th Centuries: Politics