How did Catherine the Great’s reign shape Imperial Russian history?

by Professor Andrew Kahn FBA

30 Jul 2020

The history of Imperial Russia is famously marked by disruptive periods of transformation, from the Mongol invasions of the 13th century to the overthrow of the Romanov dynasty in 1917. The 17th century saw the creation of systemic serfdom and the 18th century opened an age of vast imperial expansion and modernisation, seismic changes that brought chronic structural, economic and social challenges. In considering whether the reign of Catherine the Great, from 1762-97, marked a turning point in Russian history, it may be helpful to bypass debates about the continuity between Imperial Russian and Soviet history and focus on the intermediate legacies of the Catherine period.

Cultural integration with Europe

Catherine’s husband and Imperial predecessor, Peter III, passed some progressive reforms during his brief reign, but contemporary historians doubted their durability. Catherine worked to refute in print and in action the widespread contemporary perception of Russia as a barbaric “other”. Catherine’s entire reign was in some ways dedicated to integrating Russia culturally and economically in Europe. Her famed engagement with the philosophes, especially Voltaire and Diderot, has made her Russia’s Enlightener-in-Chief. She felt that Russia could catch up with European civilisation and defined her mission practically as unlocking its economic and human resources. Her enlightened seigneurialism enabled a leap-start in Russian intellectual life because of a more managerial attitude to the economy, a relative freedom of the press, the weakness of ecclesiastical oversight and a liberal policy toward migrants. A huge growth in print culture, the establishment of civic spaces such as the theatre or academies in which learned societies could meet (not to be confused, however, with open political debate) and the advancement of science also marked a large change in Russian culture and thought.

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N. Dmitriev-Orenburgsky. Hermitage Theatre under Catherine II.

Russian Age of Enlightenment

Experimental science had been given a prestigious place, physically and symbolically at the heart of Peter III’s new government complex, in the Academy of Sciences. This is the moment to which the historian Dominic Lieven FBA dates the start of Russia’s advance over the Ottoman empire, because of Russia’s openness to European technology. Catherine’s vision of progress shared the commitment of the broader Enlightenment to the principles of reason as well as ‘toleration’ and ‘curbing religious fanaticism’. The Free Economic Society, founded in 1765 by Catherine, became the country’s oldest voluntary association, devoted to collecting data and publishing its Works in the study of Russia’s natural and productive resources until 1917.

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The Works

The flourishing of literary and cultural societies, as well as other institutions such as the Academy of Fine Arts, carried on into the reign of Alexander I who granted universities the right to sponsor learned societies for the diffusion of knowledge and culture. New learned societies were founded such as the Society of Russian History and Antiquities, the Physics and Medical Society, the Society of Naturalists, and the Society of Friends of Russian Literature.

Legal reform was at the heart of her project. Catherine's accession occurred at a point in Russian history when it was useful to claim the inheritance of Peter I (the Great). Put on the throne by a palace coup, the Tsarina Catherine, originally a German princess who converted to Orthodoxy on her marriage to Peter III, looked to Peter for legitimation. There is no more famous icon of this continuity than the statue of Peter the Great, the ‘Bronze Horseman’, she commissioned from Etienne Falconet.

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Bronze Horseman monument of Peter the Great by Falconet, Senate Square, Saint Petersburg, Russia. Image credit: Andrew Shiva / Wikipedia / CC BY-SA 4.0.

But Catherine felt that Peter “did not know himself what laws were necessary to the realm”. Eighteenth-century absolute monarchs necessarily managed reform as a top-down business. And while it was essential that her initiatives had support from powerful elites, her changes were devised for impact on the broader population. The ‘Minerva of the North’ was a tireless legislator. Her 1767 Legislative Commission appealed to all callings of the Russian people for the composition of a new legal code. The Instruction (Nakaz), swiftly translated into German, French and English, became a headline achievement of her reign, attracting admiration from abroad for its opening declaration that “Russia is a European state”.

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Allegory of Empress Catherine II with the text Nakaz

The Nakaz has been seen as an additional ‘public coronation’, intended to announce her Enlightenment commitment to basing her administrative system on laws determined by reason. Its extensive survey and rationalisation of the laws regulating the Russian economy, the rights and privileges of nobles in relation to the crown and the land, and the welfare of the peasantry, was a landmark.

Catherinian reforms

This was only the first in a series of commissions and legislative acts, leading to the Statute on the Provinces of 1775 and the two Charters of 1783 and 1785.

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Portrait of Catherine the Great as Minerva (1783) by Dmitry Levitsky. The Russian Museum, St Petersburg.

The Statute on the Provinces of 1775 proposed longstanding improvements to local government, including the founding of schools, orphanages, and hospitals. These initiatives and reforms to the judiciary consolidated state intervention in the relation of peasants and landlord. They also entrenched an economic system, with its inefficiencies and human exploitation, at least until the emancipation of the serfs in 1861. While the provincial role of the nobility went through further reforms in the 19th century with the creation of the zemstvo system, the Catherinian reforms incentivised better estate management, established new rules for municipal services and encouraged more humane treatment of the peasants as self-governed in their commune. The two charters of 1785 redefined the position of the gentry, the dominant class in Russian society until the Russian Revolution. Bound to the autocracy by historical interests, the landed nobles were finally accorded the right of private property and released from their service role within the civil bureaucracy. Catherine took the initiative on economic liberalisation, stimulating growth by dismantling regulation of manufacturing, keeping grain prices low to attract export markets. She wished to encourage landowners to adopt an economically rational perspective on labour and the taxation of serfs (in the event, low state taxes encouraged greater exploitation of the peasantry). In releasing the gentry from state service, her measures led to the recruitment and expansion of a professionalised bureaucracy, another long-term trend that shifted political authority away from the provincial gentry over the course of the 19th century. Many of the famed heroes of 19th-century realist fiction by Turgenev and Tolstoy occupied civil service jobs in order to supplement their income, as the golden age ushered in by Catherine’s reforms came to its end.

Territorial expansion

Catherine’s reorganisation of Russia’s internal space was complemented by territorial expansion and the division of Poland with Austria and Prussia. Russia’s commercial growth was aided by Black Sea ports. For example, the Anglo-Russian Commercial Treaty reduced duties on raw material exports. Toward the end of her reign, Catherine saw Russia as a force for stability, pitted against the French Revolution as a force for anarchy. She remained a staunch defender of absolutism against all forms of popular rule because, she argued, it had delivered the economic, cultural, and social achievements that she regarded as the civilisational achievement of reign. Revolution, she believed, had reduced France to a barbarism that undid the advances of the Age of Reason. Russia, she argued in her letters, would remain a bulwark of the tolerance, reason, and advances in social welfare she believed she had fostered as a pragmatic Enlightened ruler. She viewed stability as the sine qua non of good kingship and the result of good kingship.

With the clock ticking down on her reign, she concluded that “the end of the century had demonstrated that the much vaunted 18th-century wasn't a farthing more valuable than the centuries that preceded it.” Russia’s time had now come as a defender of all that the old system had achieved. Abroad, her geopolitical clout was profound. Her colonial project in Crimea as well as campaigns against the Ottomans reshaped the boundaries of the Russian empire until its collapse in 1917. As commander, Catherine increased state expenditure to finance her Turkish War and Alexander I followed the precedent of foreign borrowing. By the end of her reign, she had redrawn the map of Europe in the North by diminishing Sweden, in the South by defeating the Ottoman Empire, and in Central Europe by colluding with Austria and Prussia in the divisions of Poland. The immediate aftermath of her reign was visible in the military and diplomatic policies of Alexander I, her grandson, in containing the contagion of the French Revolution.

The aftermath of Catherine’s reign

Did Catherine set Russia on a new path? Questions about her true intentions mounted in her last decade. The civil servant and writer Alexander Radishchev produced a state of the realm in his Journey from St Petersburg to Moscow. While Catherine read the work in 1790 as a ‘Jacobin’ attack, Radishchev was a child of her reign and advocated further reform rather than revolution. Nineteenth-century and much Soviet historiography have been at best ambivalent, at worst critical. Charges of hypocrisy were a feature of her reputation in the 19th century. Her early reputation was held hostage to the sexism inherent in a biographical obsession with the private lives of rulers – like Marie Antoinette, she was luridly lampooned by continental and British cartoonists. A proper assessment of her reign was hard to form because the collected works of Catherine published by the Russian Academy of Science in 1901-1907 was badly incomplete, omitting much of her correspondence and the Instruction. The historian Simon Dixon has observed that reaction to the centenary of the two charters in 1885 occasioned a split between civic-minded nationalists, who saw her legacy as constitutionalist, and defenders of the privileges of the nobility and values of empire.

The influential 19th-century historian Vasily Kliuchevsky concluded that her reign entrenched the worst aspects of serfdom and corruption and that the decentralisation of the administrative and judicial structures only exacerbated the fecklessness of the nobility. While Catherine sometimes used the word ‘republican’ to define her outlook, her conservatism in the face of American Independence and the French Revolution exposed the gap between her political rhetoric and the limits even an absolute ruler faced in managing a huge country, peasant population and self-interested elite. Pushkin viewed the Legislative Commission as a ruse to gull public opinion (although Pushkin’s view is biased by his belief in the role of the aristocracy as a check on the monarch) and allegations were made that her true aim was to create a favourable image of herself while suppressing discontent at home. These charges, some now revised, mistakenly put a political gloss on her cultural project and underestimate her constant commitment to enlightened absolutism. As a reader of Montesquieu, she concluded that the only political system that could govern Russia’s vast Asiatic landmass, thin population, under-resourced infrastructure and small governing faction required both centralisation and administrative devolution. These and other initiatives such as regulations on urban design were a lasting domestic legacy. Her ‘gluttony’ as an art collector drove the acquisitions that transformed the Hermitage.

Catherine has often been squeezed out between the myth of Peter as Zeus-like transformer and Alexander II, the Tsar Reformer who emancipated the serfs. Her ‘enlightened’ educational reforms, urban planning, extensive policing, changes to the estate system and creation of imperial propaganda amounted to permanent contribution. However, by the 1830s the idea that Russia had its own special path, Sonderweg, combining popular custom and autocracy, had overtaken the attractions of Europeanisation in the multicultural empire she had largely created.


Andrew Kahn is a Fellow and Tutor at St Edmund Hall and Professor of Russian Literature at the University of Oxford. He was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 2019. Read more in his book with Kelsey Rubin-Detlev, '‘Catherine the Great: Selected Letters.' His latest book 'Mandelstam's Worlds: Poetry, Politics, and Identity in a Revolutionary Age' is available through Oxford University Press.

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