Catherine the Great Critical Essays

Joan Haslip

Introduction

Catherine the Great 1729-1796

(Born Sophia Augusta Fredericka, later Ekaterina Alekseevna) Russian playwright, essayist, and satirist.

Voltaire called Catherine the Great the new “Semiramis of the North,” after the legendary founder of Babylon noted for her beauty, wisdom, and sexual excesses. Despite the notoriety she gained for her sexual escapades, Catherine's importance to the flowering of Russian literature was immense. One of her driving ambitions during her thirty-four-year reign was to advance Russian culture, and she patronized Russian authors and artists accordingly. Possessed of a self-admitted “mania” for writing and eager to provide models for the literary culture she sought to develop, Catherine produced reams of writing, including voluminous correspondence with Voltaire and other Enlightenment notables, passionate love letters, lively memoirs, political tracts, satirical journals, plays, and librettos for comic operas. It was perhaps her zealous devotion to culture that allowed admirers at home and abroad to overlook her role in the coup that removed her husband from the throne, leading to her coronation and his subsequent murder. Although Catherine has never been without detractors, her larger-than-life persona—in part created by her own tendency toward self-aggrandizement—has made her a figure of considerable historical and literary interest for well more than two centuries.

Biographical Information

Russia was not Catherine's native land. She was a German princess, the daughter of Prince Christian August of Anhalt-Zerbst and Princess Johanna Elizabeth of Holstein-Gottorp. Born Sophia Augusta Fredericka on April 21, 1729, she 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. Empress Elizabeth of Russia, childless and anxious to establish an heir to the throne, arranged Catherine's marriage to Grand Duke Peter Fedorovich—formerly Peter Ulrich of Holstein-Gottorp—her nephew, a grandson of Peter the Great who was also Catherine's cousin. Catherine traveled to Russia in 1744, where she converted to the Russian Orthodox Church and took the name Ekaterina Alekseevna. She married Peter Fedorovich in 1745. Their marriage was not a happy one on several accounts: Peter did not share Catherine's love of intellectual pursuits, and he was most likely sterile or impotent. To relieve her boredom, Catherine traveled the kingdom and read widely, particularly in French.

Not until 1754 did Catherine produce an heir, Pavel Petrovich—whose father was probably one of Catherine's lovers. The Empress took the boy into her care, leaving Catherine free to pursue other interests, especially court politics, political philosophy, and history. She read Voltaire, Tacitus, and Montesquieu, and began her own memoirs. She developed a close relationship with the British envoy Sir Charles Hanbury-Williams, who advised her and introduced her to English drama, and she began an affair with his protégé, Count Stanislaus Poniatowski, with whom she had a daughter, Anna Petrovna, who died as an infant. When Poniatowski was expelled from the country, Catherine began a long-standing liaison with Colonel Grigorii Orlov, whose political connections would later serve her well. Empress Elizabeth died in 1761, leaving the throne to Peter Fedorovich; he reigned for six months while Catherine was in seclusion, pregnant with Orlov's son, Aleksei Grigor'evich. 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's earlier study of French philosophy influenced her reign, and she 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, including Voltaire and Diderot. One of her first acts as empress was to order the construction of a new opera house, designed in the neoclassical style. When she authored her first publication, the Bol'shoi nakaz (1767; Great Instruction), she borrowed heavily from Montesquieu's Spirit of the Laws. The Nakaz was a product of French salon culture, indicating Catherine's interest in constitutional law and social reform. Although the work was much admired at home and abroad, the Legislative Committee whom Catherine had hoped to “instruct” did little to realize her vision. Catherine then turned to writing in earnest, hoping to disseminate her ideas through literature rather than law. With Vsiakaia vsiachina (All Sorts and Sundries), a journal launched in 1769, Catherine attempted to create a journalistic arena like that in England, modeling her work after Addison and Steele's Spectator and using light satire and moralistic teaching to promote her ideas. She also sponsored the translation of foreign classics, including works by ancient authors such as Homer and Cicero and recent European writers including Voltaire, Hume, Fielding, and Swift. In 1772 Catherine began writing plays, mainly didactic satires similar in tone to her journal, which enabled her to reach even more of her population with her ideas for reform. Many of her plays were adaptations, including her first play, O Vremia! (O the Times!), produced in 1772. She wrote a string of plays satirizing Freemasonry: Komediia Obmanshchik (1785; The Deceiver), Komediia Obol'shchennyi (1785; The Deluded), and Komediia Shaman sibirskoi (1786; The Siberian Shaman). She also contributed the libretti for several comic operas around that time. The late 1780s were an extremely prolific period for the empress, who considered writing cathartic and therapeutic. In addition to her writing, Catherine attempted serious intellectual endeavors in the fields of Russian language and history, including gathering core vocabulary words from over two hundred languages and dialects for the Sravniitel'nye slovari vsekh iazykov I narechii, sobrannye desnitseiu vsevysochaishei osoby (1787; Comparative Dictionaries of all Languages and Dialects Collected by the Hand of a Most August Person), which sought to find Russian or Slavic roots in other languages.

Catherine's literary career ended in 1790, as concerns about the revolution in France drove her toward the conservative end of the political spectrum and Russia's coffers began to diminish. By 1794 her health was poor enough to interfere with regular functioning; she gave much of her energy to marrying off her progeny, thus establishing her legacy. Shortly before her death in 1796 she implemented a program of censorship, fearing that the presses she had used to promote her ideals—including those of liberty and enlightenment—would be used to threaten her monarchy. As her biographer John T. Alexander notes, however, “her broadening of the concept of freedom of expression in Russia could not be undone by such a brief bout of reaction.” As Empress of all the Russias, Catherine had presided over and cultivated a flowering of Russian culture that would extend far beyond her own numerous writings, beyond her thirty-four year reign, and beyond the borders of her massive kingdom.

Major Works

The work that established Catherine's status as the first intellectual on the Russian throne was the work with which she began her writing career. The Nakaz of 1767 was the first step in her project to codify Russian laws and bring them in closer accordance with the political philosophy of Europe. She worked on the document for three years, submitting it to her close advisors, including Orlov and Nikita Panin, for suggestions and amendments. Although Catherine's largest source was Montesquieu—294 of the Nakaz's 655 articles were borrowed from his works—she also took articles from Italian theorist Cesare Becaria, German writers Jacob Bielfeld and Johann Justi, and Diderot's Encyclopedia. While Catherine advocated absolute monarchy as the ideal form of government, her Nakaz promoted monarchy as the best protector of the citizens' natural liberty, with the rule of law—rather than the aristocracy—as the highest authority. Panin advised her that the document would be the undoing of the social order, but in fact the Nakaz was ambiguous enough to be relatively benign, even as it served as a powerful tool for enhancing her reputation as a philosopher-monarch. Her transition into the literary sphere occurred with Vsiakaia vsiachina, her Spectator-influenced journal published between 1769 and 1774. Vsiakaia vsiachina contained anecdotes, proverbs, and letters to the editor, which Catherine, in the person of “Madam Vsiakaia Vsiachina,” used as springboards to address issues of manners, morality, women's behavior, and satire itself. The journal also led the way for several satirical journals to follow, most notably those edited by Nikolai I. Novikov. In particular, Novikov's Drone adopted a satiric tone much sharper and more personal than that of Vsiakaia vsiachina, sometimes directing its barbs toward Catherine herself. Playing the role of the other journals' “grandmother,” Catherine reprimanded them and argued that satire was best performed with a little humility for one's own shortcomings and with an eye toward lifting up those that were being corrected rather than knocking them down. Recent critics have rejected the previously held idea that Catherine ordered her rival journals shut down as a way of censoring their too-pointed satires.

For all her efforts to enlighten Russia, Catherine was highly sensitive to criticism of Russia and Russian culture from the outside. This was the basis of her Antidote of 1770, a scathing reply to Abbé Jean Chappe d'Auteroche's Voyage en Sibérie. Although she advocated more genteel satire in the journals, in the Antidote Catherine conducted an ad hominem attack on Chappe, which seemed all the more excessive because Chappe was already dead as Catherine was writing. Although the work was not widely read at the time, it directly reflects Catherine's passion for Russian culture and her efforts to develop and transform the nation's literature. Catherine returned to more gentle satire and moralizing with a series of plays, beginning with O Vremia! in 1772. The plays take on fairly uncontroversial vices such as gossip and rumor-mongering—perhaps directed toward those who complained about Catherine herself—as well as the Freemasons, whom she considered a threat to her reign. Catherine also penned adaptations of Shakespeare, including versions of The Merry Wives of Windsor and Timon of Athens. In 1786 she composed a series of historical dramas modeled on the English chronicle plays—Nachal'noe upravlenie Olega (The Beginning of Oleg's Reign), Iz zhizni Riurika (From the Life of Rurik), and the unfinished Igor. In addition to showing an English influence, many of her comedies reveal her debt to French neoclassical drama.

The most widely read of all of Catherine's writings have not been her literary efforts, however, or even works she intended for the public. Possessed of a powerful personality and acquainted with some of the leading intellectuals of the modern age, Catherine produced letters and memoirs that have remained of great interest to readers and scholars throughout the centuries. Most of these are in French rather than in Russian, and offer a detailed and quite lively view of Catherine's relationships with Voltaire, Diderot, and others, as well as her observations about court life, political developments, and philosophy.

Critical Reception

A female intellectual in a time when few women were educated and even fewer held power, Catherine often was the target of harsh attacks. In addition, the circumstances of her rise to power, her tendency toward self-promotion, and the details of her scandalous private life provided matter for censure by generations of detractors, who considered her a “Tzar-slayer, usurper, and whore.” Even Voltaire, who would later call her Nakaz “the finest monument of the age,” was initially skeptical and condescending in his view of Catherine, until she won him over with her persistent correspondence. Through the early twentieth century, many critics recognized Catherine's historical importance and political skill, but were highly critical of her writing and her efforts to participate in the Enlightenment. K. Waliszewski, Grigorii A. Gukovskii, and others held the view that Catherine was a reactionary conservative as a ruler and a mediocre dilettante as an author. Gukovskii emphasized that Catherine's Russian, while excellent in spoken communication, was rather dismal on the page, requiring a great deal of editorial assistance to become presentable. Western critics were long interested primarily in her literary patronage and own output as they related to European trends, particularly her efforts to bring Enlightenment ideas to Russia. More recent critics, however, have been inclined to take Catherine more seriously, both as a thinker and as an author. Joan Haslip and John T. Alexander have offered positive portrayals of Catherine's idealism, which, while possibly naïve, was also a sign of remarkable ambition and deep study. Other commentators have taken a closer look at Catherine's dramas. Vincent Cronin has credited Catherine with a “considerable gift for satire,” while Lurana Donnels O'Malley has found in her Shakespearean adaptations a rigorous neoclassicism. Scholars have also focused on Catherine's efforts in developing a nascent Russian nationalism, considering works ranging from the Nakaz to the Antidote to her Shakespearean imitations. As Marcus C. Levitt has suggested, the difficulty in assessing Catherine may be linked to the problems of evaluating Russia and defining its national identity and culture: so closely did Catherine tie her reign with the Russian nation and with its literature, that a judgment on one may be tantamount to a judgment on all three.