Catherine the Great Essay - Critical Essays

Joan Haslip

Catherine the Great


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.

Principal Works

Nakaz Komissii o sostavlenii proekta novago ulozheniia [The Great Instruction to the Commissioners Appointed to Frame a New Code of Laws for the Russian Empire or Bol'shoi Nakaz] (philosophy) 1767

Velizer [translator] (political tract) 1768

Vsiakaia vsiachina [Sorts and Sundries] (journal) 1769-74

Antidote, ou examen du mauvais livre … intitulé: voyage en Sibérie fait … en 1761 [Antidote: or an Enquiry into the Merits of a Book Entitled a Journey into Siberia; also translated as Don Juan; or, The Feast with the Statue] (criticism) 1770

O Vremia! [O the Times!]...

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K. Waliszewski (essay date 1894)

SOURCE: Waliszewski, K. “Literary and Artistic Tastes,” and “Catherine and Education.” In The Romance of an Empress: Catherine II of Russia, pp. 330-52; 361-70. New York: D. Appelton and Company, 1894.

[In the excerpts below, Waliszewski discusses Catherine's personal and intellectual relationship with the philosophers of the European Enlightenment, particularly Voltaire, but also Diderot, Rousseau, and others. Waliszewski is dismissive of Catherine, characterizing her writings as merely political tools, and calling into question her discernment, her principles, and her intelligence.]




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Grigorii A. Gukovskii (essay date 1947)

SOURCE: Gukovskii, Grigorii A. “The Empress as Writer.” In Catherine the Great: A Profile, edited by Marc Raeff, pp. 64-89. New York: Hill and Wang, 1972.

[In this essay, first published in Russian in 1947, Gukovskii focuses on Catherine's literary works, particularly her dramas. Gukovskii stresses Catherine's conservatism and didacticism, suggesting that her aptitude for creative writing was minimal and that her understanding of Russian history and culture was superficial at best. For Gukovskii, the sole value of Catherine's literary output rests in the political stature of the author.]

Catherine was an active writer for about a quarter of a century, and an...

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Joan Haslip (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: Haslip, Joan. “‘Les Philosophes.’” In Catherine the Great, pp. 160-69. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1977.

[In the following excerpt, Haslip focuses on Catherine's relationship with Voltaire, noting that Catherine's correspondence with him and other French philosophers demonstrates the challenges she faced in negotiating between her Western-influenced ideals and the traditions of Russia.]

Catherine's correspondence with Voltaire, a man thirty-five years her senior, the doyen of the philosophes and the most widely read writer in Europe, was inspired by a mixture of hero-worship, expediency and a passionate desire for fame. Voltaire was a name...

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Vincent Cronin (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: Cronin, Vincent. “The Literary Scene.” In Catherine: Empress of All the Russias, pp. 222-34. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1978.

[In the excerpt below, Cronin provides an overview of Catherine's literary career, relating her works to events in both her private and public life, and tracing her influence on other authors.]

The improvements in government, growing prosperity and a sense of security which began to make themselves felt by the middle of Catherine's reign had their counterparts in intellectual and artistic achievements. A new spirit of confident experiment stirred, nowhere more strikingly than in literature. Almost all genres of fiction and...

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John T. Alexander (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Alexander, John T. “Crisis Renewed: The Volga Voyage and the Legislative Commission.” In Catherine the Great: Life and Legend, pp. 97-120. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.

[In this excerpt from his biography of Catherine the Great, generally considered the scholarly standard, Alexander provides the historical and political contexts for the production and reception of Catherine's Nakaz. For Alexander, the Nakaz reflects both Catherine's idealism and her naivete about Russian politics.]

By the mid-1760s Catherine felt more securely in power than during the nervous first years of her reign. She obviously loved ruling, reveled in being the...

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W. Gareth Jones (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Jones, W. Gareth. “The Spirit of the Nakaz: Catherine II's Literary Debt to Montesquieu.” Slavonic and East European Review 76, No. 4 (1998): 655-71.

[In this essay, Jones considers the influence of Montesquieu's L'Esprit des lois on Catherine's instructions to the legislature, the Nakaz. Jones notes Catherine's direct appropriations from the French philosopher's writings as well as similarities in prose style. More broadly, Jones argues that the widely read Nakaz was part of a long-term Enlightenment trend distinguishing true “literature” from other forms of writing.]

On 14 December 1766 Catherine the Great issued a...

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Marcus C. Levitt (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Levitt, Marcus C. “An Antidote to Nervous Juice: Catherine the Great's Debate With Chappe d'Auteroche over Russian Culture.” Eighteenth-Century Studies, 32, No. 1 (Fall 1998): 49-63.

[In this essay, Levitt examines Catherine's Antidote, her response to Chappe d'Auteroche's attack on Russian culture in his Voyage en Sibérie. Levitt argues that although the work is flawed by ad hominem attacks on Chappe, the Antidote's defense of the Russian people and Russian literature reflects both Catherine's desire to push her country forward through cultural transformation and the complicated status of Russia in the European Enlightenment.]


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Kevin J. McKenna (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: McKenna, Kevin J. “Proverbs and the Empress: The Role of Russian Proverbs in Catherine the Great's All Sorts and Sundries.” In Proverbs and Russian Literature: From Catherine the Great to Alexander Solzhenitsyn, pp. 25-41. Burlington: University of Vermont Press, 1998.

[In this essay, McKenna cites Catherine's facility with employing Russian proverbs as an aspect of her light satirical style in her Spectator-influenced journal Vsiakaia vsiachina.]

One of the many proverbs cited in Vladimir Dal's Proverbs of the Russian People notes that “An ancient proverb is not used for nothing.”1 The seemingly vague wisdom of this...

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Lurana Donnels O'Malley (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: O'Malley, Lurana Donnels. “From Fat Falstaff to Francophile Fop: Russian Nationalism in Catherine the Great's Merry Wives.Comparative Drama 33, No. 3 (Fall 1999): 365-89.

[In the essay below, O'Malley demonstrates how Catherine appropriated English comedy to create plays that advanced the cause of Russian nationalism. Focusing on This 'tis to Have Linen and Buck-Baskets, Catherine's adaptation of Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Windsor, O'Malley suggests that by paring down the plot and avoiding Shakespearean-style references to local events and places, Catherine created a more universal comedy that could better serve its didactic function.]


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Further Reading


Grey, Ian. Catherine the Great: Autocrat and Empress of All Russia. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1962, 254 p.

Focuses on the effect of Catherine's reign on the course of Russian history, and suggests that her greatest talent was for self-promotion.

Schmucker, Samuel M. Memoirs of the Court and Reign of Catherine the Second, Empress of Russia. Philadelphia: Porter and Coates, 1855, 338 p.

Presents a moralistic account of Catherine's life, while admiring her as a woman of extraordinary genius.


Dukes, Paul. “Montesquieu and Constitutional...

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