Russia in the Age of Catherine the Great

The reign of Catherine II (1762-1796) and the development of Russian government and society under her rule have been explored many times by scholars and by popular writers. On the one hand, there are numerous biographical studies, produced particularly for the casual reader, that deal specifically with the Empress’ personal life, and the various lovers and courtiers whose place in Russian politics often enough derived from their relations with Catherine. Such works by and large have stressed Catherine’s romantic concerns, and have depicted her many love affairs. For their part, researchers and professional historians generally have dealt with specific questions of foreign policy, political and economic change, and educational and cultural developments to provide monographs that, taken together, have expanded and enhanced knowledge of this portion of Russian history.

Hitherto there have been few efforts at a full-scale history on a broader thematic basis; among Russian writers, only one work, by the Estonian-Russian scholar Alexander Brückner in 1883, has dealt with the entire span of Catherine’s reign. Soviet specialists have not supplied a balanced or sustained overview of the period of Catherine’s rule, with the single exception of a textbook compiled in 1956 by a panel of historians, much as many Soviet writers in a narrower light have investigated issues and areas that previously had not been considered. Isabel de Madariaga’s work is the first scholarly study in English to deal on a broad basis with the substantive questions of historial change in Catherine’s Russia. By presenting a clear and well-rounded account of this period, she considers in turn the major areas, domestic and foreign, where Catherine’s manner of rule was significant for the evolution of Russian society and government.

Catherine came to the throne in 1762, as the result of a coup d’état against her estranged husband, the strange and erratic Peter III. The author points to those areas where early in her reign Catherine’s style of government combined distinctive features of liberalism and absolutism. For the Baltic provinces she suggested the curtailment of local privileges; in 1764 she carried out the abolition of the semiindependent office of the Cossack hetman in the Ukraine. Some of the previously semiautonomous Cossack lands were summarily attached to border provinces administered directly as part of the Russian empire. Many of the practical questions of government Catherine considered were posed within the context of Russia’s social structure, which de Madariaga depicts in some detail. The hierarchy of hereditary and service nobility; the peasantry, divided into private serfs, church and court peasants, and those bound to the state; the urban estates and the Orthodox Church all held particular and in some cases conflicting interests.

In an extraordinary expression of the liberal bent of her early years, Catherine took the initiative in 1767 to summon a legislative commission drawn from all the provinces of the country. The nobility, clergy, townspeople, and peasants were represented by a fixed electoral schema. While in Russia this assembly was unprecedented in the extent to which it allowed broad participation in the open deliberation of questions of public policy, Catherine’s instruction to the delegates struck an extraordinary tone of lofty idealism. She delivered a lengthy discourse on the framework of natural law within which the sovereign will could be exercised, and stated that the privileges and obligations of all subjects should be respected as set by their respective social stations. More remarkable, in an age when even in the West crime and punishment still were brutally handled, Catherine proposed that judicial inquiries should be conducted without any form of duress. Such precepts, in the main borrowed from Enlightenment thinkers such as Baron de Montesquieu and Cesare Beccaria, had never before been espoused by any European monarch. When the hundreds of delegates met in Moscow from 1767 to 1769, there were serious and protracted debates on the rights of the nobility, and at times as well on the status of the peasantry. Although the legislative commission did not produce a new code of laws, it is likely, as de Madariaga suggests, that Catherine hoped not merely to establish a philosophical basis for her government, but also in a more practical light to win acceptance from the several social estates for her rule as Empress.

Catherine’s first ventures in foreign policy were rather forceful...

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