The Return of Catherine the Great

By Lentin, Tony | History Today, December 1996 | Go to article overview

The Return of Catherine the Great


Lentin, Tony, History Today


Tony Lentin gives the latest upgraded assessment by historians of Russia's larger-than-life empress in the bicentenary year of her death.

After seventy years of neglect and dismissal in the Soviet period as a foreign adventuress, hypocrite and poseur, indifferent to the needs of `the people' and marginal to the pre-occupation of Marxists with `class struggle' and revolution, Catherine the Great (1762-96) is suddenly sweeping into favour in Russia as a focus of unprecedented interest both at the popular and the scholarly level. New lines of enquiry or the re-investigation of older ones have been set in motion. Revisionism, rehabilitation and research proliferate.

The process of rehabilitation began under the impact of glasnost' in the late 1980s and early 1990s with the publication of more positive assessments of Catherine by Alexander Kamensky and Oleg Omel'chenko. (See John Alexander, `Comparing Two Greats: Peter I and Catherine' in A Window on Russia. Papers from the Vth International Conference of the Study Group on Eighteenth-Century Russia, edited by Maria di Salvo and Lindsey Hughes, La Fenice, 1996, pp.43-50, and Kamensky's article, in Russian, `The significance of the reforms of Catherine II in Russian history', ibid., pp.56-65). The wave of scholarly interest that followed culminated in August 1996 in an international conference in St Petersburg to mark the bicentenary of Catherine's death. Held under the auspices of the Academy of Sciences and a host of associated organisations, the conference was supplemented by an exhibition of paintings and artefacts at the Hermitage devoted to the Age of Catherine the Great. (See abstracts of conference papers in Mezhdunarodnaia konferentsiia. Ekaterina Velikaia: Epokha Rossiiskai Istorii, St Petersburg, 1996. Conferences have also been held in Germany: at Zerbst, Potsdam and Eutin).

While it is true that Catherine never lost her German accent, Lydia Kisliagina puts her `foreigness' into perspective by pointing out that she spent only the first fourteen of her sixty-seven years in Germany: the remaining fifty-three she lived in Russia, thirty-four of these as empress. In his opening address to the St Petersburg conference, Alexander Kamensky discussed Catherine's extraordinary political skills, her adroit management of power and people, her psychological penetration and ability to spot talent and draw it out and to inspire lasting confidence and loyalty. He reminds us that she provided three and a half decades of political stability and ministerial continuity with little significant opposition to her rule despite the constant and obvious claims of her son, Paul. This in itself was an extraordinary achievement, especially after nearly forty years of palace-revolutions in the period preceding her accession.

Catherine directed her formidable tactical skills to particular ends. `Russia is a European power' she declared in her equivalent of a political manifesto, the Nakaz or Instruction of 1766. Intended as a guideline for the drafting of a new code of law by a representative assembly duly summoned by Catherine in 1767, the Nakaz was banned in France as subversive. Catherine's emphatic assertion about Russia and Europe was full of political, cultural and social implications about the norms of thought, conduct and legality which she hoped to see established in Russia and about her own claims to be considered an exponent of `enlightened absolutism'. (See O.A. Omel'chenko, "`Enlightened absolutism" in Russia', Coexistence, 32, 1995, pp.31-38).

Catherine is once more being taken seriously as an intellectual, engagee and writer (an inveterate `scribbler', as she called herself and a ruler addicted to `legislomania'). Committed to the values of the philosophes, she believed fervently in the power of enlightened ideas and legislation and energetically strove to put theory into practice by influencing and forming a `public opinion' in Russia sympathetic to her objectives. …

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