German, born in Szczecin in 1729, Sofia Augusta Federica, called Caterina after the acceptance of the Orthodox religion, at the age of fourteen married the fifteen-year-old Pietro. Lively and restless, she loved hunting parties and read with interest Madame de Sevigné, Montesquieu, Voltaire; therefore one understands her indignation against her foolish, childish and cruel husband, one also understands how from her young years the ideas of religious tolerance, aversion to “obscurantism”, the desire to reform justice, to heal (with an attitude always as a benefactress) the well-being of the people, were opinions and attitudes by now deeply penetrated into her vision of life. This does not of course exclude the superficiality and dilettantism of his readings.
Peter III, shortly after his dethronement, was killed in a quarrel between drunks. This certainly facilitated Catherine’s position, even if in various circles there were rumors of her complicity. But in the early days the difficulties were not lacking: peasant revolts, plots against the favorite Gregorio Orlov, attempts to dethrone the “usurper” herself. Palace conspiracies, arbitrations of all kinds, usurpations of power, the squandering of state money, bloody repressions, had by now become a tradition of the Russian empire.
In short, however, it could be noted that, if Catherine’s coming to power had occurred with the traditional system of military conspiracy, her government intentions were certainly new: Catherine traveled to the most remote provinces of the empire to see the needs of the local women. populations, participated directly in the meetings of the senate, renounced to persecute those who in the past had been against it.
Autocracy was taking on a different style: and it was strengthened precisely in that it assimilated (in part at least) new ideas and systems – which, in their further, logical development, had naturally to undermine in turn the foundations of autocracy.
Catherine thus showed herself to be the continuer in a certain way of the work of Peter the Great, even if, unlike Peter’s complete empiricism, the empress did not want experiments, but was inspired instead by the ideas developed in Descartes’ country: all his reform projects were merely an attempt to apply the thoughts of the encyclopedists and the Enlightenment accordingly. Philosophically at the antipodes of Peter, Catherine was in any case after him the first ruler of Russia who had a courageous and integral vision of the needs of a great state: even in that she will defend her own interests and the selfish interests of those classes over which mainly imperial power will rest, the state will never appear to it only as a means of satisfying hateful arbitraries and petty whims.
In his famous nakaz, although greatly attenuated by the primitive project after the criticisms of his cautious advisers, the ideology of a new age is undoubtedly affirmed. Humanitarian enlightenment, real concern for the well-being of the people: but everything is granted by the autocrat; the interested parties have only to accept with gratitude the favors granted nor will they ever be conceived as subjects of postulates, requests, desires for innovation. A mental habit is thus forming which also attaches itself to many “reformers” of the intelligentsia, who will always see every change as the work of the Tsar or of the intellectuals: the “people” for whom one thinks, works, suffers, is the eternal child to whom the “adults” are opposed. Fear of individual enterprise, fear of independent initiatives: we must not forget the almost total absence of a French and English bourgeoisie (this fact made it very abstract the application to Russia of the ideas that were concrete and current in France of the Eighteenth century).
Autocracy therefore, but autocracy which obliges the sovereign to make every effort for the good of his subjects; respect, at least in the utterances, for all the religions of the immense empire; torture is considered not only a barbaric judicial procedure, but unsuitable for its intended purpose; the freedom of man, the aspiration to equality are proclaimed from above: and despite the extremely vague and abstract tone of these statements, the immense significance they have is evident. Even toned down by the prudent advisers, Catherine’s nakaz thus represents an extremely important affirmation in the life of Russia: the ideas of the French eighteenth century take hold among the eliteintellectual, dispelling old habits and old Asian prejudices, or, much more often, curiously merging with those habits and prejudices.
The nakazit had been written for a “commission”, which was to be inspired by the work necessary for carrying out the reforms: in fact in the summer of 1767 the “commission” was inaugurated; almost six hundred representatives of the various classes took part; very characteristic is the fact that the clergy did not have its representation there; without representation was naturally also the mass of serfs. The work of the “commission” showed in short that Catherine’s ideas of reform had really succeeded in accelerating the pace of Russian life, in awakening ideas and interests, in creating differentiations; but they also showed the abstractionism of those ideas, the impossibility of decreeing from above “enlightened” formulas acceptable to all classes, capable of preventing the now inevitable collision of concrete forces that had changed the ancient relationship between them, the old positions, and were necessarily looking for new relationships, new positions of stability. The nobility (not always united, because the interests of the large owners did not naturally coincide with those of the small owners), however, demanded greater penal severity against the continuous escapes of serfs, tried to obtain more or less complete dominion in the police provincial, above all he wanted to “protect himself” against the competition of the bourgeois in commerce. The merchants, in turn, wanted the exclusion of the nobility from commerce: in short, alongside the aristocracy of blood they wanted to gradually constitute an aristocracy of money;
Russia was divided into fifty governorates; finance, justice and administration were separated; the positions of the nobility were found, however, despite these changes to be effectively strengthened: in the nobility Catherine increasingly saw the main support of the throne. The choice between the army and the bureaucracy was open to the nobles, they alone could own peasants, they were not burdened by taxes, they could in any circumstance address the sovereign through their representatives: and these were only some of the main privileges of the nobility. In this way, for practical purposes, Catherine’s Enlightenment was increasingly assuming the aspect of mutual support between the throne and the nobility: for the mass of peasants the humanitarian statements were certainly of very tenuous usefulness. Whenever the integral support of the nobles seemed indispensable to Catherine (do not forget the circumstances of her conquest of the throne), she did not hesitate to threaten with the utmost severity any self-liberating ambitions of the peasants. On the contrary, various ordinances of the empress worsened (especially in some regions) the situation of the peasant masses, who, in fact, had to pay in full with their sweat and blood for the vast privileges obtained by the nobles, now a solid garrison of the enlightened autocracy..
Discontent was widespread among serfs, as well as among “state peasants”; was added the hostility of non-Russian populations expropriated for the benefit of Russian colonization and forced to renounce their faith, in stark contrast to the claims of tolerance. Emeljan Pugachev was the man who gave concrete form of insurrection to the discontent of the peasant masses. To the non-Russian peoples he guaranteed the possession of the lands, to all the peasants he promised liberation from the iniquities and abuses of the owners; to the Cossacks he promised lands and the abolition of taxes. In his program, decidedly revolutionary for the Russia of the eighteenth century, some demands were inserted for the restoration of old customs; he also hoped to be able to oppose the “crown” to the nobles. In 1773 the Urals were in full revolt, in 1774 the revolt had spread to the Volga region; large cities had fallen into the hands of the insurgents; many nobles were slaughtered by the rioters. Characteristic is the fact that the popular strata of Moscow itself clearly sympathized with Pugachev and his gangs, as evidenced by documents of the time. The repression became particularly vigorous and merciless in 1774; after a serious defeat by the rebels at Caricyn, the movement could be considered substantially subdued. Pugachev himself was executed not long after.
Pugachev’s insurrection, due to the enormous extension it had taken, due to the evident sympathies it aroused among vast layers of the people even in regions that remained quiet, due to the concreteness of many postulates of the leader of the revolt, was not by now one of the usual local peasant rebellions. Superficial and light, but undoubtedly intelligent, Catherine understood that certain fashion books in France were not only interesting, but also dangerous. The enunciations of the Enlightenment began to appear to her to an ever greater degree in another light after such a formidable “bottom-up” rebellion. And it was to follow relatively soon the French Revolution, which strengthened in the empress the conviction of the perniciousness of those books which she herself had by now on such a vast scale spread throughout Russia.
This explains how the author of a famous book, the Journey from Petersburg to Moscow (1790), Radiščev, was deported to Siberia by order of Catherine. Radiščev’s book was a merciless examination of the living conditions in which the immense majority of peasants lived. Radiščev was inspired by those identical Enlightenment sources that had inspired Catherine for so long, but, despite various petty contradictions and very strong hopes in the work of enlightened rulers, there was already a revolutionary tone in his book. The main postulates of liberal thought are found in the Journeyof Radiščev; the entirely eighteenth-century superficiality of many of its pages does not change anything: but alongside liberal ideas the “social problem” is also intensely affirmed: this fact is perhaps characteristic of the further developments of liberalism in Russia, always squeezed between autocracy and the latent insurrection of the popular masses, not strong enough to transform the former, unable to lead the “people” always uncertain about the means to follow.
Despite the recent departure from his youthful ideals, the “Catherine period” meant a great development in the Enlightenment sense of Russian culture: even the bourgeois were admitted to numerous cultural institutions; great increase was given to popular education; numerous high schools arose, late regions of Russia were scientifically studied, the whole scientific activity was fomented, journalistic and scholarly publications had a formidable increase.