Catherine the Great — The Progressive Russian Autocrat?

Catherine the Great — The Progressive Russian Autocrat?

While perusing the offerings from my local library online, a biography of Catherine the Great–the former Empress Catherine II of Russia–caught my eye. I knew next-to-nothing about Catherine. To be honest, I only recognized the name because I had played her as a character a few times in Sid Meier’s Civilization IV. But I always enjoy a good biography, so I decided to rent and read this particular book, Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie.

The basic story of Catherine’s rise to power is pretty wild by modern standards. For one thing, she wasn’t even Russian. And she wasn’t born with the name Catherine. She was a German princess, Sophia Augusta Fredericka, the daughter of a minor prince who ruled Anhalt-Zerbst, which today is part of the German state of Saxony-Anhalt. Sophia’s mother, Johanna, was a princess from another minor German state, Holstein-Gottorp.

At the age of 14, Sophia fell in love with her paternal uncle and even accepted his proposal of marriage. But Johanna, like many minor German princesses of the day, was desperate to marry her daughter upwards. As it turned out, Johanna’s brother–yet another minor German prince–happened to be the guardian of Peter Ulrich, the Duke of Holstein. At the age of 11, Peter was not only the hereditary ruler of Holstein, but also the heir to the Swedish throne and the only living grandson of the late Russian Emperor Peter I, a/k/a Peter the Great.

Peter’s daughter, Elizabeth, usurped the throne in 1741 from her great-nephew, Ivan VI, who was himself just a child. Elizabeth never publicly married–although Massie said she likely married a courtier in secret–and had no children. She therefore decided to name Ulrich, her nephew, as successor to the Russian throne.

Elizabeth also arranged Ulrich’s marriage to Sophia, who converted to the Russian Orthodox Church under the name Catherine, in 1745. Massie’s research strongly suggested the marriage was never consummated, even though Catherine had at least three children. Her eldest son Paul was likely fathered by one of Peter’s courtiers, Sergei Salykov. Salykov, in turn, was one of approximately a dozen lovers–or “favorites,” as they became known after she took the throne–that Catherine maintained during her lifetime.

Empress Elizabeth died on Christmas Day 1761. Peter became the new emperor (Peter III) and quickly proceeded to alienate just about everyone at the Russian court. He was openly hostile to the Russian Orthodox church. He abandoned Elizabeth’s war against Prussia, largely due to his admiration (bordering on supplication) of its ruler, Frederick the Great. And then to further infuriate the military, Peter announced a war with Denmark to settle an old score that affected his birthplace of Holstein but did not implicate any Russian interests.

After about six months, Catherine decided to usurp the throne, much as her former mother-in-law had done two decades earlier. Massie detailed Catherine’s support from three key figures–Nikita Panin, who became Catherine’s principal foreign affairs advisor; Gregory Orlov, the second of five military brothers, who became one of her many favorites (and possible secret husband); and Catherine Dashkova, a Russian noblewoman who happened to be the sister of Peter’s long-term mistress. With the army’s backing, Peter III quickly surrendered.

The former emperor died shortly thereafter while under the custody of one of Orlov’s brothers, Alexis. Massie said Peter’s death was either “accidental, the result of a drunken scuffle after dinner that got out of control, or a deliberate, premeditated murder.” The only written account came in a note from Alexis Orlov brother to Catherine, in which he said, “We ourselves know not what we did” and pleaded for mercy. Massie concluded that Catherine was likely innocent of actually ordering her husband’s death but “she was not blameless” in the affair either.

Catherine and Serfdom

Catherine’s reign as empress lasted from 1762 to 1796, a period that covered both the American and French revolutions. Massie portrayed Catherine as largely indifferent to the former and horrified by the latter. At the same time, he also drew some interesting parallels between Catherine’s efforts to reform Russia internally with what was going on in the developing United States.

During the first year of her reign, Massie said Catherine tried to curb–if not necessarily abolish–the institution of serfdom in Russia. Serfdorm was effectively the equivalent of chattel slavery in America, the notable difference being the Russian institution did not discriminate based on race. Most serfs were native-born Russians who were simply treated as property that could be bought and sold by noblemen and business owners.

In August 1762, Catherine declared that owners of factories and mines could no longer “purchase” serfs for use in industrial labor. This led the existing industrial serfs to strike. Catherine then quickly reversed course and, in Massie’s words, sent in the army to “pacify” the situation. The general assigned this task proceeded to punish both the serf “ringleaders” as well as managers who were found “guilty of cruelty and extreme mismanagement” towards the serfs.

Massie said that even after these events, Catherine remained “intellectually opposed to serfdrom” while lacking the political support necessary to make any serious reforms. The main problem was that serfdom represented the key to wealth of Russia’s largely agricultural nobility, much as it did for Southern plantation owners in the United States–a group that included most of the early U.S. presidents, Massied noted. Interestingly, serfdom was formally abolished by Catherine’s great-grandson, Emperor Alexander I, two years before President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

Catherine’s Failed Constitutional Convention

Like many of the American founding fathers, Catherine was heavily influenced by Enlightenment writers of the day such as Voltaire, with whom she maintained a personal correspondence. Indeed, 11 years before the Philadelphia Convention drafted the United States Constitution, Catherine issued her own call for “all free estates of the realm” to send delegates to attend a Legislative Commission. Catherine intended this Commission to inform her of the “grievances, needs, and hopes of the people they represented, thereby providing her with material to use in drafting a new code of laws,” Massie said. As a precursor, Catherine published a document called the Nakaz, which was largely cribbed together from the work of various Enlightenment writers and spelled out a vision for preserving her autocratic rule–a strong executive, if you will–while allowing some room for “fundamental laws” limiting her discretion.

The Legislative Commission was initially composed of 564 delegates, according to Massie, which represented the nobility, property owners, free peasants, and even various non-Russian groups such as Muslims and Buddhists–basically, everyone but the serfs, who were the majority of the population. Even with this notable exclusion, Catherine’s Legislative Commission was much broader in scope and representation than the Philadelphia Convention, which only had 55 delegates who attended sessions at any one time, and which did not include any peasants or non-Christian religious minorities.

Unfortunately, the Legislative Commission failed to produce any tangible results. Massie said this was largely because the Commission got bogged down with various committees and subcommittees that ended up discussing minor grievances. In this sense, the American Convention was far more productive, as it was a small group that met in secret and managed to focus on the larger questions of how to structure the federal government.

It’s notable, however, that many of Catherine’s views towards civil rights were quite progressive for the time, and in many ways matched the ideals spelled out in the American Bill of Rights in 1790. For example, Catherine believed that in criminal trials, at least some of the judges “should be of the same rank of citizenship as the defendant,” i.e., a jury of one’s peers. She also insisted that the purpose of criminal law was to prevent crime rather than to inflict punishment for its own sake. As such, she strongly opposed the use of torture and forced confessions. She also said that capital punishment should be restricted to cases of “political murder, sedition, treason, or civil war.” (On the other hand, Catherine did sign death warrants as empress, something that both her husband and his aunt refused to do while in power.)

Curiously, Massie did not offer much insight into Catherine’s actual views or involvement with the American Revolution. She ended up being far more concerned with the events in Paris, which led her to become more reactionary in her final years. But there was one item of note: Massie said that during the summer of 1775–a few weeks after the Battles of Lexington and Concord–Catherine personally refused a request from King George III of England for the “rental” of 120,000 Russian infantry and cavalry soldiers to help put down the “rebellion” in America. According to Massie, Catherine was “strongly sympathetic” to George’s situation but still refused to help, primarily because she needed to keep her troops at home to fight a looming second war with Turkey.

Lessons from Catherine’s Reign for 21st Century America

Aside from the historical parallels between Catherine’s Russia and Revolutionary America, there were three particular events from Catherine’s reign that, as described by Massie, made me think about certain contemporary events here in the United States:

1. Governing During a Pandemic

In 1771, there was an outbreak of Bubonic plague in Moscow. After 160 factory workers died from the disease, Catherine moved quickly to impose emergency quarantine on the entire city, banning “all large public gatherings.” When a second wave later spiraled out of control, Catherine sent her former favorite, Gregory Orlov, to take charge of the situation. Unlike many present-day elected leaders, Orlov took what might be dubbed a more aggressive “follow the science” approach. According to Massie, Orlov “asked the physicians what they wanted done and then bullied the people into obedience” in a “humane” manner.

Massie noted that Catherine herself was personally weary of following the advice of doctors, yet she was quite pro-science when it came to advancing public health. Catherine established Russia’s College of Medicine in 1763 and actively recruited foreign doctors to come to the country. Notably, during a smallpox scare at the Russian imperial court during the spring of 1768, Catherine volunteered to have herself inoculated, which was then a relatively new procedure developed by English and American physicians but largely “shunned” in continental Europe. Massie explained that Catherine rejected the largely “fatalistic” view of most upper-class Europeans that “sooner or later, everyone must” deal with smallpox and that “some would die.” It’s also worth noting that Catherine’s late husband, Paul III, contracted smallpox during their engagement, and Massie attributed his scarring from the disease as one factor in their unsuccessful marriage.

2. Conspiracy Theories and Fake News

Speaking of Paul III, the sketchy circumstances surrounding his death understandably gave rise to a number of conspiracy theories, including various pretenders who claimed to be the “real” emperor who survived his wife’s treasonous assassination plot. Massie goes into detail about one such plot involving Emelyan Pugachev, a Cossack leader who claimed to be Paul III.

As Massie noted, the Slavic Pugachev “bore no resemblance to the tall, narrow-shouldered Paul III, [and] who had spoken mostly German.” But given the lack of mass media in the 18th century, few Russians actually knew what their former emperor of six months actually looked or talked like. More to the point, Pugachev was able to spin an elaborate conspiracy theory that eventually gained a substantial following among disaffected Cossacks and other rural Russian tribes. He promised them an end to the nobility and “freedom from a harassing government and a return to the old way of life.”

After the Russian army put down Pugachev’s initial insurrection, he came back with a vengeance in July 1774, leading an army of 20,000 men to “storm, capture, and burn” the defenseless town of Kazan near Moscow. Four days later, the Russian army managed to defeat Pugachev’s forces after a four-hour battle. Pugachev himself escaped, but Catherine sent troops under the command of General Peter Panin–the brother of her longtime foreign minister, Nikita Panin–to put down the insurrection once and for all. Eventually, Pugachev’s own followers turned on him and personally delivered him to Panin.

Panin took Pugachev to Moscow, where he was interrogated for weeks. Catherine wanted to know if Pugachev was just an impostor profiting off a conspiracy theory or if he was acting as an agent for some foreign power. She was ultimately satisfied there was no foreign influence and signed Pugachev’s death warrant.

This was not the only notable “fake news” event of Catherine’s reign. During the spring of 1787, Catherine toured Crimea, which had been taken by Russian forces during the wars with Turkey. Catherine’s viceroy in Crimea, General Gregory Potemkin (yet another ex-favorite), had “worked to transform the newly acquired areas of Southern Russia into a prosperous part of Catherine’s empire,” according to Massie.

Even today, the phrase “Potemkin village” refers to the idea that the general’s accomplishments in building up the Crimea region were nothing but a hoax. As Massie described this particular fake news claim, “the prosperous villages shown to the empress were said to have been made of painted cardboard; the happy villages were declared to be costumed serfs, marched from place to place, appearing and reappearing, waving and cheering as Catherine passed by.” Massie argued the hoax claims should be dismissed for two reasons: First, none of the people crying “fake news” were actually present during Catherine’s tour; and second, there was independent corroboration from non-Russian members of Catherine’s traveling party, including the Austrian emperor and the French ambassador to St. Petersburg.

3. The Polish Filibuster

This last item technically concerns Poland, not Russia, but Catherine still played an important role. The King of Poland was elected by a quasi-parliamentary body called the Diet. Since the vote had to be unanimous, the Diet typically elected foreigners to serve as a weak figurehead king, leaving the real political power in the hands of the Polish nobility.

After King Augustus III, a Saxon, died in 1763, Catherine and Frederick the Great of Prussia colluded to have the Diet elect their handpicked candidate, Stanislaus Poniatowski, a Polish diplomat and yet another of Catherine’s ex-favorites. The newly elected King Stanislaus II proved to be the last Polish monarch, as Catherine, Frederick, and their Austrian counterpart would eventually carve up Poland between themselves in a series of “partitions.”

The disintegration of Poland was furthered, Massie explained, by the dysfunctional nature of the Diet. Much like the present-day U.S. Senate, which often requires unanimous consent to consider routine business, any single member of the Diet could “interrupt and terminate a session by exercising the liberum veto.” This veto was actually much nastier than even the Senate filibuster, as it effectively wiped out every decision made by the current session of the Diet. And since it was easy enough for an interested party to buy a single vote, it was effectively impossible for the Diet to approve any reforms and the Polish government “lurched and staggered from crisis to crisis, while powerful, immensely wealthy landowners ruled the country”–at least until the three foreign powers decided to step in and take the country for themselves.

Massie notes there was a workaround to the liberum veto: A group of nobles could organize a temporary Diet known as a “confederation,” which could debate and decide a specific measure by a simple majority vote. This may have been a forerunner of the U.S. Senate’s “budget reconciliation” process, which recently enabled the Democratic majority to pass key parts of President Biden’s agenda without the risk of a filibuster. Ironically, when the Polish Diet attempted to use the confederation process in 1791 to adopt sweeping political reforms–including the abolition of the liberum veto–that prompted Catherine to invade, which ultimately led to the final breakup of the Polish kingdom.