Catherine The Great


     Throughout history, Russia has been viewed as a regressive cluster of barely
civilized people on the verge of barbarism. In the eighteenth century, ideas of
science and secularism grasped hold of Europe, and Russian Czars, realizing how
behind Muscovite culture was, sought out this knowledge, attempting to imbed it
into Russian society. Catherine II was one of these Czars. She listened to both
the ideas of the philosophers and the problems of her people and strove to
enlighten Russia by codifying the laws, establishing an elected government,
funding hospitals, and forming a functioning school board. Her attempts,
however, were met with only partial success. Her reforms received much
criticism, especially from the serfs, and Catherine was forced to realize,
through the Pugachev Rebellion in 1773, that enlightening all of Russia was an
impossibility. Catherine II’s greatest glory was seen in her foreign policies,
as she solved two fundamental problems for Russia by winning victories over

Turkey and Poland. As well, she established a League of Armed Neutrality and
spoke out against the French Revolution. Catherine’s reign created both
prosperity and poverty for Russia. In order to decide whether she was truly
great, one must evaluate her accomplishments upon the foundation of Russian
ideals. At the end of the seventeenth century, Russia was a country in
transition. The death of Czar Alexis in 1676 marked a change in Russian society,
a movement from traditional Muscovite culture toward new, educated concepts.

Reforms in the 1650s divided and weakened the Russian Orthodox Church, and a few
bold individuals began to adopt a semi-westernized lifestyle. By western
standards, however, Russia still seem backward, and at best, "a fringe nation
of Europe...without benefit of middle class, universities, academies, or secular
culture" (Oblensky and Stone 144). The rebellion of the musketeers, or
streltsy, in 1682 exposed a web of destructive feuds, religious superstition and
xenophobia within Russia. Peter I took the throne in 1682 and reigned until

1725, with themes of war, love of foreigners, and love of the sea marking his
rule. He and his army defeated Sweden at Poltava in 1709, he founded a navy at

St. Petersburg, and he expanded the policy of hiring foreigners. Peter wrought
numerous changes, attempting to impose order on the Russian society, but, along
with these reforms, he forged a gap between the upper Russian classes and the
peasant population. After his death, Russia was turned over to several meager

Czars: Peter’s wife, Catherine I, a self-indulged illiterate, from 1725-27;

Peter, his 12 year old grandson, from 1727-30; his niece Anna, a woman with no
political interests from 1730-40; and Ivan VI, an infant from, 1740-41 (Oblensky
and Stone 145). In 1741, Peter’s daughter, Elizabeth was raised to the throne,
overthrowing Ivan VI. Lavish baroque palaces, an increase in western culture,
and the taking of Berlin from Prussia in the Seven Years War characterized her
reign. Again, Russia seemed to be establishing itself as a powerful society.

However, Elizabeth’s successor, Peter III, undid much of what she had
accomplished, as he returned Russia’s gains from the Seven Years War to his
hero Frederick the Great (Oblensky and Stone 145). Within six months of his
succession, Peter was overthrown by a Guards’ coup in favour of his German
wife, Catherine II. Catherine was thirty-three years old when she ascended the

Russian throne. She had survived a loveless marriage, in which "ambition alone
sustained her" (Gooch 6). Ignored by her husband, Peter III, she dedicated her
time to learning the Russian language, studying the writings of the philosophes,
and adapting cleverly to her new environment—skills which constitute important
aspects of her reign. Schooled by these teachings, she favoured religious
tolerance, justice tempered with mercy (Gooch 91), education for women, civil
rights determined within the bounds of class and estate, and the classical style
in art and architecture. A women quite out of the ordinary, Catherine possessed"high intelligence, a natural ability to administer and govern, a remarkable
practical sense, energy to spare, and an iron will" (Riasanovsky 256). Along
with her determination went courage and optimism, self-control, skill in
discussion and propaganda, and a clever handling of men and circumstances to
best serve her ends. Yet, together with her virtues, Catherine had certain
weaknesses: her determination easily became ruthlessness, just as her ambition
became vanity (Gooch 96). "Even Catherine II’s admirers sometimes noticed
that she lacked something, call it charity, mercy, or human sympathy" (Riasanovsky

256). Indisputably, however, for the first time since Peter the Great, Russia
had acquired a sovereign who worked day and night, paying personal attention to
all kinds of matters, great and small. Catherine began her reign with numerous
enlightened, ambitious ideas, based on her readings of the philosophes. She took
the first step toward liberalism by forming the Legislative Commission in which
elections were introduced, codifying the Russian laws, creating a uniform school
system and establishing a branch of public hospitals. Upon her inauguration to
the throne, Catherine had asked God to help her observe the law of the Orthodox

Church, strengthen and defend the beloved fatherland, preserve justice,
eradicate evil, all lies and impositions, and finally, to set up state
institutions, by means of which the government would work within set limits and
each department would have a defined sphere of action so that general good order
would be maintained. For these purposes, she investigated every case that had
come to her attention in order to discover the shortcomings that existed in

Russia and how to best relieve them (Dukes 51). In the first year of her reign,
she noticed the general confusion and the inadequacy existing in the arrangement
and the application of imperial laws. Peter the Great attempted twice to codify

Russia’s laws, first in 1700 and again in 1714, with similar attempts made by
his successors, particularly Elizabeth. None, however, were successful. For two
years Catherine prepared her Instructions, or Nakaz—a set of principles which
reflected her opinions on the political and legal structure desirable for Russia
(Hosking 95). Although Catherine had no intention of granting her subjects a
constitution, and although her propaganda greatly exaggerated the radical nature
of her intentions, the Nakaz was a strikingly liberal document (Riasanovsky

258). To discover the needs and wants of the Russian people, Catherine formed a

Law Code Commission in 1767. The members were elected in local gatherings of the
relevant estates: the nobility, the townsfolk, the state peasants, the Cossacks,
the odnodvortsy—descendants of the militarized peasants who had staffed the
frontier lines—and the non-Russians. (Hosking 98). Deputies were sent to

Moscow from all districts and towns, each with their own nakaz, or cahier, in
which the requests and statements of grievance originating from their electors
were drafted. However, the representatives were "insensitive to the broad
vision of creative statesmanship laid before them by their monarch" (Dukes

100) and efforts were directed only at obtaining what they could within the
existing system rather than recommending fundamental reforms. Catherine was
quick to realize that the members were unaware of the needs of society as a
whole and that they were unable to exercise self-restraint for the general good
(Dukes 101). Conveniently, she dismissed the Commission in 1768 when Russia went
to war against Turkey. Nevertheless, the drafts written by the electives were
not wasted, as the materials were employed in a "Description of the Russian

Empire and its International Administration and Legal Enactments," published
in 1783. This proclamation was the closest thing that Russia had to a law code
for the next 50 years (Hosking 100). It denounced capital punishment and
torture, it argued for crime prevention and, in general, "was abreast of
advanced Western thought for criminology" (Riasanovsky 259). Catherine decided
that, before positing common interests, which did not exist, she should put more
backbone into fragmented Russia by creating institutions which would enable
citizens to work together at least within their own estates and orders;

Catherine adopted the task of laying the foundation for a civilized Russian
society. Catherine’s first contribution toward forming an enlightened nation
was to create a system of hospitals. Although medical science had yet to reach a
respected position, Russia lacked, as did many other countries, a method of
administering the small amounts of medical knowledge it did possess. In attempts
to alleviate this, Catherine funded the Town Hospital at St. Petersburg, the St.

Petersburg House for Lunatics, and the Foundling Hospital; as well, she
popularized vaccinations. The Empress donated money to fund the Town Hospital at

St. Petersburg, where poor were admitted without payment (Kochan 26). Upon
admittance, they were shaved, bathed, and put in tidy dress. The hospital
consisted of 300 well spread beds with curtains and a professor of electricity
who was permanently employed to relieve diseases. Likewise, the St. Petersburg

House for Lunatics was constructed, which became renowned for its gentle
treatment. Unlike other mental hospitals, it did not use chains to subdue raving
patients, but instead used thongs, and, it only used gentle remedies, such as a
strict diet, for mental disorders (Kochan 26). Finally, Catherine built the

Foundling Hospital on the banks of the Muskva. This hospital broke new ground,
for it was one of the first establishments of its kind. Through it, Catherine
intended to discourage infanticide. A branch was set up in St. Petersburg in

1770, which acted as both a lie-in-hospital, admitting all pregnant women
without pay, and a school, teaching girls sewing and boys the arts. The function
of the Foundling Home has been described as "the transformation of private
indiscretion into national benefit" (Kochan 27) since all children were
accepted without charge—the mother just had to state the name of the child and
whether it had been baptized. Furthermore, it was through Catherine that
vaccinations became widespread. Smallpox took the lives of many Russians, and
permanently disfigured its survivors. Catherine was one of the first people in

Russia to submit to an inoculation against the disease (Kochan 27). In 1768, she
summoned the Quaker, Dr. Thomas Dimsdale to perform the procedure; later that
year, she had a Smallpox Hospital built, which, twice a year, inoculated
children without charge. Through this, Catherine attempted to both instill
scientific ideas in Russia—she decreed that Russia be equipped to produce its
own medicines and surgical instruments—and, to save the lives of many
commoners (Riasanovsky 264). However, rather than seek medical aid,
unenlightened peasants ran to The Virgin as a cure from the disease. The
peasants were unable to appreciate the hospitals along with many of

Catherine’s other broad visions. Catherine’s final social reform was in the
education system. Not only did the Empress reorganize the schools of elite
classes—such as the Cadet Corps—and introduce the first female
schools—such as the Smolny Institute for Noble Girls—she also created a
successful nationwide education system of elementary and secondary schooling.

Russian education was a failure up to the 1760s for several reasons: it lacked
textbooks, it had no set curriculum, it used a wide application of over-rigorous
discipline, it stressed education for state-service purposes, and it was limited
by Russian superstitions. It was Russian tradition that reading secular books
was a temptation from the devil (Miliukov 5), and so, grammar was taught with

Church Slavonic print and church books until the 1760s. This practice was
harmful because, by the 1700’s, Church Slavonic was no longer the vernacular
(Dukes 30). Catherine alleviated this by drafting an index of secular books to
be used in schools, including The Primer, Rules for Pupils, On the Duties of Man
and Citizen, History of the World, Introduction to European Geography, and

Russian Grammar. Prior to Catherine, the curriculum was as useless as the
textbooks since it laid emphasis on only a few practical subjects, and was, for
the most part, without "rhyme or reason" (Dukes 31). The Russians of the
first half of the eighteenth century tended to view education as "general,
separate pieces of information, and that to learn these and become an educated
man was simple" (Dukes 31). Catherine observed this restraint, and formed a
system of successive learning, where specific subjects were studied in four
grade levels, each level increasing in difficulty. Through this, Catherine gave
her people understanding, not just superficial knowledge. Russians also believed
that severe discipline aided knowledge, a belief which stemmed partly from the
nature of military Russian education and partly from teachers wanting dumb
obedience (Dukes 31). It was also the consequence of the seventeenth century
religious theory, that children were naturally wicked and that they had to be
purged before they could learn, that led to the physical abuse of children
(Dukes 31). This abuse handicapped Russian education by creating mindless
followers instead of outspoken thinkers. Catherine condemned this practice by
banning physical punishment in schools, and therefore, taking the first step in
creating a non-militaristic, rational education system. Another concept that
impeded Russian schooling was Peter the Great’s notion that the purpose of
education was the preparation of the young for services of the state (Dukes 32).

Consequently, people did not learn for curiosity’s sake, and they did not
experiment. The installation of provincial schools was Catherine’s solution.

In 1786, the Statute of Popular Schools was produced and published. Although F.I.

Iankovich, a Serbian graduate, was its chief architect, the Statute reflected,
to a considerable degree, the education plans composed by Catherine (Dukes 242).

This education system was nationwide, with cost-free elementary and secondary
schooling for boys and girls, including serfs with the permission of their land
owners. The Education Statute stated that, in every provincial capitol, there
must be one major school, consisting of four grades and, in every provincial and
district town, one minor school with two grades. The classes were to study
reading, writing, catechism, elementary grammar and arithmetic, drawing, church
history—from teachers rather than clergy—and, rudimentary civics, all in
their native tongue, as well as in the foreign language which was most useful
for everyday life, depending on where the school was situated (Obolensky and

Stone 211). This system recognized that, education is for the prosperity of the
individual, and not the state, and in order for Russians to become broad-minded,
they must acquire the fundamentals of knowledge. The final concept that made

Russian education a failure was the influence of a peculiar Russian culture,
composed of ancient, Slavic superstition and folklore, and simple, but powerful

Orthodox Christian faith (Dukes 34).