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Catherine The Great

Russia's most civilised ruler or enlightened despot?

Catherine the Great

Catherine II, often known as Catherine the Great, named one the most powerful European monarchs was one of most outstanding rulers in Russian history. Born a German princess she became more Russian than the Russians, adopting the language and religion of her new home. Catherine II was an ambitious and ruthless leader, an absolute ruler in Russia whose reforms were based both on autocratic principles and enlightened ideals. The debates are still open whether Catherine was an Enlightened Monarch or True Autocrat. She is often called a model of the benevolent despot.

One the one hand Catherine was known as a great patron of the arts and literature. Being an avid art collector, she filled the Winter Palace (later the Hermitage) with priceless masterpieces. Along with Free Economic Society and the Imperial Public Library Hermitage was one of the three pioneering institutions which aimed at spreading education and enlightenment in Russia.

Catherine came to the throne as the most literate and best educated autocrat in the history of Russia. She spoke French fluently, wrote plays, essays, and treatises on a number of topics. Catherine valued books and acquired the libraries of both Voltaire and Diderot upon the deaths of those great thinkers.

Under her rule, more books were published in Russia than in all previous years and the modern Russian language replaced the older "church Slavonic" language. She also sponsored the translation of foreign classics, including works by ancient authors such as Homer and Cicero and recent European writers including Voltaire, Hume, Fielding, and Swift. Moscow University was founded and Catherine encouraged the building of elementary and intermediate schools.

Catherine is considered to be the promoter of female education in Russia. The arrangement of the private Society for the Education of Young Noble Ladies in St. Petersburg (1764), which was factually the start of women's education in Russia, was made by her order by I. I. Betsky.

She commissioned works by pre-eminent artists and craftsmen, and imported not only European art but its culture and skills too, and successfully established Russian academies and factories. Foreign celebrities- Denis Diderot, Leonhard Euler, Peter Simon Pallas, Giacomo Casanova, Alessandro Cagliostro- flocked to her court from all parts of Europe. St. Petersburg became one of Europe's major cultural centres during her reign.

St. Petersburg owes to her one of its most famous landmarks - the 'Bronze Horseman', a statue of Peter the Great on the banks of the Neva River.

Catherine also established a medical commission in 1763 which helped to improve medical conditions in Russia. She led the way in vaccinating Russians by taking the first vaccine. She also wanted Russia to be able to produce its own medicines and surgical equipment.

Catherine helped expand Russia through two Russo-Turkish wars, one in 1768-1774 and one from 1787-1792, through the addition of Ukraine from 1781-1786 and by gaining portions of Poland through partitions of Poland.

From Catherine's times the Russians particularly treasure the memory of Alexander Suvorov, one of the few great generals in history to never lose a battle.

To foster economic development, she encouraged trade by ending various restrictions on commerce, and promoted the settlement of underpopulated areas by attracting both Russians and foreigners to them.

Catherine's ambitions plans for domestic reforms were implemented in 'Instruction', (The Bolshoi Nakaz (1767)) a statement of legal principles that aimed at replacing archaic and inefficient Russian Code of Laws. The Instruction was a true product of the Enlightenment. It was not only influenced by the French Enlightenment. Even more than 400 articles were copied verbatim from the works of Montesquieu, Beccaria, and other contemporary thinkers. Among its other features, it proposed a system granting equal protection under law to all persons, and emphasized prevention of criminal acts rather than the imposition of harsh punishment. However the Legislative Commission failed to outline the new code of laws and the Instruction never circulated in Russia outside Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Ideas of the Enlightenment were popularized by the Russian theatre. However the leading playwright of Catherine's era, such Denis Fonvizin, ridiculed the rusticity of provincial gentry and their thoughtless imitation of all things French. A drama about a popular uprising against Rurik's rule by another playwright Yakov Knyazhnin, was declared Jacobin and publicly burnt in 1791.

Catherine became a great patron of Russian opera. She sent some domestic composers abroad to study art of music composition and later they produced some operas in Italian and French. The empress encouraged composers of Russian origin to compose operas to the Russian librettos and even was a an opera librettist herself.

During Catherine's reign Even the monolith of the Russian Orthodox Church seemed to succumb to the influences of the Enlightenment ideals which was expressed in declaration of religious tolerance.

However the great ideals of the Enlightenment did not limit her role as the autocratic ruler of Russia. Catherine was willing to reform certain aspects of civic and social life, but not at the expense of her own power. Under Catherine, serfdom expanded and became more firmly entrenched. Catherine helped spread the institution of serfdom by giving away large tracts of land and the people on the land as gifts and rewards thus increasing the number of serfs and the places where serfdom was common. She also legalized serfdom in the Ukraine.

The critics viewed her reign as a defence of the ruling class's interest and an oppression of the peasantry. Catherine promoted local government and created governing districts. In 1785 the Charter to the Nobility was passed. This recognized the gentry of each province as a group with an elected leader that could directly petition Catherine. It also restored previous rights and privileges of the gentry. The gentry were free from obligations to the state and from taxation. They also gained greater property rights. They were the sole owners of their estates and gained much more control over the serfs. During this time, the poor and the serfs lost much of their privileges and revolts occurred. Which culminated in the 1773 Pugachev Revolt, perhaps the greatest peasant uprising of the century), violently suppressed by the Empress. The serfdom became equivalent to slavery under Catherine II.

Catherine worked to increase education in Russia, however this was mainly the privilege of the nobility. The elementary schools and secondary schools she created were supposed to be free to all but economics often kept the poor people out of the schools. Elementary schools were largely private schools that poor people could not afford to attend, and therefore they could not get into the secondary schools.

Censorship prohibited the publication of books that criticized her reign or the autocratic system. Even Catherine's favourite poet, Gavrila Derzhavin- who sought in his odes to combine amusement with instruction - would see some of his poems banned from print during the last years of her reign.

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