Sunday, January 24, 2016

Who were Russia's Benevolent Despots? (Part 1): Catherine the Great

Left to Right: Catherine the Great, Alexander I and Alexander II
In 1762, Russia had a new ruler, a German Princess who rose up to the position of Tsar and autocrat. Her rule espoused a new type of leadership – Benevolent absolutism – which became the model of future Romanovs. Explore the reign of Russia’s benevolent despots with Catherine the Great as the first to embrace it.

Catherine the Great, Alexander I and Alexander II ruled as Benevolent Despots of Russia. Benevolent despotism was a combination of two ideas that prevailed in Europe and Russia. It had different names, from Enlightened Despotism to Enlightened Absolutism or Benevolent Absolutism. Under this style of rule, a monarch ruled with absolute power, where his/her words were the law of the land, but enlightened, where reason, freedom and rights prevailed in a way.

Absolutism and the Enlightenment

Absolutism was the style of rule used by monarchs for centuries. Under it, monarchs ruled by divine right. As time went by, absolutism was followed by elitism, feudalism, and oligarchy, paving the way to strict social hierarchy. This hierarchy along with the privileges of the elite developed a resistance against any reform of the status quo. Anyway to curb the power of the monarch and the position of the aristocracy were immediately crushed. In the 17th century, no one became more renown as an absolute monarch than Louis XIV of France.

The Enlightenment, on the other, placed importance in freedom – especially intellectual freedom. Freedom that allowed intellectuals to question the nature of the individual, the society, the world and even the universe itself. This new ideas were applied in various fields, from the arts, culture, books, newspapers and later on society itself. From this inquiries came the ideas of equality, liberty, and rights for all men.

Numerous countries contributed to the rise of the Enlightenment movement. France became the hotbed for the ideas of the Enlightenment promoted by writers such as Rene Descartes, Voltaire, Denis Diderot, and Baron de Montesquieu. England also boasted a flourishing age of Enlightenment with the writer John Locke and its representative type of government with its parliamentary system and civil rights that began with the old Magna Carta.

Enlightenment Arrived in Russia

In Russia, absolute rule reign across the land ever since. The Romanov Dynasty, established in 1613, exercise its power to maintain tradition or enact reforms. On the other hand, the principles of the Enlightenment flowed to Russia during the reign of Peter the Great. Tsar Peter opened the country to foreigners and international trade. And with trade came the exchange of ideas. Among the foreigners that arrived in Russia and spread the ideas of Enlightenment was a young German princess named Sophie Fredericke von Anhalt-Zebst. She took the Russian of Catherine Alexseyevna and married the future Tsar Peter III upon the request of Empress Elizabeth. She eventually rose up in world history as Catherine II the Great.

Catherine the Great

Rise to power

Catherine II the Great was one of the leading proponents of Enlightened Absolutism in Europe and a champion of it in Russia, but she started as a German princess in a land of tundra. She was an abused wife and a neglected grand duchess. As a young German princess from the heartland of Europe, she was bright, intelligent, and observant – characters of a true intellect. She read books, most of which about the ideas of Enlightenment. In 1762, her husband ascended to the throne as Tsar Peter III. However, Peter’s rule was brief due to what many saw as his insanity and love over Russia’s enemy Prussia and its King Frederick the Great. Peter’s popularity plummeted and many looked to Catherine as the country’s savior. In July 9, 1762 with the help of the ruling elite, Catherine ousted her husband in a coup, ending ultimately with Peter’s assassination. By September, Catherine was crowned in Moscow as Empress Catherine II Autocrat and Tsarina of All Russia.

Catherine ruled not just an absolute monarch but also enlightened and benevolent. She wanted to be seen as a reformist and a popular ruler but still maintaining the status quo. She maintained the power of the Romanovs, the fledgling landed nobility and the degrading institution of serfdom. She ruled with vigor but also with a preference toward stability and legitimacy.

As a foreign princess and a Romanov only by marriage, she knew that she was in a precarious situation – she was a usurper. Thus, she needed the support of all of her subject if she wanted to maintain her rule and prevent ending up like his husband – disgrace and dead.

Her Reign

Catherine displayed her Enlightenment ideals in various ways. She kept correspondence with the writers Denis Diderot and Voltaire. Diderot himself even visited Catherine’s court in 1774. In 1762, she empowered the Senate, expanding its responsibilities and its size.

In 1767, she convened a legislative commission composed of hundreds of representatives to discuss reforming Russia’s legal system. In order to guide the commission, Catherine issued the Great Instruction of 1767 or known as Nakaz that detailed her progressive- inspired ideas for legal reforms. Under the Nakaz she promoted the creation of a penal code, abolition of torture and capital punishment (except for the most gruesome crime).

She promoted public welfare by bringing economic progress as well as improvements in health care. In 1768, he began a massive campaign of inoculating Russians from small pox, which at that time feared due to the technologies infancy.

In 1775, she began reorganizing the huge local administrative structure of the Empire. It meant to improve efficiency in administrating even the most far flung regions and provinces of Russia.

Catherine reduced the powers and wealth of the Russian Orthodox Church. In 1764, she took over large tracts of church lands. She also promoted religious tolerance towards other religions like Christianity and the Old Believers of the Russian Orthodox Church, who had been stigmatize since the 17th century as a result of the Raskol.

Literature, education, and sciences also found favor in Catherine the Great. Satires and academic journals grew in Russian social life. Translation of great foreign literary works also grew, continuing the westernization of Russia. New educational institution began to function under Catherine. Smolny Institute began providing education for young women. But the greatest cultural and educational legacy of Catherine the Great was the great museum of Hermitage. In contained hundreds and even thousands of artwork in one palace.

Pit Falls

Catherine’s benevolent absolutism mostly ended with dissatisfaction. Her legislative commission failed to produce a result. Catherine took part in the partition of Poland along with Prussia and Austria. She enthroned her lover as the King of Poland and prevented the creation of a Polish constitution.

She also waged war against Turkey. It caused massive conscription of men and heavy taxation of the peasants and commoners. As a result many Russian fell to poverty and hardship. So much so, many saw hope and rose up in support of the rebellion of Yemelyan Pugachev in 1773.

Pucgachev promised to alleviate the terrible conditions of the majority of the Russian people. The rebellion, however, failed in 1775. Its leader, Yemelyan Pugachev was paraded before being executed in Moscow.

But the most pressing issue that Catherine failed to answer was serfdom. Personally, Catherine loathed serfdom. She saw it as barbaric and backward. However, her power base - the landed nobility - relied on serfs for their income. Thus, she held herself back from abolishing it fearing a rebellion and her ousting as Empress.

The greatest caution of Catherine about reforms, however, happened in the late years of her reign. The French Revolution changed Catherine the Great’s perception of her enlightened ideals. The French Revolution was a product of the Age of Enlightenment. It took its climax with the beheading of its King Louis XVI. Catherine was shock to her core upon hearing the news of the execution. After the event, she saw her enlightenment ideas with suspicion and caution, fearing that a revolution might also take place in Russia and the same faith as Louis XVI might befall to her. She then began to restrict liberties, stomping down criticism and dissent. It made her last years clouded by reactionary policies. Catherine the Great, Russia’s benevolent absolute ruler, passed away in 1796.

After Catherine

Following Catherine’s reign, Russia was ruled by Catherine’s son Paul. Paul’s reign was marred with madness similar to that of his father Peter III. He also showed brutality with his draconian laws that made Russian tremble in fear of their Emperor. Eventually, the Russians got fed up and removed him from power in 1801 and replaced him with his son, Alexander. Alexander I decided to rule with the spirit of his grandmother Catherine the Great. He wanted rule as well as a Benevolent Despot.

Summing Up Catherine and Benevolent Despotism

Catherine showed great energy in ruling Russia. Indeed, she ruled with energy and vigor for reform. But her reign cannot be judged without disappointment and criticisms. She failed to enact serious legal reforms. She also failed in abolishing serfdom, which the Enlightenment deplored. But her failure to abolish serfdom was justifiable by her political situation. She sat on a throne as a usurper. She cannot make any radical reform that would jeopardize her situation, thus she held back even if she personally wanted to abolish serfdom.

Nevertheless, she had no justification in her ruthlessness towards other countries. She took away Poland’s desire to form a constitution, a vital part towards liberty that the Age of Enlightenment offered. She improved her subject’s condition, but took most of them as soldiers in her conquest. Thus, she showed truly what a Benevolent Despot was about – a ruler aiming for reforms and reason yet maintaining the strong position of absolute power securing the obedience of the people regardless.

Explore also:

Alexander, John T. "Catherine II." Encyclopedia of Russian History. 2004. (October 4, 2015). 

Basista, Jakub. "Catherine II (the Great), Empress of Russia (1729-1796)." In Encyclopedia of the Age of Political Revolutions and New Ideologies, 1760-1815

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