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The Enlightened Empress

The Autocratic Empress
"Freedom, you are the soul and everything is dead without you!... I want obedience to laws but not slaves... Power without the trust of the people means nothing... It is against Christianity and justice to make slaves of people. They are all born free!"- wrote Catherine a year before her accession to the throne.

The ideas about the state, society, moral, religion and law which Catherine II found in the books of 18th-century French philosophers, representatives of the Enlightenment, and her general inclination to reading helped her to develop a personality which was by nature sharp-witted, keen on observation, brave and ambitious. Her good fortune brought her to the throne. The Empress, who thought about herself as a student of Voltaire, Montesquieu and Diderot, sincerely believed that having ascended the throne she would put their ideas into practice. In 1766 Catherine II issued a Manifesto calling for the convocation of a Legislative Commission to work out a new code of laws that would satisfy all her subjects.

By the first meeting of the deputies the Empress had composed her Nakaz based on the ideas of European thinkers of the Enlightenment, in particular Montesquieu, whose treatise On the Spirit of Laws she considered to be the "prayer-book of monarchs with common sense". However, the essence of the Nakaz, which proclaimed the equality of all before the law, the public trial and public education, was alien to the psychology of Russian society and it aroused the evident displeasure of the Russian nobility who did not allow Catherine to change the serfdom customs. Having felt a threat to her power, the Empress rejected her progressive ideas. As she later wrote: "In the understanding of sovereigns who are most strict with themselves, state policy is seldom governed by moral laws; rather it is utility which directs their actions."

From this time on, Catherine strived to strengthen autocracy - the basis of the Russian state. She granted Russian nobility exceptional privileges and severely suppressed peasant revolts. She participated in the tripartite division of Poland whereby Russia acquired Eastern Slav territories. Following military victory over Turkey, she consolidated Russia's control of the Black Sea coast and joined the Crimean Peninsula and the Northern Caucasus to Russia.

Catherine II's political successes enhanced her personal prestige, but her reign took on particular splendour from the activities which created her special image as enlightened monarch in the eyes of the world. Catherine supported the development of arts and sciences and founded the Russian Academy of Sciences as a centre for the humanities. The Empress supervised the activities of the Academy of Arts founded in 1757 by her predecessor, Empress Elizabeth Petrovna. Catherine attracted renowned architects, artists and sculptors to St Petersburg. She was responsible for opening the Bolshoi Stone Theatre in the capital.

Having maintained correspondence with the great philosophers of her time, Diderot and Voltaire, Catherine won the right to be ranked among the intellectual elite of Europe. Celebrities met at her court where they got possibility to reveal their liberal ideas. But outside her palace the foundations of Russian autocracy remained unshaken.


Four books from
the library of Catherine II
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Portrait of Catherine II Holding the text of her Instructions ("Nakaz")
Unknown miniaturist of the late 18th century
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Snuff-box with a portrait of Catherine II as Minerva
Master Jean Pierre Adore
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View of the Embankment of Vasilyevsky Island near the Academy of Arts in St Petersburg as seen from the Neva
Thomas Malton the Elder

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View of the Bolshoi Theatre in St Petersburg
Gabriel Ludwig Lory, Mathias Gabriel Lory

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