In accessing the actual “greatness” attributed to Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia during the European Enlightenment, one must look at all aspects of her rule. Her outgoing personality left her to be described as anything from “terrible” to “great”. She could be deceptive yet honest, humorous yet firm, and light-hearted yet wise. Thus the Enlightenment would not have been a part of Russian history if not for the determination of Catherine the Great. Catherine the Great’s exceptional character and illuminating visions brought Russia into the age of enlightenment.
Because of Catherine’s lack of a personal faith, she did not hesitate to penalize the Orthodox Church to accomplish other goals. Palmer states that being dragged from her German home and family, Catherine was not interested in complying with all customs and traditions in the church, which she was thrown into. It laid no burden on her conscience to tax the churches and keep close records of their doings. She even found in them a convenient and efficient source to collect funds. She allowed religious freedom for the most part, allowing the Catholic Church to build schools, but kept a close eye on their funds, making sure the desired amount came her way. Her lack of religious conviction was not the reason her country shifted Russia into the enlightenment. Thus, her lack of faith did not affect her impact on the enlightenment, since the average enlightened mind was void of any religious faith as well (Palmer 322).
It was Catherine’s reforms that led Russia into the age of enlightenment. During the time of her reign, over 1/3 of the population was imprisoned by serfdom or another form of slavery. Her good intentions were hindered by Pugachev’s rebellion, the most violent uprising in the history of Russia. Serfs from everywhere joined the former Russian solider in a violent rebellion against the Russian government, demanding an end in serfdom, taxes, and military conscription. Catherine’s intention was not to further deteriorate serfs but the violence left her with no choice. However, her enlightened attitude was shown as she proclaimed that even the leader of the rebellion would not be tortured or beaten as in previous similar situations.
She intended to reduce the use of torture and limit it as not to scare criminals away from breaking the law but through her inner kindness. What may be seen as a cruel way to treat someone in the 21st century, her idea for serfs, who were the poorest of the poor, was to purchase their freedom, this was an extremely generous act in the 18th century. A common misconception of Catherine the Great was that she lacked intelligence, where as in reality she was a very knowledgeable woman. Her inability to speak the language of Russian fluently proves very insignificant in her transformation of Russia itself.
Catherine planned to have laws drafted that were more comprehendible to the average citizen. Though this act was never fully carried out, the empress was one of the first tsars or tsarinas to make a genuine attempt in helping the average subject. This can be seen as being very similar to the enlightenment as in France, where the enlightenment was most dominate. The literacy rate was growing and people yearned to know and understand the social issues of the day. Catherine took this evolving trend to move her society into a more comparable nation to those in Western Europe.
It is important to note that her fear of being removed from office was a significant factor in her decision-making tactics. In reference to John Alexander, she was determined to keep a firm hold upon the thrown of Russia. She worked extremely hard, up to twelve hours a day. She took the misconceptions that she heard in society and used them to her advantage by allying with whoever was thought to be targeted by her (Alexander 18).
Personally, Catherine fit the model and mold of an enlightenment figure. A Personal View of Catherine the Great gives numerous examples of this. When she was not making drastic decisions to dramatically change her country, she found herself bored and turned to reading books on history, politics, and philosophy. Her deep readings were where she learned of her favorite ruler, Henry IV of France. What she perceived to be his strengths and weaknesses, was used to learn from and apply them to her own rulings.
She was deeply affected personally by the state and conditions of her country, which made her an enlightened figure, showing the she, cared on a more personal basis. ( De Madariaga 45). Her enlightened way of thinking led her to believe not only that she was a person capable of doing great good but also great wrong and remembered this in every situation brought to her. According to Palmer, she was once quoted to have said in a letter to Diderot, “You write only on paper, but I have to write on human skin which is much more irritable and ticklish,” (Palmer 322).
Catherine’s personal relationships with various enlightenment figures helped to transform her thinking and through her insight, pull Russia into the age of enlightenment. In accordance to De Madariaga, her readings of Voltaire developed into a close correspondence with him. A philosophe herself, she was so interested in the works of scholars around her, she bought a complete copy of Diderot’s Encyclopedia. Through these great minds, Catherine was able to portray her personality and ideas in the most attractive light (Madariaga 45).
It is a difficult task to talk about this empress without mentioning her affairs with numerous men. Though this could have been merely a personal desire of hers, she did use her lovers to her advantage at certain times. This is conveyed in the case of her former lover Stanislas Poniatowski. She had him elected as king in 1763 and used his position to strengthen her hold on Poland, making herself the only ruler to be involved in all three partitions of Poland. However, Catherine claimed to consider her protector of Polish liberties.
Catherine’s ideas in regard to other nations were purely expansionist. Though this would extend serfdom throughout a larger Russia, she believed that expanding the nation would prove to be greater for the nation in the end. Catherine’s ideas did have flaws but it is important to note that no leader in a country in the state that Russia was in would be able to solve all of its social problems.
Good or bad in a person’s eyes, Catherine the Great did an unimaginable amount for her country. Her insight and intellect brought Russia into the age of enlightenment to eventually catch up with the rest of world. Catherine’s ruling will forever be studied as she over came an unbearable load which was bestowed upon her.
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