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Catherine II: Her duplicity reflects Russia's conflict between East and West

In 18th century, a powerful Enlightenment movement broke out in Western Europe. At this time, a self-proclaimed "enlightened monarchy" appeared in Russia - Catherine II. She is a very controversial character. She is originally from Germany and is heavily influenced by Western culture and Enlightenment ideas, but she actively promotes anti-Enlightenment politics in Russia. Today, many consider her a hypocritical and insidious empress, because her thoughts and actions are completely inconsistent. However, given Russian environment of time and her own ambitions, one can understand her helplessness.

One, a queen from Germany, but she integrated into Russian nation

After death of Peter Great, Westernization of Russia slowed down. In 37 years from 1725 to 1762, Russia had six tsars, survived countless upheavals, and old nobles regained control of country. The king was busy drinking and drunkenness, and nobles were busy fighting for power and profit, so how could they think more about reform. At this time, capital again moved from St. Petersburg to Moscow, where conservative forces were concentrated, and apart from establishment of Russian Academy of Sciences and Moscow University, other cultural events seemed to stop.

Catherine II: Her duplicity reflects Russia's conflict between East and West

Peter Great

However, during this period there were some structural changes in power of highest Russian aristocracy, that is, power of German aristocrats rose and gradually took over country. In 1730, young Peter II died, and Russian nobles elected Anna Ioannovna, known in history as Anna I, as new Tsar. The Empress was very close to German nobles, her sister Catherine was married to Germany, and her favorite Biron was also German. During this period, German nobles, led by Billund, came to power. The later Peter III also came from Germany. As a Russian tsar, he did not speak Russian, and even promoted Prussianism, completely disregarding interests of Russia, so he was quickly forced out.

Catherine II also belonged to German nobility. Her real name was Sophia Augusta and her father was Duke of Anhalt-Zerbst in Prussia. Influenced by Western culture since childhood, she enjoys reading works of enlighteners such as Montesquieu and Voltaire. Though powerless at time, she was ambitious: she is said to have had idea of ​​becoming queen when she was 6 years old. In 1744 she married Russia and became wife of Peter III. In fact, she generally looked down on Peter III, she cared only for power of Peter. In her memoirs, she wrote: “I had a premonition in my heart that there would be no happiness between us, I was driven only by political ambition. Russia.

Catherine II: Her duplicity reflects Russia's conflict between East and West

Although both she and Peter III came from Germany, their attitude towards Russian culture was completely opposite. To enlist support of Russian aristocracy, she presented herself as a defender of Russian culture. Despite her father's opposition, she converted to Orthodoxy and, in order to learn Russian well, slept only a few hours a day. During her conversion, she went so far as to read 50 pages of Orthodox prayers in Russian. These actions touched archbishop who opposed her. She secretly won over Janissaries, dissatisfied with Peter III. This behavior caused her to start getting support of Russian nobility. In 1762, guards made a coup and proclaimed her empress, known in history as "Catherine II". A "very cunning and ambitious", but "disguisedly humble and faithful" empress came to power.

Secondly, to promote "enlightened autocracy" and become heir to cause of Peter Great.

After Catherine came to power, her position was unstable. At that time, national strength of Russia was almost exhausted due to "Seven Years' War", oppression of serfdom was very serious, peasant uprisings broke out in 11 of 23 provinces of country. In addition, many nobles were also worried that their interests would not be protected and tried to stage a coup again. She realized that if she wants to gain a foothold in Russia, she must have support of Russian nobility.

So, she's done five big things since she got on stage. Firstly, nobles were awarded major merits, given a large amount of land, money and serfs; secondly, they measured out land to maintain noble land ownership; thirdly, they confiscated lands of church. and nationalized; "First landowner", to suppress peasant uprisings throughout country; fifthly, to establish broad peaceful diplomatic relations with European countries and ensure a peaceful international environment for development of Russia. This policy corresponded to realities of development of Russia at that time, so it also received support of nobility.

Catherine II: Her duplicity reflects Russia's conflict between East and West

After everything stabilized, Catherine II declared herself successor to career of Peter Great and began to carry out Western reforms. Back in 1732, Anna I moved capital back to St. Petersburg, and then Elizabeth I restored some of measures of Peter Great, which was regarded as a continuation of work of Peter Great's reforms and "Europeanization" of Russia. But they are all obsessed with pleasure and are not going to engage in state affairs, which makes reform of Europeanization of Russia virtually stagnant.

Catherine claimed to be promoting "enlightened autocracy" and corresponded with Voltaire and others to improve her reputation. She attached great importance to development of education and, at her royal expense, opened first women's school in Russia. In 1782, she invited Serbian educator Odor to Russia to help popularize schools. Subsequently, Russian schools were built on a large scale. By end of 19th century, there were already 315 public schools in Russia with over 20,000 students. However, in some private letters, she put forward idea of ​​"fooling people", "the common people should not be educated, because when they know as much as we do, they will not obey us as they do now. ." It can be seen that her thoughts are also contradictory.

Catherine II: Her duplicity reflects Russia's conflict between East and West

Russian educator Radishev

In 1767, she tried to introduce European law into Russia. It took her two years to put together 600-page Codex Guide, filled with Enlightenment ideas of equality, liberty, and fraternity. In 1767, she summoned 564 representatives of National Legislative Council to begin legislative work. However, for various reasons, this committee did not formulate a new code until 1774, when it ceased its work. Catherine's legislation is a superficial act. Due to realities of Russia and personal reasons, legislation cannot be truly implemented. This is nothing but establishment of an "enlightened and authoritarian" image by her. It was during this period that she forcibly deprived Ukraine of autonomy.

She strongly opposed serfdom in her letters, but defended interests of landlords and suppressed resistance of serfs. She proposed universal welfare, but it was never implemented. She founded many newspapers and periodicals that allowed people to express their opinions and identify shortcomings of Russian system, but she persecuted enlightenment thinkers Krykov and Radzhishev, who criticized Russian serfdom at that time. In short, her ideas are completely contrary to policies she promotes. However, her reform of Westernization still brought many achievements, for example, from 1775 to 1800, 7500 books were published in Russia, while in time of Peter Great only 600 books were published.

Third, give up "enlightenment" and become a "noble queen".

From 1773 to 1775, Pugachev Uprising broke out in Russia, largest peasant uprising in European history. After this uprising, shortcomings of local administrative division of Russia were exposed. That is, since 1775, reign of Catherine II entered second stage, at this stage she abandoned "enlightened autocracy" and became a direct spokesman for aristocratic class. Therefore, people call this stage "reactionary stage".

Catherine II: Her duplicity reflects Russia's conflict between East and West

Pugachev's uprising

Beginning in 1775, Catherine began to implement a new regional plan, replacing former three-level system province-state-county with a two-level system province-county. The counties have broken with historical traditions and geographic forms and are completely divided by population, with approximately 20,000 to 30,000 people per county and 200,000 to 300,000 people per province. The highest local governor is governor appointed by central government. The county-level chiefs are mostly elected by nobles. Cities became independent administrative units, governed mainly by elected citizens' officials. The reform of administrative division benefited nobles and merchants.

To make up for losses suffered by nobles in peasant uprising, she issued a loan of 15 billion rubles to nobles. In 1785, an imperial decree was promulgated, legally fixing that nobility is a privileged estate in Russia, and it has various privileges, such as elections, exemption from military service, exemption from personal taxes. In addition to nobles, interests of merchant class were also guaranteed, and those who owned more than 500 rubles were granted special privileges. Catherine's politics were highly valued by nobility, and she was called "Queen of Nobles".

Catherine II: Her duplicity reflects Russia's conflict between East and West


To adapt to centralization and external expansion, Catherine continued to expand her army. From 1767 to 1799, there were only 32 conscripts in Russia, bringing size of army to 1.25 million, of which army numbered 500,000, ranking first in Europe. In navy, she restored Baltic Fleet and built a new Black Sea Fleet. To meet needs of expansion of army, Russia has established 3 arsenals, 15 gun factories and 60 ammunition factories.

Catherine II: Her duplicity reflects Russia's conflict between East and West

During time of Catherine, Russian Empire reached its peak of power. She unleashed two Russian-Turkish wars, annexed Crimean Khanate, seized access to Black Sea, participated in division of Poland three times, and Russia got 62% of Polish lands, interests in land. After start of French Revolution, she joined Anti-French Alliance to crush democratic revolution in Europe, forcing Russia to dominate Western Europe and become "European gendarmerie". In addition to dominating Europe, Catherine also wanted to be hegemon of world. She extended Russian aggression to Egypt, Persia and America, trying to create a Russian empire with six capitals. She said: "If I live 200 years, all of Europe will be under rule of Russia."


The behavior of Catherine II is just a manifestation of Russia's wanderings between East and West. As someone deeply influenced by Western culture, Catherine must love West even more to core. However, they are insignificant compared to personal power. If she wants to firmly gain a foothold in Russia, she must please nobles and follow path of eastern autocracy, and if not, she will resign. This is a Russian dead end. The monarch wants to change Russia, but reality cannot change monarch to Russia. Neither Peter Great nor Catherine can fundamentally change Russia.

However, peasant population has always occupied a large part of Russia, and only by completely changing peasant question, it is possible to change fate of Russia. It is no longer possible to carry out reforms. Although later in Russia a reform of serfdom was carried out in 1861 and a reform of State Duma Conference in 1905, they could not solve this fundamental problem. Russia's problems can only be solved by a broad socialist revolution. This is also main reason why Russia chose socialism.

Russia is a country between eastern and western civilizations, but if you go to east, you will fall into abyss, and if you go to west, internal problems will not be solved. Therefore, Russia must embark on a unique path, which is its own path.

Recommended reading

From enlightened despotism to European gendarmerie: Russian Enlightenment reveals hypocrisy of tsarism

The reform of Peter Great: Russia's great attempt to move towards Western civilization

Why is it difficult for Russia to integrate into West and be recognized by East? Tell us about influence of geographical environment on it

Reform of Ivan IV: He kept Russia from West and sailed to East from absolutism

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