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Catherine II was Russia's first ruler, who was considered as enlightened.

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Catherine II was Russia's first ruler, who was considered as enlightened. As a child growing up in Germany, she was given an enlightened education. She enthusiastically read 'enlightened' literature, and soon became a disciple of the enlightenment. As Empress she continued to read the works of Locke, Montesquieu, and Voltaire. Although it is widely accepted that Catherine II was an enlightened despot, it has also been argued that she did nothing more than allow the continuation of policies that had began in the reign of Peter I; "Although she claimed to be an enlightened despot, Catherine II did no more than continue the policies of her predecessors." Another argument as to why Catherine didn't carry out more enlightened reforms was due to her not wanting to make these enlightened reforms; the policies that Catherine II adopted were not adopted because of her beliefs, and/or her desire to create an 'enlightened society', but were instead taken out to maintain her power, and to satisfy her vanity. Historians like Harris claim that Catherine only appeared to be enlightened to enhance her reputation with the philosophes. This view is also taken by R. Charques, who states that the "enlightenment in Catherine was not much deeper than her vanity; despotism on the other hand was implicit in her ambition."1 There has also been the case that Catherine had recognised the danger of going too far and/or too fast. She had experience the downfall of her husband for doing just that. As H. Nickelson puts it "No despot was ever more subtly aware that politics is the art of the possible and that everything can ...read more.


Harris on the other hand claims that Catherine could rely on the devotion of those who had gotten her in to power, and also on the fact that Russia was accustomed to an autocracy, and therefore would not have had to worry about appeasing the nobility. I disagree with this claim, although Catherine could rely on the devotion of the conspirators she still had to maintain the support of the rest of the nobility. As Lentin writes "It was after all, for antagonising the nobility that her husband and her son each met his death."14 Catherine had watched the downfall of Peter III, and wasn't going to make his mistakes. On coming to power Catherine had inherited a nation whose workforce was predominantly conscripted. The serfs worked for the nobles, and although in theory Catherine was against serfdom, she knew few nobles would support her in any move to free the serfs. Oppenheim claims that Catherine knew that "abolishing or even reducing serfdom would entail enormous social upheaval and violent protests from the nobles; and that she lacked the administrative machinery and armed forces to enforce such a reform against their wishes."15 Princess Dashkora also tells of the noble's unwillingness to emancipate the serfs she wrote, "a noble would have to be out of his mind to voluntarily surrender the source of his own prosperity. Madarianga disagrees with Oppenheim she says that Catherine is criticised "for giving away thousands of free peasants to her favourites and public savants, thus enserfing them"16.This view is also taken by Harris who claims that the Russian occupation of the Ukraine "brought with it the oppressions ...read more.


In some cases Catherine actually did the opposite to what the enlightenment proposed. Catherine made Russian society even more unfair. She cemented the privileges of the Russian nobility in law. As Shennen puts it "The liberties of the nobles constituted the liberties of a state or class and had significance precisely because other segments of the population, notably serfs, did not share them"28 On the other hand Blackwood suggests that Catherine was a genuine reformer, however the problems that faced Russia prevented her ideas from becoming a reality. James White supports Blackwoods claim, and he writes "altogether it is fair to describe Catherine as almost certainly enlightened in her wishes."29 Andrews sums up both Blackwood and white's argument; "Catherine was evidently influenced by the ideas of the philosophes but the size of Russia, the political power of the nobles and her own programme of conquest all prevented their being put into practice." I personally agree with the argument that Catherine was genuinely 'enlightened', and that the reason why she couldn't incorporate enlightened reform into Russian law was the complexities of the Russian situation. Catherine herself put this predicament well, when she wrote to Diderot; "With all your great principles which I understand very well, one would make fine books but very bad business. You forget in all your plans of reform the diference in our positions; you only work on paper which endures all things, but I poor Empress, work on the human skin which is irritable and ticklish to a very different degree." "The most important reason why Catherine II could not achieve her enlightened ambitions was her dependence on the nobility." To what extent do you agree with this view? ...read more.

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