Catherine the Revolutionary
Yekaterina Alexeevna, also known as Catherine II of Russia, was a Prussian-born
Empress who ruled from July 1762 to her unexpected death in November 1796. She ascended to power after the coup d’etat which took her husband’s (Peter III) life. She is known to be the longest-ruling and, by far, the most well-known and influential Tsarina. Catherine was among several European monarchs to embrace enlightenment-style rule and thought, encouraging advancement in rights, medical institutions, and new governmental structures. In addition,
Catherine expanded the size of Russia by acquiring more than 200,000 square miles of land, the most for any monarch since Ivan the Terrible (13), as well as increasing the population of such areas and ensuring property rights for those who inhabited them (12). Lastly, Catherine is well known as a patron of the arts, literature and education, the most significant examples being the famed Hermitage museum and the Smol’ny Institute (4). Thus, her enlightenment rule, massive land expansions and patronage of the arts make Catherine the Great truly revolutionary.
The ‘Charter of Rights, Freedoms and Prerogatives of the Noble Russian Dvorianstvo’ represents Catherine’s enlightened rule and commitment to property rights and is arguably among the most significant legislation in Russian history. It cemented the previously insecure future of noble lands, along with many other civil liberties following Peter III’s measures that exempted nobles from obligatory state service (12). As a foreign-born ruler who felt highly insecure in her position, Catherine enacted this charter to gain the loyalty of the nobles and cement her place as Tsarina. While the Charter only gave rights to a privileged few, Western history repeatedly shows that universal rights often originate from the privileges of the few.
Catherine also considered the emancipation of serfs. Her notes proposed that all Russians born
Andovehr Christovox Turszick
after the year of the Charter be considered free (12). This is notable, as it is considered the first time the issue of serf emancipation had been pondered by any Russian ruler.
In addition to her enlightened views of property rights, Catherine also supported medical advancements. Under her rule, Moscow was established as the medical epicenter of Russia (17).
She welcomed foreign physicians to practice in Moscow and subsidized business ventures for the manufacture of surgical equipment. Young men were advised to study medicine (17). Efforts were made to reduce the exceedingly high infant mortality rate, especially among peasants (16).
Catherine reigned during the height of smallpox and introduced inoculations to Moscow; she was the first to receive the injection. Though successful, her tradition-breaking actions were frowned upon by many for religious and superstitious reasons.
Along with her progressive leadership in civil rights and medicine, Catherine also introduced enlightened governmental institutions. For two years during her reign, Catherine created the Grand Commission (alternatively the Legislative Committee) in Moscow. This commission was comprized of members from all parts of Russian society, from soldiers to college professors, and was consulted by Catherine often (2). This body was created to prepare a new code of Russian law and its deliberations were often guided by the Наказ (Instruction), a document created by Catherine for this purpose (6). The Наказ is considered Catherine’s first foray into the world of literature. It reflected both her political views and the desires of the
Russian people, as it was influenced heavily by the cahiers put together by the various classes on
Catherine’s orders. The concept for the Grand Commission was based heavily on another enlightened body, France’s National Assembly, which demonstrates Catherine’s commitment to utilizing enlightenment ideas in her rule.