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The Age of Enlightenment brought an influx of ideas centering on reason to Europe never seen before. These ideas impacted many fields, most noticeably government, as it led to an entire series of so-called “enlightened despots.” One of the three main enlightened despots was Catherine the Great of Russia. While Catherine sought to rule according to many Enlightenment ideals, such as justice reform, equal taxation, and equal protection under the law, she still took steps to ensure her absolutist powers: exempting herself from the law, allowing corruption, and maintaining serfdom.
Enlightened despotism was a form of government in which absolutist monarchs sought education, social, and legal reform. Other common reforms were administrative reforms, instituting religious toleration, and economic development. In these respects, Catherine the Great certainly fit that description. In her new law code, she prevented the wealthy from oppressing the poor, defined and protected individual liberty, banned torture, outlawing capital punishment, created trial by jury of peers, instituted the notion of innocent before proven guilty, and imposed a more fair tax code by taxing the nobles, who previously had exemptions. In that document, Catherine also called for everyone to be equal under the law. After finalizing the document, she called together a Legislative Commission comprising of people from all different social and economic classes for the purpose of expressing their thoughts about the problems of the country. On the subjects of the arts and education, Catherine was very active. Under the Enlightenment emphasis of education, she sought to expand the educational opportunities for girls and later called for the establishment of free schools. Catherine was also a great lover of the arts , sponsoring many cultural projects, building theaters, corresponding with Voltaire, and collecting art in St. Petersburg’s Winter Palace.
Although many of actions moved towards more enlightened ideas, she was still an absolute monarch, which meant that she was not subject to the law. Her despotism was justified in her law code, with her reasoning that the large empire could only be run effectively by one ruler and that the natural order dictated that some people were meant to govern while others obeyed. Indeed, to show off her powers, many times she would blatantly ignore the rulings of the Senate and freely confiscated and took land as she pleased. Prince Mikhail Schterbatov argued that her complete disregard for morals was passed down to the lower levels, including encouraging bidding for office positions and giving military ranks randomly. As an absolutist monarch, Catherine also needed to maintain complete control over her country, which meant that she condoned serfdom to gain the support of nobles. Even though her law code proclaimed that people were equal under the law , she made an exception for serfs, who owed “their landlords proper submission and absolute obedience in all matters.” Serfs couldn’t even petition the crown about complaints with landowners. When Alexander Radishchev passed by some serfs working on his way to Moscow, he noted the particularly cruel conditions that the serfs were subject to. They had to work six days for the master, leaving only holidays and nights free for themselves and manorial peasants were basically “dead to the law,” subject to whatever harassment that the landlord exacted.
Catherine the Great’s reign was full of contradictions. While her stance on serfdom only became harsher after the revolt led by Emelyan Pugachev and her control over the empire became more absolute, she still embodied many of the core Enlightenment beliefs, emphasizing rights of individuals, education, and the arts.
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