Catherinian Policy in the West

[Patrick Foley]

“A society of citizens, as well as everything else, requires a certain fixed order: There ought to be some to govern, and others to obey.”—from Catherine’s Instructions to the Commissioners for Composing a New Code of Laws: Order 250 

Catherine the Great ruled over an expanding Russian Empire as Empress from 1762 until her death in 1796. During her reign, Catherine attempted to transform the nature of the autocratic regime in Russia by strengthening her own position through westward expansion and administrative reform. In a sense, Catherine the Great’s time as the ruler of Russia saw the dreams of Peter the Great come to fruition. Russia reoriented itself towards the affairs of Europe through a series of legislative and legal reforms designed to empower a corporate class of nobility that could “properly” administer services throughout the disparate Russian territories. Foremost, uniformity and order were the desired goal for Catherine the Great. Catherine believed that a properly ordered empire would strengthen her position as Empress, and would ultimately benefit all Russians who would be subject to a standardized code of conduct. During her time as Empress, she embarked on a series of provincial reforms that fundamentally altered the character of Russian occupation in the peripheral regions. These reforms continued until Pugachev’s Rebellion in 1774 led Catherine to fear that further changes might undermine her regime (Gorbatov, 52). Catherine aimed to eliminate the arbitrary nature of local governance by creating a uniform imperial administration that would provide order even in the furthest outposts and borderlands. For that reason, Catherine’s reforms and the reorientation of her Empire towards Europe left an indelible mark on how the Russians incorporated new territories in the western borderlands.

Catherine’s approach to the West was different from the approach of her predecessors. Unlike almost all of the previous tsars, excluding of course Peter the Great, Catherine was interested in strengthening Russia’s connection to the West. The common narrative espoused by scholars focuses on the importance of the Black Sea to Russian imperial ambitions. The lack of a warm-water seaport for the Russian empire was seen as holding back development, and the push to the Western frontier was primarily the result of campaigns by earlier tsars in the seventeenth century to protect Russia’s interests along the Black Sea (Kerner, 54-56). The strategic importance of a warm-water port, for reasons both economic as well as political, was certainly a guiding influence for Russian expansion into the West. However, Catherine the Great’s expansion into the Western borderlands took on a slightly different character. She was motivated not only by access to the sea, but also by the opportunity to move Russia into the realm of European affairs.

Catherine sought to achieve modernization by reorienting her empire towards the West and modeling her administration on the principles outlined by the thinkers of the Enlightenment. Catherine took a cameralist approach towards enhancing the status of her empire, meaning that Russia’s state-driven economic policies were designed to strengthen the position of the central autocrat, and thus she shared certain similarities with the mercantilist European monarchs of the age. Moreover, Catherine received her education in the imperial courts of Germany so she understood the European model for economic policy and local governance (Raeff, 142).

Catherine’s close relationships with Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire demonstrate a concerted effort by the Empress to incorporate aspects of western thought into her regime (Image courtesy of

Catherine’s unique brand of hands-on administrative policy, sometimes referred to as enlightened despotism, also took its inspiration directly from the prevalent philosophers of Europe. Catherine wanted the great minds of Europe to support her as she reoriented Russia towards the West, so it should come as no surprise that she wanted to portray herself as an enlightened ruler. She actively cultivated relationships with figures of the Enlightenment, particularly the French philosopher Voltaire, as she crafted administrative policy (Grey, 56-57). The support of such figures gave her noble and provincial reforms added legitimacy, allowing Catherine the opportunity to expand the central autocrat’s influence over policy beyond the confines of Russia’s center.

Catherine sought to create an orderly system in the borderlands by consolidating ethnicities into particular administrative regions. The Russian empire contained a variety of distinct ethnic groups, and Catherine believed that in order to bring order to a multi-ethnic state she had to form districts containing cohesive ethnic groups. For instance, in 1795 Catherine created a “Pale of Settlement” within the newly acquired Polish territory to relocate Russian Jews. In accordance with the popular opinion of the philosophes, Catherine did promise some religious freedoms in the Nakaz to non-Orthodox Russians in order to maintain stability (Reddaway, 289). However, in practice the forced relocation of ethnic groups into defined territories and administrative districts did result in the de facto persecution of certain groups. Catherine the Great overlooked these shortcomings because her primary concern was the implementation of new reforms that would encourage uniformity across Russia’s rapidly expanding landholdings. While anti-ethnic sentiments were often the basis for harsh policies under earlier tsars, Catherine’s deportations were undertaken primarily to provide stability. Catherine desired uniformity, even if it meant that some groups would suffer as a result of relocation to the new administrative zones. Once these new administrative subdivisions formed in the borderlands, the local officials were expected to dress alike and act according to a uniform code(Raeff, 147). Uniformity was the true basis of her enlightened thinking and policies in the borderlands; thus, she did not necessarily uphold the natural rights of man that we now tend to associate with the Enlightenment.

The Koszcziuszko Uprising in 1794 signaled that local Poles in the newly acquired borderland territories resisted the expansion of Russian influence into the region (Image courtesy of

On a practical level, Catherine used these Jewish settlements to colonize the lowly inhabited “empty lands” of New Russia (de Madariaga, 504). The Soviet administration of the twentieth century used similar techniques when they formed states around the idea of titular nationality. While she was enlightened in the sense that she took inspiration from the philosophers of Europe, Catherine the Great did not hesitate to use traditional means of force and coercion to move her policies forward. As evidence, Catherine the Great sent forces to crush the Koszcziuszko Uprising that took place in Poland after the Second Partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Catherine’s swift response to Polish resistance against incorporation also suggests the significance of the territory with regards to reorienting Russia towards the West. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth had dominated affairs in Eastern Europe for centuries, and it stood as a symbol of opposition for many Russians. There was also resentment between the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and Russia over the persecution of Orthodox believers in the primarily Catholic country (Thomson, 114). Catherine also supported the partitions of Poland because they allowed Russia to expand into the West and situate itself among the powers of Europe. Catherine’s annexation of new lands in the Western borderlands was a vital part of her plan to reorient Russia towards Europe. However, the process of annexing the borderland alone was not enough to reorient the Russian empire. Catherine recognized that shifting focus towards Europe involved something greater, a cultural transformation within the circles of the Russian elite.

Russian culture under Catherine the Great assumed a certain European flair, as seen through the literature of Russia’s Golden Age. Court life under Catherine the Great took on many similar aspects of Frederick the Great’s court in Prussia. She was also a patron of the arts, and invited figures like Diderot to her court after he was banned from publishing his Encyclopedia in France. Catherine also published a number of plays and poems that she shared with Voltaire. Catherine invited a vast array of European literary figures to her court, and she even published several works in response to foreign critics of Russian culture who claimed that she was little more than a despotic ruler. For instance, in 1770 Catherine the Great published The Antidote, or an Enquiry into the Merits of a Book, entitled A Journey into Siberia as a rebuttal to the charges made by Chappe d’Autoeroche that Russians were rude, immoral, and uncivilized (Whittaker, 57).

In addition to refuting her French critics, Catherine also patronized Russian writers like Nikolai Ivanovich Novikov and Ivan Nikitich Boltin who adopted European literary styles and shifted away from the medieval literary tradition in Russia. Western culture was embraced in all aspects of court life, and Russian writers were rewarded with praise if they emulated their European counterparts. Finally, Catherine reached out to Russian nobles and the elite administrators by sponsoring the translation of prominent European works into the Russian text. The “Society Striving for the Translation of Literary Books,” headed by Kozitskii, translated a number of influential works by figures such as Voltaire, Montesquieu, and even Rousseau, despite Catherine’s personal rivalry with him (Whittaker, 58). The old norms of Russian culture were pushed aside by Catherine. Instead, she focused on how encouraging European culture at court could serve as a tool to refute the allegations made against her by critics abroad and to convert skeptics within the elite. Catherine the Great frequently used her relationship with Voltaire to improve her public image in France, for instance. She wanted Russia to be accepted as an equal among the nations of Europe, and she recognized that such a transformation required a drastic change in not only foreign policy but also in domestic policy.

Finally, Catherine reoriented her empire towards Europe by instituting a series of reforms to benefit the nobles. Through the Charter of the Nobility in 1785 Catherine afforded a number of advantages to the nobles, including exemptions from conscripted service, freedom from the poll tax, and increased access to exotic goods imported from abroad (Grey, 187). Before Catherine’s reign as Empress, several elite families in the Russian nobility vied for power and essentially dominated the affairs of the state. The personal rivalries and political intrigues of these families prevented Russia from effectively administering territories beyond the central territories of the Russian empire. Catherine modeled her reforms after the nobility in Europe, where the nobles could actually bolster the prestige of the Monarch and effectively govern local territories. The advent of a corporate class of nobility was the hallmark of Catherine’s program to reorient Russia towards the West. The exemptions and advantages afforded to the nobility also applied to the new nobles occupying the Western borderlands. Catherine was able to integrate non-Russian economic elites in the Western borderlands into the imperial administrative framework (Raeff, 146). Her success in co-opting the local elite into serving within the reformed administrative system made it possible for Catherine the Great to incorporate these regions into the multi-ethnic empire.


Works Cited:

  • Cynthia H Whittaker, Russia Engages the World, 1453-1825 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003).
  • Gladys Scott Thomson, Catherine the Great and the Expansion of Russia (London: Hodder & Stoughton for English Univ. Press, 1947).
  • Ian Grey, Catherine the Great, Autocrat and Empress of All Russia (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1975).
  • Inna Gorbatov, Catherine the Great and the French Philosophers of the Enlightenment: Montesquieu, Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot and Grimm (Bethesda: Academica Press, 2006).
  • Isabel de Madariaga, Russia in the Age of Catherine the Great (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981).
  • Marc Raeff, “Uniformity, Diversity, and the Imperial Administration of Catherine II,” in Political Ideals and Institutions in Imperial Russia edited by Marc Raeff (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1994).
  • Robert Joseph Kerner, The Urge to the Sea; the Course of Russian History. The Role of Rivers, Portages, Ostrogs, Monasteries, and Furs (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1942).
  • The Instructions to the Commissioners for Composing a New Code of Laws: Order 250, in Documents of Catherine the Great: the Correspondence with Voltaire and the Instruction of 1767 ed. William F. Reddaway. (England: University Press, 1931).

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