Catherine II’s Politics of Enlightened Absolutism
Enlightened Absolutism refers to the political policies of the 18th century in which monarchs followed the ideas of legal, economic, religious, social and learning reforms. These reforms were mainly steered by the educated lot of the time and were inspired by enlightenment. This essay discusses how one such educated monarch, Catherine II of Russia adopted the creed of enlightened absolutism in her leadership.
Catherine II is an iconic figure in the history of early Europe, famously recognized with her distinguished political philosophy. Catherine II was the most notable and longest serving Russian empress, reigning from mid-1762 to 1769 following her death. As Lavrinovitch (2002) narrates, Catherine was a Prussian by birth, born of a Prussian Prince. Her birth name was Sophie von Anhalt-Zerbst but would later change to Catherine when she converts to Orthodox Christianity upon marrying a Russian prince. At the age of 15, she moved to Russia where she married Peter, the son and heir of the then Russian empress Elizabeth. Although Empress Elizabeth had approved her son’s marriage to the Prussian princess, historians note that she later quarantined during the Russia-Prussian war. Sources reveal that Elizabeth accused Catherine of being disloyal to her government by acting as a Prussian spy. In addition, Peter and Catherine’s marriage was marred by numerous disagreements. As Lavrinovitch highlights, Catherine got involved in other love relationship while still married. It is believed the even sired children with other men as her husband is thought to have been impotent (Lavrinovitch, 2002).
A few years after Catherine got married to the Empress Elizabeth’s stone, the empress died, leaving her son in charge of the country’s leadership. Peter, Catherine’s husband, rose to command in January 1762, under the title Peter III. However, his reign was short-lived as he would be abducted and later, beheaded by the Russian army on July of the same year. The only major activity that Peter undertook as the Russian emperor was to make peace with Russia after a seven years scuffle. As historians elaborate, Catherine was the sole force behind Peter’s overthrow, with the support of the army and the Russian people (Deblassio, 2011). Following Peter’s death, Catherine was officially crowned the empress of Russia and chose the Catherine II as her official empress title.
Catherine seized the throne at such a time when Europe was experiencing a period of enlightened absolutism. Up until the 17th century, Europeans regions were governed by the leadership of monarchies. A monarch was regarded as the next power after God and only was liable God. Traditional monarchs were uneducated and did not believe in change of political structure. By the 17th century, European leaders were beginning to appreciate the need to use their imperial powers to trigger reforms and development. Although there were no specific forms of governance, some of the educated emperors begun to adopt the principle of enlightened absolutism. They became rebellious of the traditional oppressive cultures of the monarch families. While historians remain in contention on the exact timing of the onset of the enlightened absolutism era, the philosophy is believed to have been engineered by the educated politicians. Whereas some believe that the era began in 1700s, others hold that the doctrine of enlightened absolutism was first practiced by Peter the Great in the late 1600s. However, historians are in agreement that Catherin II, together with other leaders such as Russian Frederick the Great and Austrian Habsburgs, among others, exhibited the leadership of an enlightened absolutism.
Ways in which Catherin II’s Leadership Manifested the Principle of Enlightened Absolutism
The first major reform that has seen Catherin II‘s reign earns the title of the epoch of enlightenment was her policies to revive the Russian economy. As Aston (2011) puts it, Catherine rose to the power when the Russia’s economy was crumbling. The country had been stressed by the seven-year war with Prussia. Besides, the economic development was obstructed by the corrupt Russian bureaucracy. As an enlightened leader herself, Catherine launched policies that propelled the growth of the economy. For example, her economic policies prioritized the modernization of agriculture, bearing in mind that Russia was an agricultural country. She funded researches on soil and suitable crops for different locations. Further, Catherine boosted the economic growth through stimulating the mining industry. Her efforts to revive the industry steered the discovery of massive mine deposits.
Another area that depicts Catherine’s enlightenment as a leader was her reforms in the Russian judicial system. According to Cross (2009), Russia’s legal system was based on inefficient traditional Code of laws that dated as early as 1949. On taking the leadership, Catherine embarked on modernizing the laws. As historians explain, she gathered the legal inspirations from the literal works of Montesquieu and the then Italian judiciary (Cross, 2009). Her laws proposed a system of equal treatment and recognition to all persons, irrespective of the social difference. She also pushed for prevention of criminal activities as opposed to rendering harsh punishment to offenders. Effective judiciary is believed to have helped her in fighting the rampant corruption in the Russian administration. Her fight against corruption within the government proves that she believed that it was the government’s responsibility to serve the people without oppressing them.
The third aspect that portrays Catherin II’s leadership as an enlightened absolutism was her policies to improve education and the health systems in Russia. As an educated person herself, Catherine considered schooling a key to development. However, Russia was challenged by the few number of learning institutions at that time, most of which were run by the missionaries. As Deblassio explains, her predecessors discouraged the growth of education sector as a way of suppressing ingenuity (2009). They feared that an educated lot would give rise to rebellions. Contrarily, Catherine diverted large portion of the government resources to fund the educations structures and provide free education. As an artist herself, Catherin also promoted the growth of art and literature to preserve the culture of the Russian. Similarly, Catherine established several hospitals that offered free treatment to the ordinary Russian. The hospitals were fully furnished with staffs and modern medicine, all funded by the government. She also led a campaign of mobilizing pregnant mothers to deliver from the hospital.
Catherine II’ reformist agenda also extended to the religious aspects of the Russian community. Firstly, she instigated policies that promoted religious intolerance. According to Cross (2009), the majority of Russian, including the Russian monarchy, segregated the Muslim believers and only upheld the in Orthodox Christianity. As a result, the Muslim communities were not willing to cooperate with the government. When Catherin II seized the throne, she quickly fostered the idea of freedom of religion. She lured the Christians to stop seeking new converts and earned the participation of the Muslims in her government. Creating religious harmony has been cited as a pillar that led to the longevity of her reign. By fostering freedom of religion, Catherine also reformed the immigration policies in her country. Previously, foreigners would not settle in Russia unless those willing to shun their religion. During Catherine’s reign, however, people from other European countries migrated to Russia and kept their faith.
The principle of enlightened absolutism manifests in Catherine’s politics, not just in her domestic plans, but also through her calculated foreign policies. During her reign, Catherine worked extensively in expanding the Russian border. She led her country into a series of war and signed treaties with other prominent leaders of her time (Griffiths, 2008). For instance, she involved her military in the war against Turkey, which she nearly. Further, she made a great influence in the partition of Poland, a move that saw Russia acquire the eastern half of Poland. As a result of her involvement, Russia’s border extended to include Crimea and various lands along the Black Sea.
Undoubtedly, Catherine II’s politic of enlightened absolutism was beneficial to the Russian society of the time. Firstly, it led to improved living conditions as a result of the expansion of the economy. It also led to the westernization of their lives following the enhancement of education systems and the availability of medical facilities. It also led to the importation of skilled labor as she encouraged immigrants to settle in her country. Most importantly, Catherine changed the mindset of the Russian in General who regarded the Monarch as an ‘unquestionable god.’ Instead, he proved that the government can and should be accountable to its people through eradicating unnecessary bureaucracy and corruption in the government.
Evidently, Catherine II adopted the doctrine of enlightened absolutism. She promoted the principle of equality of the human being through fighting corruption and reformed the judiciary. She also protected the Russian culture, notwithstanding the fact that she was not originally Russian. She also empowered her community through education without the fear of emergent rebels. Although she illegally seized the throne by crafting her husband’s murder, she worked for the good of her nation.
Aston, M. N. (2001). Russian overseas commerce with great britain during the reign of catherine II. Canadian Slavonic Papers,43(1), 105-108. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/274617066?accountid=1611
Cross, A. (2009). Catherine the Great–By Michael Streeter. Historian, 71(1), 179-180. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1540-6563.2008.00233_65.x/full
DeBlasio, A. J. (2011). Creating the empress: Politics and poetry in the age of catherine II. Choice, 48(11), 2102. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/877038363?accountid=1611
Griffiths, D. M. (2008). Catherine II discovers the crimea. Jahrbücher Für Geschichte Osteuropas, 56(3), 339-348. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/236639524?accountid=1611
Lavrinovitch, M. (2002). In the Shadow of Catherine the Great: Mythologies and Biographies of Peter III and Paul I. Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History, 3(4), 685-697. https://muse.jhu.edu/login?auth=0&type=summary&url=/journals/kritika/v003/3.4lavrinovitch.pdf