The Reading Room

The Russian Enlightenment and Its “Absolutist” Champions

In Russia, the Enlightenment began just as the country emerged from the medieval period. Contrast that with the West, where the Renaissance (15th-16th centuries) and the beginnings of the scientific revolution laid the foundations for the Enlightenment. In Russia, Enlightenment ideas did not emerge and evolve. They were imported from Western Europe at the direction—and dictation—of two absolutist rulers: Peter the Great (ruled 1682-1725) and Catherine the Great (ruled 1762-1796).
Peter and Catherine were so-called “enlightened absolutists,” who decided that the Enlightenment must come to Russia, set the process in motion, and dictated what ideas and ideals would be “Russified” and which rejected. That is true to an extent not seen even in the two other countries—Turkey and Japan—where single individuals drove adoption of Enlightenment ideas. The tsar (later emperor) and the empress define and stretch the period historians call “enlightened absolutism” and which they customarily place between 1740 and the French Revolution (1789-1799). Peter I, born a Romanov, becomes tsar at age 10 (1682) and by his twenties has conceived a passion for Western ideas. Catherine, in turn, pushes the endpoint of enlightened absolutism a bit past the French Revolution, which put an abrupt end to the “enlightenment” of absolutist rulers).
As a result, in Russia interpretation of the Enlightenment, its implementation, its results, and, above all, its limits are explained by reference to personalities as well as ideas. In one sense, that makes it easy to understand why the ideas of Enlightenment ideals of philosophic humanism—in particular, natural rights, but also political freedom and constitutionalism—in Russia (at least officially) were “non-starters.” Nevertheless, ideas have derivations and implications, prerequisites and results. And the power of the logical and conceptual consistency of ideas is the greatest threat to rulers who seek the benefits of liberating the mind but hope to “keep the lid on.”
Early involvement with the Russian army (he was an enthusiastic, ambitious fighter) motivated Peter’s whole-hearted affair with Western ideas that he viewed as Russia’s passport to national greatness and international military, economic, and cultural rank. As a young man, mathematics, navigation, and fortification arrested his attention. His lifelong dream was creation of a modern Russian navy and he succeeded. In this sense, he set the pattern for two later individuals, Fukuzawa Yukichi (Japan) and Kemal Ataturk (Turkey), who almost single-handedly initiated their country’s importation of Enlightenment ideas as necessary to challenge Western economic and military might.
Peter grasped that a modern Russia must be built on ideas of innovation and the search for knowledge, including in science and education, and he had unlimited power to do it. Both Peter and Catherine dictated to the Russian bureaucracy, made the laws, took tax revenues they wanted (including the church’s), and, bluntly, could kill anyone anyway they wished (Peter had his own son tortured and killed) and imprison anyone. Peter dispatched nobles to Western Europe to study its culture and bear back knowledge of science, mathematics, literature, and much else not taught in Russian schools.
When he had “modernized” the Russian military along European lines, he attacked Sweden (in the Great Northern War, 1700-1721). Russia lost the first round or two, but the strength of its forces was impressive. At the head of the Gulf of Finland, on land seized from Sweden, Peter ordered to be built (by French and Italian architects and workers) a city called St Petersburg that became Russia’s capital when Sweden was defeated in 1721. It remained the capital until the Bolshevik revolution in 1917.
Peter never ceased warring, often at the head of his army, but, as the 18th century began, he broadened his attention to Russian society at large. Here, the term “enlightened absolutism” comes into sharper focus. He forced Russian men to shave their beards (challenging a centuries-old symbol of masculinity) and dress like Western Europeans. (Oddly, another dictate, calling for short hair, had its counterparts in both Turkey’s and Japan’s periods of westernizing.) For women, the expectation was French fashion with long skirts over petticoats and jackets with wrist-length sleeves.
At the dawn of the new century, Peter changed the Russian calendar, then registering 7207 years since the beginning of the world, to the Julian Calendar, registering 1700 years since Christ’s birth. Like Catherine, later, Peter reduced the autonomy of the Orthodox Church, a project shared with Enlightenment nations across Europe. His achievements as the first Enlightenment man in a  medieval country are historic. But they did not include allowing the rule of law to temper his brutal disregard for the lives and property of his subjects. And neither Peter nor Catherine moved to abolish serfdom, although Catherine made some modifications. 
Catherine became Empress of Russia under circumstances that shaped (and limited) how she expressed her boundless enthusiasm for Western Enlightenment ideas and thinkers (above all, Voltaire). A princess of Prussia (another enlightened despotism under Frederick the Great) she grew up reading relentlessly and apparently interested in little else. At age 10, she first met her cousin, Peter III. She despised him on sight, but soon, a pawn in a vast political game, was forced to marry him.
Catherine “took on the assignment” with a will. In Russia, she practiced the language late into the night and read more voraciously than ever, deliberately preparing to qualify as Peter III’s tsarina—all the while keeping him at bay (“the other end of the castle”) and the marriage unconsummated. Fast forwarding, she became ruler in 1762, as she long had planned, after deposing her husband in a “bloodless coup” (except, historians agree, for Peter’s blood). As so, she became the foreigner with no dynastic claim to rule who seized it by force. Plots by displaced claimants and their factions sprang up; Catherine ruled aware daily that only her power held off the circling assailants.
Despite this, she continued Peter the Great’s modernizing of Russia, including its army and economy, but especially in fields such as literature, education, law, the arts, and printing--her passions. Plays, operas, and concerts by new Russian writers and composers poured forth, gracing evenings in St. Petersburg. She ordered translations of all major works of the European Enlightenment—not least. those of her idol and champion, Voltaire (who energetically reciprocated her devotion). So great was Russia’s progress that her reign often is hailed as the “Golden Age of Russia.” 
Catherine’s entire reign was in some ways dedicated to integrating Russia culturally and economically into Europe. Her famed engagement with the philosophes, especially Voltaire and Diderot…made her Russia’s Enlightener-in-Chief.” Catherine role-modeled the enlightened monarch not only with patronage of the arts but her own prolific writing, part of a blossoming of Russia literature in every genre. Permitting operation of private printing presses and political journalism without censorship further opened the flood gates. She reorganized the political landscape of Russia, revised civil and criminal law, and multiplied manufactures. It all energized reform:
“The Free Economic Society, founded in 1765 by Catherine, became the country’s oldest voluntary association, devoted to collecting data and publishing its Works in the study of Russia’s natural and productive resources until 1917.”
Inevitably, with the new freedom, critics urged the Empress to go much further. Semyon Desnitsky (1740-1789), a Russian professor and disciple of Adam Smith, educated at the University of Glasgow, urged elections every five years to choose a representative senate with defined powers separate from those of the Empress. For Catherine’s dominant, continuing project of legal reform, with successive commissions, legislative acts, statutes, and charters—improving local government, the judiciary, the bureaucracy, and liberalizing economic conditions—see Prof. Andrew Kahn’s essay for the British Academy.
On one hand, historians have shown that whenever Catherine felt her power slipping, she reverted to conservatism, pulling hard on the reins of “liberation.” She concerned herself with governing and law, but always with an eye to justifying her rule. She sought to improve the quality of life of the Russian gentry (always a small minority) with Western manners. On the other hand, historians agree that Russia’s intellectual climate changed in ways never entirely reversed. In centuries following, the “Westernizer” remained a presence in Russian life and literature. Russian intellectuals debated traditions of thought: Radical? Western? Conservative? Slavophile?
Catherine personally never ceased pursing the ideas and leaders of Western Enlightenment, especially prominent philosophes such as Montesquieu and Voltaire. With the latter, she conducted a famous years-long correspondence, seeking ideas and answers for Russia, but equally cultivating the great sage’s endorsement of her rule, her accomplishments, and her importance. The French Revolution ended Catherine’s and Russia’s active Enlightenment, ended “enlightened absolutism” everywhere, and halted the liberal and “radical” movements in places such as England. Historians place the end of the Enlightenment itself around 1815 in the aftermath of the French Revolution and the first Napoleonic wars (1804-1815).