In December 1766, Catherine II called upon the free "estates" (nobles, townspeople, state peasants, Cossacks) and central government offices to select deputies to attend a commission to participate in the preparation of a new code of laws. The purpose of the commission was therefore consultative; it was not intended to be a parliament in the modern sense. The Legislative Commission opened in Moscow in July 1767, then moved to St. Petersburg in February 1768. Following the outbreak of the Russo-Turkish War in January 1769, it was prorogued and never recalled. The selection of deputies was a haphazard affair. The social composition of the assembly was: nobles, 205; merchants, 167; odnodvortsy(descendants of petty servicemen on the southern frontiers), 42; state peasants, 29; Cossacks, 44; industrialists, 7; chancery clerks, 19; tribesmen, 54. Deputies brought instructions, or nakazy, from the bodies that selected them. Catherine's Nakaz (Great Instruction) was read at the opening sessions and provided a basis for some of the discussion that followed. The commission met in 203 sessions and discussed existing laws on the nobility, on the Baltic nobility, on the merchant estate, and on justice and judicial procedure. No decisions were made by the commission on these matters, and no code of laws was produced. The Legislative Commission was nevertheless significant: It gave Catherine an important source of information and insight into concerns and attitudes of different social groups, through both the nakazy and the discussions which took place, including a discussion on serfdom; it provided an opportunity for the discussion and dissemination of the ideas in Catherine's Nakaz; it led to the establishment of several subcommittees, which continued to meet after the prorogation of the commission, and which produced draft laws that Catherine utilized for subsequent legislation.
In July of 1767 the Legislative Commission met in Moscow and was presented with Catherine II's Instructions. The lengthy Instructions (twenty chapters and 526 articles) were intended to guide the work of the Commission as they came together to discuss the grievances of their electors and the nature of government and the laws in Russia. The Instructions borrowed heavily from writers such as Baron de Montesquieu (The Spirit of the Laws), Cesare Beccaria (An Essay on Crimes and Punishments), William Blackstone (Commentaries on the Laws of England), and Baron Bielfeld (Political Institutions), as well as from Catherine's correspondence with such enlightenment thinkers as Voltaire and Diderot. The Instructions themselves were neither a law code nor a blueprint for a constitution (as some historians have claimed), but rather a kind of guide as to the type of government and society Catherine hoped to mold in Russia. Catherine may have been inspired by Frederick II of Prussia, who had also promulgated his own visions as to the proper role of the monarch and the organization of the bureaucracy; when Catherine finished writing and editing her Instructions, she sent a German translation to Frederick II. Certainly one goal of the Instructions was to proclaim Russia's place as a modern European state rather than the Asiatic despotism Montesquieu had named it. The Instructions deal with political, social, legal, and economic issues, and in 1768 Catherine issued a supplement that dealt with issues of public health, public order, and urban life. Catherine's reasons for promulgating the Instructions as well as her success in achieving the stated goals have been the subject of considerable debate. The Legislative Commission disbanded in 1768 as war broke out between Russia and Turkey, and the Commission never succeeded in finalizing a draft of a law code. Several partial codes were issued...