Catherine the Great: Enlightened Despot
Catherine the Great of Russia was influenced largely by the French Enlightenment and considered herself an enlightened despot; she read the works of Montesquieu and Voltaire and accumulated a considerable amount of knowledge of the theory of government and politics (de Madariaga). Since her reign in Russia, it has been debated whether or not her implementation of Enlightenment ideals was for the greater good of her country, or for her to protect her place in power and further her own selfish gains. During her time as Empress, she minimized Russia’s connections with other European nations yet tried to Westernize her country, she attempted to create a progressive law code, she encouraged literacy and the publishing of books and she improved the lives of the nobility while decreasing the status and rights of serfs. But was Catherine the Great’s emphasis on a “well-ordered state” (Fisher) meant to benefit her country or her own power?
Author Isabel de Madariaga writes of Catherine the Great with a certain fondness and respect, starting her article with the line, “Since I first took Catherine seriously as a ruler, some forty years ago, I have grown to like her very much.” de Madariaga not only discusses what is known about Catherine’s personal life, but her take on philosophy and politics. According to de Madariaga, Catherine was hardworking, had an affinity for learning and used her education to further her great country in ways that benefited the people of Russia. One way in which Catherine’s enlightened view on politics dramatically helped Russian citizens was her sense of what the rule of law meant; “she drew her condemnation of torture in judicial proceedings in her Great Instruction: ‘The innocent ought not to be tortured; and in the eye of the law every person is innocent whose crime is not yet proved.’” (de Madariaga) Catherine greatly decreased the amount of torture that was used on Russian criminals and she was...
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