What made Catherine the Great an enlightened despot?

Answered by Edward Huber

Catherine the Great, the Empress of Russia from 1762 to 1796, is often regarded as an enlightened despot due to her significant contributions to arts, literature, and education. Several factors contribute to this perception of Catherine as an enlightened ruler.

1. Patronage of the Arts: Catherine played a crucial role in promoting the arts in Russia. She assembled an impressive art collection, including works by renowned European artists, and established the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. Her patronage extended to music, theater, and architecture, with the construction of beautiful palaces and public buildings. By supporting the arts, Catherine aimed to enhance Russia’s cultural standing and create a sophisticated and enlightened society.

2. Promotion of Education: Recognizing the importance of education, Catherine undertook several initiatives to improve the educational system in Russia. She established the Smolny Institute for Noble Maidens, providing education for girls from noble families. Catherine also supported the creation of the Russian Academy of Sciences and encouraged the translation of European scientific and philosophical works into Russian, making knowledge more accessible to her subjects. These efforts aimed to foster intellectual development and promote the spread of enlightenment ideas.

3. Legal Reforms: Catherine implemented a series of legal reforms during her reign, which aimed to modernize and improve the Russian legal system. She issued the Nakaz, a comprehensive code of laws that incorporated Enlightenment principles such as equality before the law, protection of property rights, and limitations on torture. Though the Nakaz was never fully implemented, it reflected Catherine’s desire to establish a more just and equitable legal framework.

4. Territorial Expansion and Political Reforms: Catherine’s reign witnessed significant territorial expansion, with the acquisition of Crimea, parts of Poland, and territories in the Caucasus. While these actions may not align with modern notions of enlightenment, Catherine believed that expanding Russia’s borders would strengthen the country’s position and allow her to spread the benefits of enlightenment to newly acquired territories. Additionally, Catherine introduced some political reforms, such as the creation of provincial assemblies, known as zemstvos, which aimed to decentralize power and involve the nobility in local governance.

5. Correspondence with Enlightenment Thinkers: Catherine maintained an extensive correspondence with prominent Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire and Denis Diderot. These exchanges allowed her to stay informed about the latest intellectual developments and to incorporate some of these ideas into her governance. While Catherine was selective in implementing Enlightenment ideals and often prioritized maintaining her own power, her engagement with Enlightenment thinkers demonstrates her interest in contemporary intellectual discourse.

It is important to note that Catherine’s reign was not without controversy and criticism. She faced accusations of suppressing dissent, particularly during the Pugachev Rebellion, and her policies toward serfdom were largely conservative. However, her patronage of the arts, promotion of education, legal reforms, territorial expansion, and engagement with Enlightenment thinkers contribute to the perception of Catherine the Great as an enlightened despot.

Please note that while I strive to provide an informed and detailed answer, my responses are generated based on pre-existing knowledge and not personal experiences.