Catherine the Great

  • Isabel De Madariaga
Part of the Problems in Focus Series book series (PFS)


Believers in the theory of enlightened despotism thought that Russia was the ideal country in which to apply their ideas. Since it had no ancient institutions which would need to be rooted up, it was a blank page on which the philosophe might inscribe what he wished.1 Nothing could be less true. When Catherine seized the throne in 1762, Russia was an absolute monarchy, placed at the despotic end of the spectrum which extended through the Prussia of Frederick II to the France of Louis XV.2 There were no institutional limitations on the power of the ruler, who was even entitled to name his, or more often her, successor. There were no constituted bodies or ‘estates’, no ‘intermediate powers’ of the kind that existed elsewhere in Europe. As head of the executive the sovereign exercised authority through a series of functional colleges headed by boards under presidents, whose work was co-ordinated by an appointed administrative Senate of some twenty or thirty people. This misleadingly-named body had no legislative powers, which were lodged entirely in the ruler. Local administration had been allowed to collapse into an under-financed chaos when Peter I’s top-heavy organisation was dismantled in 1727.


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Notes and References

  1. 1.
    N. Hans, ‘Dumaresq, Brown and some early educational projects of Catherine II’, Slavonic and East European Review, 40 (1961) 481–91.Google Scholar
  2. 7.
    See J. M. Hartley, ‘Catherine’s Conscience Court — an English equity court?’ in Russia and the West in the Eighteenth Century, ed. A. G. Cross (Newtonville, Mass., 1983) pp. 306–18. The Conscience Courts continued to function until the 1840s.Google Scholar
  3. 8.
    See R. E. Jones, The Emancipation of the Russian Nobility (Princeton, 1973) p. 230;Google Scholar
  4. J. P. LeDonne, Ruling Russia: politics and administration in the Age of Absolutism (Princeton, 1984) p. 93.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. 9.
    M. Raeff, The Origins of the Russian Intelligentsia (New York, 1966) p. 125.Google Scholar
  6. 10.
    But see J. M. Hartley, The Boards of Social Welfare and the financing of Catherine II’s state schools’, Slavonic and East European Review 67 (1989), 211–27.Google Scholar
  7. 13.
    M. Raeff, ‘The Empress and the Vinerian Professor: Catherine II’s projects of government reforms and Blackstone’s Commentaries’,Oxford Slavonic Papers, New Series, 7 (1974) pp. 18–41.Google Scholar
  8. 15.
    G. Marker, Publishing, Printing and the Origins of Intellectual Life in Russia,1700–1800 (Princeton, 1985) p. 91.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Isabel de Madariaga 1990

Authors and Affiliations

  • Isabel De Madariaga

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