Peter the Great in Catherine the Great’s Nakaz to the Legislative Commission

I am interested in how Catherine articulates her relationship to Peter the Great in her legislative document. As a ruler, and especially as a “reformer,” historical narrative is vital to pushing through political reforms.

At first, she casts Peter as the first to recognize Russia as a distinctly European state in point 7 of Chapter I of her Nakaz:

“The Alternations which Peter the Great undertook in Russia succeeded with the greater Ease, because the Manners, which prevailed at that Time, and had been introduced amongst us by a Mixture of different Nations, and the Conquest of foreign Territories, were quite unsuitable to the Climate. Peter the First, by introducing the Manners and Customs of Europe among the European People in his Dominions, found at that Time such Means as even he himself was not sanguine enough to expect.

Catherine diagnoses Peter the Great’s Russia as lacking the “manners” for a proper European political state, but having the “climate” for such a state. What does Catherine have in mind when she uses the word “Climate”? Perhaps she means that Russia did not have the “manners” for a European political state, but had the means by which to achieve it. Does she simply mean that Peter saw the opportunity for reforming the state and establishing an Absolute Monarchy? Does she view herself as having taken this torch of reform from Peter’s hand? If so, how can she reconcile this view with the point she makes in chapter XVI 511:

A Monarchy is destroyed when the Sovereign imagines that he displays his Power more by changing the Order of Things, than by adhering to it, and when he is more found of his own Imaginations than of his Will, from which the Laws proceed, and have proceeded….

Perhaps this conservative view of the Monarch’s role is suggestive of what Madriaga views as her  political shift from reformer to reactionary.

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1 Response to Peter the Great in Catherine the Great’s Nakaz to the Legislative Commission

  1. micguthr says:

    I would posit that this contradiction, while glaring to us, would likely not have been apparent to Catherine II. It is essential to recall that she was an ‘enlightened despot’ who, as Basil Dmytryshyn notes in the introduction to the document, was not unaccustomed to altering or distorting Western theories. Consequently, I think we can best interpret Catherine’s warning regarding monarchs obsessed with “changing the Order of Things” as a reference to her prior claims detailing the corruption of a government’s fundamental principles. Chapter XVI, line 503 of her Nakaz asserts:

    “The fundamental principles of a Government are not only corrupted when they extinguish the idea of the State ingrafted in the Minds of the People by the Law, which may be termed the Equality prescribed by the Laws; but even then, when this Idea of Equality shall take root in the People, and grow to such a Pitch of Licentiousness, that every one aims at being equal to him, who is ordained by the Laws to rule over him…”

    This passage seems to indicate that Catherine II was more concerned with betraying the principles of government (which she, as an absolute monarch would be able to define), than she was with forcing change upon her subjects.

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