Why did Catherine prosecute Radishchev, when she herself had a plan to emancipate the serfs?

In 1783, Catherine allowed individuals to operate private printing presses, on the condition that the individuals register their press with and submit their work to the censor. According to Madariaga (1990, 98), this innovation represented Catherine’s desire “to encourage social forces to be active and show enterprise in as many fields as possible, rather than maintain state control and subsidy.” The diffusion of printing presses generated an unprecedented level of writing activity coming from the bottom-up, from noble and non-noble writers, instead of from the top-down, from the authority of the empress herself. One social force which Catherine did not encourage, was that of revolution. We see her negative disposition towards revolution in her prosecution of Radishchev and her comments on his work, Journey, which she saw as “trying in every possible way to break down respect for authority and the authorities, to stir up in the people indignation against their superiors and against the government.” (Riha 1969, 278).

Why did Catherine choose Journey as her first target? Riha introduces Journey as an “abolitionist tract” (1969, 261). Shouldn’t Catherine have been sympathetic to Radishchev’s anti-serfdom sentiments? We all know that Catherine herself had an unpublished plan of emancipation. Moreover, Madariaga mentions that Radishchev advances his ideas by the “well-known device of finding some papers which prove to contain a plan for the emancipation of the serfs.” (1990 193). If this device was well known, then published attacks on serfdom must have had precedent before Radishchev’s Journey. Indeed, Catherine herself held the real plans, while writers printed imaginary plans on state-encouraged presses. Why did Catherine crack down on Radishchev? I will make a case for her reasoning in the next paragraph.

Catherine evidently saw some existential threat in Radischev’s writings, and I think the threat comes from Radishchev’s reasoning. His account argues for human equality by natural law, and renounces all forms of slavery as unnatural and unjust, including despotism. Radishchev’s arguments not only attack serfdom, but also autocracy, which is shown to enslave its people by the same argument. Radishchev, therefore, attacks Catherine and her authority directly. We remember, of course, Catherine’s responses to Montesquieu, where she argued that autocracy was necessary to govern the Russian Empire. Catherine saw her autocratic government as necessary for the success of Russia. Radishchev, on the other hand, reasoned that Catherine’s government was unjust for the same reason that serfdom was unjust: human equality by natural law. Radishchev’s arguments, then, did undermine Catherine’s authority, even though the two felt the same about serfdom. Que the broilings of the French Revolution, Russia’s conflict with her neighbours, and the Pugachev rebellion, and Catherine’s reasons for harsh censor become apparent.

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