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Russia Engages the World, 1453-1825
1453 Through the Reign of Ivan the Terrible (1533-1584) The Time of Troubles to the First Romanovs (1598-1682) Peter the Great and His Legacy (1682-1762) The Age of Catherine the Great (1762-1801) The Reign of Emperor Alexander I (1801-1825)


Explore this Section:

The Age of Catherine the Great: A Summary of Russian History
Russia Symbol Introduction
Russia Symbol The Husband
Russia Symbol The Enlightened Absolutist Monarch
Russia Symbol Catherine's Foreign Policy
Russia Symbol Paul I
The Age of Catherine the Great: A Summary of World History
The Americas

Russia's Globalization:
A Key

Events marked Russia Symbol are specific to Muscovy/Russia's internal development.
Those marked World Symbol are important world historical or cultural events.
Engagement Symbol indicates specific points of sociocultural or military engagement between Muscovy/Russia and foreign powers or individuals.




Catherine II’s thirty-four-year reign (1762–96) proved quite brilliant, in 18th-century terms, and earned her the official title “the Great,” for both her domestic and foreign policy. When she came to the throne, the European Age of Enlightenment – an intellectual revolution that aimed to reform social, political, economic, and spiritual life – was in full flower.

The philosophes who led the movement championed Enlightened Absolutism as an ideal form of government, one in which rulers would use their awesome power to effect change and promote development, although, it must be said, they failed to attend to the needs of the illiterate and impoverished masses. Catherine had read the writings of the philosophes and announced her intention of becoming their model monarch; they responded by singing her praises throughout all of Europe. In a dramatic display of Enlightenment thinking, Catherine called for the convocation of a Legislative Commission in 1767, and delegates were elected from among the nobility, townspeople, state peasants, and national minorities, each of whom was to bring a list of grievances.

Recalling the idea of the zemskii sobor, the assembly gathered in the old capital of Moscow with the mission of bringing forth a new and more modern law code for Russia. In preparation for the meeting, the empress wrote a 526-paragraph Instruction to the delegates setting forth the principles that should guide them. Astonishingly liberal for the era, Catherine based the Instruction on the writings of the philosophes, such as Montesquieu (1689–1755), Cesare Beccaria (1738–1794), and the German cameralists, who emphasized the rule of law, equality before the law, and measures to prevent despotism; political censors forbade the publication of this “incendiary” document in France. The work of the commission was cut short by the outbreak of war, but it altered Russian political culture by demonstrating the willingness of an absolutist ruler to work in partnership with elected representatives of the people. However, it also demonstrated the reluctance of the ruler and the elite to face squarely the problem of serfdom, especially since serfs remained unrepresented and were no longer even asked to take the oath of loyalty to a new ruler.

The reforming thrust of Catherine’s domestic policy continued for the next two decades. A new structure rationalized the administration of provinces and districts, another measure reorganized municipal government, and both provided for elective offices, which was again highly unusual in an absolute monarchy. Equally uncommon, in 1785, a Charter of the Nobility granted the elite civil rights, such as freedom of assembly, petition, property, and association as well as trial by jury; in addition, the nobility were emancipated from their Petrine obligation to serve the state, a duty resented by many.

  Catherine’s Dazzling Benefaction
NYPL, Rare Books Division

  Catherine's Monument for Peter
NYPL, Slavic and Baltic Division

  The Great Monument in Place
NYPL, Slavic and Baltic Division

  A Russian Aristocratic Life
NYPL, Art and Architecture Collection

  A Russian Aristocratic Life
NYPL, Art and Architecture Collection

  A Russian Aristocratic Life
NYPL, Art and Architecture Collection


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