Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Russia 18th Century – Catherine the Great’s continues Peter the Great’s Reforms

Empress Catherine The Great 1787.

In the fifty years between the founding of St Petersburg and the end of the Seven Years War, the river fortress and business capital planned by Peter the Great had been transformed into a rambling showplace of luxury and leisure. The Russian nobility, conscripted by Peter into lifetime service in the armed forces or the administration, had since 1735 evaded more and more of their responsibilities. In February 1762 they had been relieved of their obligation to serve the state at all: and, while many of them were content to slip backward into the unimaginable idleness of provincial life, families which remained at court and in the capital seemed determined to spend their way into extinction. The modest buildings erected by Peter's architects had been surrounded and outnumbered by new palaces for monarch and members of the court alike, designed on more expansive lines by Rastrelli and his compatriots from Venice. Thrift was not highly regarded as a virtue in a period when unspent fortunes might be confiscated overnight after a palace revolution.

But St Petersburg was only the shop-window of the new empire. For the trappers scattered in settlements along the northern rivers, for the peasants who struggled to win a livelihood from the unyielding soil of central Russia, life had changed little from the days of Muscovy, except that taxes were higher and each village had to surrender more of its menfolk for the army. Peter's plans to create a new system of local government, new law-courts and a country-wide network of elementary schools had all been abandoned through indifference or lack of funds. Even in Moscow, where a new university had been founded in 1755, 'the streets still lay three arsheens deep in ignorance'. The new freedom acquired by the landowners was not matched by any corresponding concessions to their serfs, though the landowners' obligation to serve the tsar had long been regarded as a moral justification for serfdom. On the contrary, most landowners were demanding higher rentals or more labour from their serfs. The College of Mines had been unable to make a profit from the state iron-foundries in the Urals, and by 1740 nearly all of them had been let out to private operators. For a short period during the 1750s Russia had been producing and exporting more iron than any other country in Europe, but by 1763 output was already declining. Prospectors were unable to find coal and iron-ore in reasonable proximity in Russia and, as the Russian operators could not change over from charcoal to coke smelting, they were soon to lose their predominating position to Britain. While Peter the Great had taken pride in his feat of keeping the budget balanced throughout the Great Northern War, none of his successors even attempted to follow his example. In spite of new and ingenious forms of indirect taxation, and though state revenue had been swelled by the appropriation of income from church lands since 1757, the treasury was exhausted when Russia withdrew from the Seven Years War. For eight months in 1762 Russian soldiers in Pomerania had not received a single copeck of their pay.

Nothing then would have served the Russian people better than four or five decades of peace in which to revive and consolidate Peter's efforts to create the sinews of a modern state: but for some time to come peace at least was not vouchsafed to them. In 1762 providence instead provided Russia with the most civilised, but at the same time the most ambitious and most prodigal ruler she had ever had. At the time of Catherine's accession no one in Russia or abroad foresaw that she was to reign longer than any of her predecessors since Peter the Great.

Before the end of the 1760s Catherine was to test, and abandon, two other methods of achieving a radical alteration in the character of the Russian people. In her studies of Russia as a young woman she had been particularly struck by the fact that Peter the Great's initiative in founding a country-wide network of secular schools had been abandoned by his successors, and after her accession she aimed not only to bring Peter's plan to fulfilment but also to refashion the educational system in such a way as to create 'a new breed of people'. In this project she was supported by Ivan Betsky who, as President of the Academy of Arts and Director of Public Works and Gardens, was also responsible for the embellishment of St Petersburg. Betsky was convinced that bad morals were merely the result of bad family upbringing and bad schooling, and that 'noble citizens' could be produced without difficulty by removing young children altogether from parental influence and educating them by special methods in conditions which precluded any contact with the outside world. After experiments with a school for foundlings in Moscow, both the gymnasium attached to the Academy of Sciences in St Petersburg and the Cadet Corps of the Nobility were opened to children aged 4-5 years, who followed a special curriculum designed by Betsky to inculcate moral virtues rather than learning. At the same time Catherine founded a society for the education of young noblewomen (later known as the Smolny Institute) which was to be run on identical lines.

For a short time, too, Catherine herself assumed the role of preceptor by offering moral guidance to the educated society of St Petersburg in the pages of a satirical journal. At the time social satire was a relatively new feature of Russian journalism. Its first exponent was the dramatist Sumarokov, whose Busy Bee (1759) had tilted at the arrogance and ignorance of the country nobility. Catherine, in her Omnium Gatherum (Vsyakaya Vsyachind) which first appeared in 1769, tried to improve the manners of her readers. She complained, for instance, that women spoke too loud in society, that they discussed unsuitable topics in front of their children. In one issue an imaginary correspondent, probably Catherine herself, asked the editors to distinguish between 'inborn and Russian' and 'evil and Tartar' habits. The editors replied that it was a Tartar habit to break promises, an ancient Russian custom to observe them. Impoliteness, greed and envy were all Tartar habits. Five or six other journals of this type appeared during 1769. Some of them played the role of admiring pupil to Catherine's Omnium Gatherum, trying to show how well her lessons had been learnt: but one, The Drone, had stronger meat to offer. Its editor, Nikolay Novikov, had been secretary of one of the committees in the commission of 1767, and in The Drone he criticised the nobility for their attitude to the merchants and their treatment of the serfs. Catherine's journal reproved him for striking too serious a note. Their first literary skirmish lasted barely a year, but it was to be resumed in earnest before the end of the reign. The empress's abandonment of her venture into journalism marked the end of her preoccupation with good principles as the best recipe for good living and good government.

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