On Monday I was pleased to review Eva Stachniak’s new historical novel, Empress of the Night, a fascinating look at both the reign and the personal life of Catherine the Great. Today she kindly agreed to share more of her in-depth knowledge about the progressive leadership of this amazing woman.
One of Catherine the Great’s biographers quotes her exclaiming: if heaven had only granted me breeches instead of petticoats, I could do anything. It is with eyes and arms that one rules, and a woman has only ears. Petticoats, however, never really stopped Catherine from getting what she wanted, and the Russian women watched and took note.
By the time Catherine (then still an insignificant princess Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst) arrived in Russia, the women of Russian nobility had come a long way. Peter the Great had forcibly removed them from their traditional secluded position inside the home (terem), ordered them to dress in Western clothes, appear in public at various court functions, and conduct conversations with men who were not their husbands or relatives. The women were not asked to agree to these changes; their absolute ruler ordered them to do so, and they had to obey. These weren’t welcome changes at first—there was talk of shamelessness, decline of morals, dangers to the soul—but they proved irreversible. By 1762, the year when Catherine snatched her husband’s crown, Russian women were well used to their new freedoms. For their new Tsarina, however, it was just the beginning.
Catherine was a pragmatic ruler. She believed in the power of reason and the ideas of the Enlightenment to improve the lives of her subjects, but she also knew that changes don’t come without resistance. She believed in small, carefully chosen steps that would lead her, and the Russian people where she wanted them to go. And for her, people did not mean just men.
In one of these first steps on the path to improvement, Catherine separated the issue of morality from public health. Two years into her reign she opened the Moscow Foundling Home and lying-in hospital for unmarried and destitute mothers. Not only she made sure that no woman was turned away from her institution, but also that the children left there were taught skills that would secure their livelihood. Her hospitals also assured free and anonymous treatment of sexual diseases. It was not the first initiative of that sort in Europe, but the first in Russia. Soon, the Foundling Home for abandoned and illegitimate children also opened in St. Petersburg.
Catherine the Great firmly believed that education is the best way to affect social change. In 1764 she announced her General Plan for the Education of Young People of Both Sexes, a document that even today would be considered progressive. Catherine demanded that Russian boys and girls be taught by arousing their interest, not by rote. Education should be well balanced, she proclaimed, special care was to be given to the children’s hearts, bodies, and minds. She also favored a general curriculum rather than vocational training, and strictly forbade corporal punishment of anyone at her schools, pupils and servants, for she didn’t want schoolchildren to witness violence of any kind.
Education, Catherine believed, had to start early and include women. She didn’t want to raise, prudes or coquettes, but pleasant and capable women able to bring up their own children and manage a household. To this end Catherine established the first boarding school for noble girls at the Smolny Convent and, attached to it, a school for girls of the lower orders. As one British traveller to Russia noted: the Empress educates at her own expense 250 young ladies of distinction and 350 daughters of burghers and free peasants. They are received at four years of age, and remain till nineteen…they are instructed in every thing necessary. A quick look at the curriculum shows that the Smolny girls studied religion, Russian, foreign languages, arithmetic, geography, history, drawing, music, dancing and deportment. Their parents could come and visit, but the students didn’t go home for the holidays. Catherine didn’t wish her pupils to be influenced by their traditional families. They were to be her agents of change.
Newly educated Russian women had plenty of excellent role models to follow. Their enlightened Tsarina ruled the country with self-confidence and tremendous success. She collected art, built palaces and gardens, and—last but not least—she didn’t apologize for taking young lovers. She also rewarded women for their ambitions and initiative. Princess Ekaterina Dashkova was appointed Director of the Russian Imperial Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg – the first woman in the world to lead a national science academy. Of course Dashkova was Catherine’s friend and her political supporter, but she was also a blue-stocking who prided herself on her intellect and capabilities and Catherine saw no reason why an enlightened woman of Dashkova’s statue could not head the Academy.
Catherine’s rule assured Russia’s prosperity, and her subjects knew it. They accepted Catherine’s ideas and her ways. After all a Russian Tsarina was an absolute monarch, and had a divine right to do as she pleased. Any criticism of the way Catherine conducted her affairs, public and private, was covert and cautious. Some Russian men worried that “lesser women,” encouraged by the imperial example, would become too willful and forward thinking. Grand Duke Paul, Catherine’s son and heir, hinted at his disapproval of his mother’s reforms—although never in public.
Many Western visitors to Catherinian Russia were more straightforward. Russian women—they wrote in their memoirs—had become too confident, too free, too independent. Charles Masson, in his Secret Memoirs of the Court of Petersburg chastised them as being unnatural and masculine, and … assuming superiority over men. Many women visitors, however, begged to differ. As Princess Dashkova’s Irish house guest Martha Wilmot wrote wistfully: Russian women enjoy more rights and more independence than the women of the West.
After Catherine’s death, in 1796, Grand Duke Paul became Emperor of All the Russias and swore to reverse everything his mother stood for. He didn’t succeed—the changes Catherine started had taken deep roots—but one thing he managed. He made it illegal for a woman to sit on the Russian throne ever again.