The main Voltaireian era: Catherine II and the philosophers of the French Enlightenment

On August 9, 1779, in St. Petersburg, 12 boarded-up wooden boxes of incredibly large size were unloaded from the Russian merchant ship to the shore. According to the accompanying documents, the cost of the cargo was 135 thousand French livres, four sous and six deniers. But its recipient, the Russian Empress Catherine the Great, rightly considered the contents of these boxes invaluable: the black boards hid 6902 volumes - the personal library of Marie Francois Arouet, whom the world knows by the name Voltaire. Maria Molchanova talks about the policy of Catherine II’s “enlightened absolutism” and her relationship with the 18th century French philosophers.
The interest of the autocratic ruler of Russia to the French Enlightenment and its most prominent representatives was caused not only by personal, but also by state considerations: extending the hand of friendship to the then rulers of the thoughts of European society, the empress counted on their support in realizing her political plans. And she was not mistaken in her expectations - Voltaire, d'Alembert, Diderot and Grimm faithfully served her interests, justifying the actions of the Northern Semiramis in the eyes of European public opinion, even the division of independent Poland. Unconditional affiliation of Catherine II to the European political culture in no way affected its sharply negative attitude to the foreign policy of France and personally to King Louis XV. The historian of French diplomacy, Pierre Ren, noted that from the age of 15 Catherine lived in Russia, mastered her language, adopted Orthodoxy, but French literature served as her spiritual food. Fully brought up in French culture, a correspondent of Voltaire, and later Grimm and Diderot, Catherine does not trust France, and this feeling is mutual.


Portrait of Catherine II in Russian dress by an unknown artist

Having migrated to Russia from the tiny German principality of Anhalt-Zerbst, because of her bad relations with her husband, she very soon found herself on her own, and along with frequent romantic hobbies, she intensively engaged in self-education. Loneliness has to read, and the Grand Duchess swallowed French novels one by one, after which it was Montesquieu and Voltaire’s turn. Starting in 1765 to compile the famous "Mandate" for the Layout Commission, the empress wrote to the philosopher-enlightener J.L. d'Alembert: "You will see how in it for the benefit of my state I robbed President Montesquieu, without naming him; but, I hope that if he sees my work from the next world, he will forgive me this plagiarism for the good of twenty million people, who must come of it. He loved mankind too much to take offense at me. His book is a prayer book for me. ” The letter was about the "Spirit of Laws" of Montesquieu, to whom all educated Europe was reading at the time.

Catherine II's passion was French literature.

Portrait of Charles de Montesquieu

Voltaire, the “pupil” of whom she called herself, became the next most serious passion of Catherine. Subsequently, the autocratic ruler of Russia sincerely mourned the death of the French atheist philosopher who died in May 1778. “Give me a hundred full copies of the works of my teacher,” Catherine wrote to her permanent correspondent Melchior Grimm in the summer of that year, “so that I could place them everywhere. I want them to serve as a model, to be studied, to learn by heart, to be fed by the souls; it forms citizens, geniuses, heroes and authors; it will develop one hundred thousand talents that will be lost in the darkness of ignorance. ” And on October 1, in a letter to Grimm, once again calling Voltaire his teacher, she noted: “It was he, or rather his works, that shaped my mind and my beliefs. I have already told you more than once that, being younger, I wanted to please him. ”
Voltaire, who did not have the slightest urge to regret the sudden death of Peter III, in his letters to Shuvalov expressed his pleasure regarding the coup in St. Petersburg on June 28, 1762, calling Ekaterina Semiramis. First, Catherine and Voltaire exchanged compliments, and then, it is not known exactly when the direct correspondence begins between them.

Catherine II in a letter: "Being younger, I would like to like Voltaire"


Portrait of Voltaire. Artist MK Latour. OK. 1736

Catherine acquired in the patriarch of the philosophers the most zealous partisan who was ready to defend her against everyone, against the Turks and Poles, who was ready to show her the most brilliant goals: Voltaire was probably the first to talk about the fact that Catherine should take Constantinople, free her and recreate the fatherland of Sophocles and Alcibiades
Many decisions of Catherine II in the field of domestic policy and administration were prompted to her to one degree or another by the French enlighteners, and here the Russian empress was no exception. It was an honor to be friends with philosophers even for crowned persons. “Catherine’s prestige in Europe,” the empress’s biographer noted, “was almost entirely based on the admiration she inspired Voltaire; and this admiration she managed to achieve and supported him with extraordinary art; if necessary, she even paid Voltaire for him. But this prestige did not only help her in foreign policy; he and within her state surrounded her name with such brilliance and charm that he gave her the opportunity to demand from his subjects that gigantic work that created the true greatness and glory of her reign. "

Monument to Voltaire and his library in St. Petersburg

From the very beginning of her reign, Catherine II discovered a desire to maintain constant correspondence with French celebrities, whom she alternately invited to come to Russia. The French charge d'affaires at the Russian court, Beranger, reported on August 13, 1762, to a ciphered dispatch to Versailles: “I must warn you that the empress ordered Mr. d'Alembert to write an invitation to settle in Russia. She is ready to pay him 10 thousand rubles of pension, which corresponds to 50 thousand livres, to give him the opportunity to continue compiling the Encyclopedia and publish it in St. Petersburg. Instead, she asks only to teach the math of the Grand Duke (Pavel Petrovich.). ” “One of my Russian friends,” continued Beranger, “assures me that Mr. d'Alembers refused, and that a similar offer was made to Mr. Diderot.”


Jean Leron d'Alembert - French encyclopedic scholar

Diderot edited plans for Russian educational institutions.

Catherine also made close contacts with Diderot. Wanting to support the publisher of the Encyclopedia and at the same time impress, the empress bought Diderot’s library for a very high price of 15 thousand livres, after which she left it for life use and assigned another 1 thousand francs to the philosopher as the custodian of her books. Voltaire once again came to the delight of the generosity and nobility of Semiramis: “Who could imagine 50 years ago that the time would come when the Scythians would nobly reward in Paris the virtue, the knowledge, the philosophy with which they do so unworthy ". By the way, after the death of the patriarch of philosophers in 1778, Catherine II acquired his library, which has since been located in St. Petersburg.

Denis Diderot - portrait by J.-O. Fragonara

Diderot even visited St. Petersburg in the years 1773-1774 and edited here the “plans and charters” of educational institutions. At the request of the Empress, Diderot was also involved in drafting a project for organizing public education in Russia. At the same time, he carefully tried to show Catherine the danger of an alliance with the King of Prussia and persuade her to draw closer to France, which, however, did not succeed. But he managed to save more than 20 French volunteer officers who fought in the ranks of the Polish Confederate against the Russian troops and were captured. The Empress graciously condescended to the request of her friend the philosopher and released the captive French to their homeland. “Ah, my friends, what a sovereign, what an extraordinary woman: this is the soul of Brutus in the form of Cleopatra!” Wrote Diderot enthusiastically on his return from Russia.

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