Catherine the Great is usually regarded as one of Russia's greatest ever rulers. Over the course of her 34 year reign, Catherine presided over the golden age of the Russian nobility, when the arts and learning flourished through the support of aristocratic patrons. Catherine was admired by and corresponded with Voltaire and Diderot, the brightest stars of the French Enlightenment. However, Catherine had promised much more and by the end of her reign there was a sense of disappointment that the empress had turned her back on much of her earlier reforms. This impression is reflected in the contemporary British responses to Catherine and her empire.
An overwhelming majority of British publications of the mid-18th century cast a negative light on the Russian people. Russians were described as 'brutal and ignorant' and animated by 'fondness for strong liquors', more Asiatic than European, with no culture of their own. Catherine's accession to the throne in 1762 caused some British observers to be optimistic about Russia's prospects. In 1767 Catherine issued the Nakaz, or Instruction, a list of guiding principles to the legislative commission which she set up to establish a new law code for the Russian empire. The following year an English translation by the Russian aristocrat Mikhail Tatishchev appeared in London. The author remarked that his manuscript 'was honoured with the kindest reception by a great number of persons of the most distinguished rank in this nation.'
The empress' openness to innovation in science was demonstrated by her willingness to have herself and her son inoculated against smallpox in 1769. This procedure was carried out by Sir Thomas Dimsdale, a British surgeon from Hertfordshire, who received a handsome payment from Catherine following the successful operation. Many Russian nobles were skeptical and feared for the empress' and the tsarevich's life. When demonstrated that there was no adverse effect, Catherine's courtiers were lining up to receive Dimsdale's treatment. This episode demonstrated the symbolic power of the empress in her court.
Catherine considered herself a patron of the arts and sought to promote this image around Europe. She commissioned paintings from Sir Joshua Reynolds and the dinner services from Josiah Wedgwood. The Green Frog Service produced by Wedgwood's factory remains on display in the Hermitage collection. In 1779 Catherine bought the art collection of Sir Robert Walpole (Britain's first Prime Minister) from his grandson, the 3rd Earl of Oxford. Many of these paintings are still owned by the Hermitage and displayed in its galleries. The sale caused consternation among the British elite, which lamented the loss of so many artistic treasures to Russia. A few years earlier the great British actor David Garrick had written to Princess Dashkova (one of the empress' closest confidants) during her visit to England, 'I fear what one of our own poets once prophesied will come to pass – "Russia shall teach the arts to Britain's isle."'
By 1780, British attitudes towards Catherine began a downward trajectory. She began to flex her diplomatic muscles and established the League of Armed Neutrality to prevent the Royal Navy from searching neutral vessels for French contraband during the American Revolutionary War. She continued to have some advocates in Britain, mainly those who believed that the cause of the American revolutionaries was just and it was not in Britain's interests to prevent the Thirteen Colonies from breaking away. There were even poems published in London celebrating Catherine as the defender of liberty.
One of the most important British admirers of Catherine was the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham. He was well-acquainted with the small Russian community in London and worked on proposal to help Catherine implement the principles of the Nakaz, which he would eventually send to the empress. This work was abandoned as Bentham realised that Catherine was turning her back on her early liberalism, but he was still keen to visit Russia and request an audience, hoping to make use of his younger brother Samuel (who had been in Petersburg since 1780) and his Russian acquaintances. In the event, Jeremy ended up in the village of Krichev in modern day Belarus with his brother. The village was part of Prince Potemkin's vast estates and the prince hoped that the Benthams could implement British agricultural practices to make the land more profitable. In 1787 Potemkin sold his estates in exchange for land in Poland. The project was abandoned and Jeremy returned to England in disappointment.
By the end of the 1780s, Russia's territorial conquests at the expense of the Turks in the south and Poland in the west caused anxiety in Whitehall. In 1788 the British government encouraged Sweden to go to war against Russia in an attempt to clip Catherine's wings. By 1790, war with Russia became a real possibility. William Pitt's Tory government threatened war if Catherine didn't relinquish control of the fortress of Ochakov to the Turks. That war was avoided was due largely to political intrigues and the role of the liberal opposition led by Charles James Fox. In the House of Commons, Fox spoke in defence of Catherine's conquests and dismissed the idea that Russia could ever be a threat to British interests. Fox was supported by Count Semyon Vorontsov, the Russian ambassador in London. Vorontsov contributed information to a 1791 pamphlet titled Serious Enquires into the Motives and consequences of Our Present Armament Against Russia. It stressed the important commercial links between the two countries: 'Our vessels which sail so fast, and whose excellent rigging resists the most violent tempests, have their sails and cordage from the hemp of Russia.' In recognition of Fox's efforts, Catherine ordered his bust to be made and placed between those of Cicero and Demosthenes.
By the following year the international political climate had changed, when the French revolutionary regime executed King Louis XVI. Catherine began to fear revolution in her own empire and joined the anti-French coalition. Catherine promised 40,000 Russian soldiers to support the war effort. The British press mocked her for her reticence in sending the troops since she was 'so busied in plundering and enslaving Poland.' General Suvorov was described by British journalists as the butcher of Praga (Warsaw's eastern district beyond the Vistula). In the final years of Catherine's reign, Russia and Britain found themselves in an uneasy alliance. Unfounded rumours of Catherine's death filled the pages of newspapers in such a way that it seemed as though the British elites were hoping to accelerate Catherine's demise by force of will.
When the empress finally died in 1796, British observers were optimistic in pursuing more stable diplomatic relations with Russia (this hope soon turned out to be in vain). Nevertheless, in writing Catherine's obituaries commentators finally had the opportunity to assess her reign. They concluded that Catherine had accomplished many great deeds and improved the livelihoods of her people, but by the end of her reign was far more interested in her own prestige and honour in the European stage. Nevertheless, the very fact that Russia became an important subject for political debate in Britain for the first time during Catherine's reign spoke volumes about the growing power and influence of the Russian empire under her rule. By virtue of placing Russia permanently on the European diplomatic map, Catherine's greatness in the history books is assured.
By Jimmy Chen