IN THE LAST PART of the fifteenth century, the monks and courtiers of Moscow began to say that Moscow was destined to become the “Third Rome.” The first Rome, they said had been great as the centre of Christianity; but when the Romans had recognized the pope, Rome had been punished by destruction. The second Rome had been Constantinople, the centre of the Orthodox Church; but Constantinople, too, had briefly recognized the pope, and it, too, had fallen. Now Moscow, where the Orthodox faith still remained pure, was to become the Third Rome — the great centre of the Christian world. It would remain so, “for two Romes have fallen, the third stands and a fourth will not be.”
Once Moscow had been small and unimportant, but the dukes of Moscow had been bold and ambitious, seizing every opportunity to make Moscow stronger. Sometimes they acted more like thieves than princes. Grand Duke Daniel once invited another prince to dinner, pretending friendship. When the guest arrived, Daniel threw him into prison and seized his lands. Daniel’s son, Ivan, who was called Ivan Moneybags, made Moscow the home of the Metropolitan, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church. Ivan Moneybags also became the tax collector for the Tatar overlords and he kept a good part of the taxes, for himself. Other dukes stole or bought or conquered new lands to make Moscow greater.
So, when Ivan III became Grand Duke in 1462, he inherited one of the most powerful kingdoms of Russia. Ivan acted very much as though he believed the story of the Third Rome. He married Sophia, niece of the last Byzantine emperor. He put the two-headed eagle of Rome on his own state seal. He sometimes even called himself tsar, which was the Russian way of saying “Caesar,” and he set himself up as defender of the Orthodox faith.
Ivan won new lands to go with his new titles. He conquered Novgorod and other territories, until he made all but one of the independent Russian kingdoms bow to his rule. Soon Ivan was able to call himself “by the Grace of God, Sovereign of All the Russias, and grand prince of Vladimir and of Moscow and of Novgorod and of Pskov and of Tver and of Yugria and of Viatka and of Perm and of Bolgary and of others.”
According to tradition, Ivan shared his power with the great nobles, the boyars. The boyars acknowledged him as their ruler and gave him men for his armies; in return, he granted them their lands and took their advice. Ivan was careful to keep the boyars from getting too much power. When he conquered new lands, he gave large estates to his own officers, whom he could trust to remain loyal. Often he forced conquered princes to leave their own lands and come to Moscow. There he made them useful as officials, courtiers and at the same time he made sure that they were not plotting against him.
From 1505 until 1533 Ivan’s son, Vasily III, ruled Moscow. Vasily took the old Russian land of Smolensk from Lithuania and added Ryazan to Moscow’s possessions. Like his father, he cooperated with the boyars, but managed to keep them under control. Then, in 1533, when Vasily died, his three-year-old son Ivan IV became grand duke and at last the boyars had their chance to really rule over the Russian lands. They began to fight among themselves for power and all the little duke could do was watch.
THE CHILDHOOD OF IVAN
A Russian story has it that on the day of Ivan IV’s birth in 1530, the whole country resounded with terrific claps of thunder and the sky was filled with lightning. Later, when he grew up, Ivan was called Ivan the Terrible; perhaps the Russians thought the story of the storm was an omen of his future. As a little boy, however, Ivan was not at all terrible. He was bright and quick and friendly, and he loved all who showed him affection.
After his father died, Ivan found very little respect or affection. He was ignored and humiliated by the boyars who ruled for him. First the Shuiski family and then the Bielski family gained power; each treated Ivan and his brother so badly that Ivan never forgot it. In their fights, the boyars even ran through the palace, chasing each other while Ivan watched. Later Ivan described the way he and his brother had suffered “We became orphans in the fullest sense. Our subjects only furthered their own desires, finding the country without a ruler. They ceased to regard us and being their own masters, strove only for wealth or glory for themselves and quarreled among one another . . . they treated us as foreigners or rather as beggars. We lacked food and clothing. . . . The children of the boyars took away our father‘s gold and silver plate and wrote the names of their parents upon it. . . .”
IVAN LEARNS CRUELTY
To forget his misery, he buried himself in books. While the boyars fought, he became more learned than any grand duke before him. He read everything he could find — Church history, Russian history, the stories of Rome and of Byzantium. He could hardly help but contrast his own pitiful weakness with the glories of the ancient Caesars. He also learned the story of the Third Rome, which told him that he, too, should be a Caesar. By right he should rule as the chosen of God.
At the same time that Ivan learned to hate the boyars, he learned how to be like them. They tortured their enemies before his eyes, and he too, learned how to torture. He practiced on animals, throwing dogs down from the high castle walls. His teachers praised him and told him that he was learning well.
By 1543, Ivan was thirteen, old enough to show the boyars who was ruler. When Prince Shuiski tried to kill Ivan‘s oldest friend, the Metropolitan, Ivan had his revenge. He ordered the boys who tended his dogs to throw Prince Shuiski into the prison. The dog-keepers were Ivan’s devoted slaves and they did even more than he ordered — on the way to the prison they strangled Shuiski. All the other boyars knew that now they would have to show Ivan great respect and he paraded through the streets unafraid. He did whatever he pleased and the boyars bowed and applauded. He ordered his servants to beat the men he met. He had any possible enemies beheaded or exiled. Ivan prayed and drank and hunted and enjoyed his new power.
TSAR OF ALL THE RUSSIAS
When Ivan reached the age of sixteen, he was considered a man and it was time for him to marry. All the young ladies of noble rank, as many as two thousand of them, were sent to the palace. From them Ivan chose Anatasia Romanov, who was as religious and good as she was lovely, to be his bride.
It was also time for Ivan to start ruling in earnest — to become a Caesar. In January of 1547, the cheering people of Moscow gathered outside the cathedral. Within, Ivan IV was being crowned as Tsar of All the Russias. Everyone sang anthems to his health and the boyars threw gold coins before him so that his reign would be a rich and fruitful one.
Ivan did not try to rule without the great boyars; they still sat on his council. He named other men to the council also. One, the Archpriest Silvester, was a successful merchant as well as a priest. Another had once been Ivan’s valet. Such men owed their positions to Ivan himself, as did the “sons of boyars,” the less important military nobles to whom Ivan gave new lands.
IVAN THE WARRIOR
In 1552 Ivan led his forces east to attack the Tatar stronghold of Kazan. Armed with bows, swords‚ cannon and muskets, they reached the Moslem fortress on the Volga in late summer and camped outside the walls. Again and again Ivan led his men against Kazan. But the Tatars fought bravely and each time the Russians fell back. In September a great storm blew down the Russian tents. The Tatars climbed on their ramparts to jeer down at Ivan’s army, screaming and making faces. The Russians thought they were casting spells to make the rain continue.
To fight the Tatar spells, Ivan sent home for a holy cross and he brought in foreign engineers to tell him how to destroy the Tatar ramparts. The rain stopped, the engineers built new siege machines and in October the Russians managed to break through the Tatar ramparts. While the army prepared to invade the town, Ivan prayed for victory. A boyar ran into the chapel to call him to the front, but Ivan continued to pray. He was not being cowardly. He believed that it was a tsar’s duty to order his men to fight and then to pray for them himself. When the boyars insisted that Ivan join the battle, he quickly took communion, then mounted his horse and galloped off to his regiment.
The Russian soldiers advanced triumphantly into Kazan, burning and killing as they went. The dead were piled high and everywhere the air was filled with shouting and the clashing of swords. In the confusion no one knew exactly what was happening‚ but by late afternoon it was clear that Ivan had won his victory. Ivan thanked his men and his God, with his own hands he planted a great cross over the conquered city.
Later, Ivan’s army pushed down the Volga to Astrakhan and in 1556 it, too, fell to Moscow. Now Ivan ruled all the land from the Gulf of Finland and the White Sea east to the Caspian Sea. Russian colonists began to settle in the new eastern territory. Russian peasants farmed new plots along the lower Volga. Russian traders crossed the Urals to find furs in wild Siberia and they claimed Siberia for Moscow.
To match his triumphs in the east, in 1558 Ivan sent his army westward to attack the land of the Livonian knights on the Baltic Sea. He wanted the Baltic ports so that he could increase Russian trade. For two years the Russians advanced, sweeping the knights aside and it seemed certain that Moscow would soon rule Livonia.
The neighbouring European countries thought differently. They had no intention of letting Ivan move west as easily as he had moved east. Poland, Lithuania, Denmark and Sweden hurried to the defense of Livonia‚ splitting it among themselves in the process. Ivan fought and negotiated and wrote insulting letters to his European enemies, but the war went on. When an armistice finally ended the Livonian war in 1583, Ivan won no new territory. He even lost to Sweden the lands of Karelia and Ingria on the Finnish Gulf.
The boyars had been opposed to the Livonian war. When it went badly, they became increasingly difficult. In 1564 they let two campaigns fall and Ivan’s most trusted aide deserted to Poland. Such treason in wartime was unthinkable and Ivan took drastic action.
THE RUSSIAN EMPIRE
On a cold Sunday late in 1564, a great procession departed from Moscow. Ivan was leaving Moscow with his treasure and his furniture and all his court. No one knew where he was going‚ or why. On January 3, 1565, a courier rode into Moscow with a message from the tsar. Ivan had had enough of the treason of the boyars and the clergy. He was renouncing his throne and he would go “wherever God should counsel him to go.” A second message told the merchants and common people of Moscow that he felt no anger toward them.
No one was sure what all this meant, but they knew what they must do. The boyars and the clergy pleaded for Ivan’s return. The merchants offered him money, their dearest possessions and the people shouted and cried in the streets. Ivan finally consented to return, but only on certain conditions. He would punish all traitors and rebels as he saw fit and he would make their lands into something called an Oprichnina.
These lands were set aside as Ivan’s personal property, and he could do as he pleased with them. He evicted the old nobles and put his own men on the land. These men were known as the Oprichniki. Ivan made the Oprichnina larger until it included half his empire — the old princely kingdoms, the great mercantile centres, the important trade routes. Each Oprichnik was chosen for his loyalty and eventually there were five thousand of them, all eager to do Ivan’s bidding and destroy his enemies.
Ivan and the Oprichniki set about executing or exiling any boyars who might be disloyal. Their lands, too, became part of the Oprichnina. Their free peasants were given to new masters, who were often ruthless. The result was that many peasants fled. A tax collector reported that in one province 460,000 acres of good land were lying idle because there were no peasants to farm them. Ivan proclaimed that the peasants in such places no longer had the right to leave their land; he was beginning to make the free peasants into serfs.
When he was not waging military or political battles, Ivan tried to encourage art and literature in Russia. From Europe he obtained artists as well as engineers, printers as well as guns. He saw to it that the first printing press in Russia was set up in Moscow. In memory of his victory at Kazan, he built a marvelous church next to the Kremlin. This Cathedral of the Blessed Vasily was really nine separate churches clustered together, topped by eight onion-shaped cupolas, each one different. One was striped in red and white, one looked like a great pineapple, another was decorated with swirled stripes of white and green. Ivan had created the Russian Empire and he had made the tsardom glorious. The Russians wrote songs to celebrate his majesty and generosity and when he died in 1564, they said that even the moon faded in sorrow.
BORIS AND DIMITRI
Ivan’s oldest son, Fedor, was sickly and weak-minded. The great boyar Boris Godunov ruled for Fedor and when Fedor died in 1598, Boris himself became tsar. Boris ruled well, but this was a time of trouble in Russia and nothing he could do was enough. In 1601 an early frost killed the crops in the fields and the next year the crops failed again. Grain and bread grew so expensive that only the wealthy could afford to eat and the hungry rioted in the cities and in the countryside.
Neighbouring countries began to invade Russia and another man claimed the throne, pretending to be Ivan’s second son, Dmitri. The real Dmitri was dead but in 1605 the false Dmitri invaded Moscow with an army of Poles and Russians und nude himself tsar. There followed eight terrible years of civil war, filled with boyars’ plots and peasant revolts. A mob murdered the false Dmitri but a second pretender appeared to claim his place. The king of Poland invaded Moscow to put his own son on the throne. Sweden, too, invaded Russia and in Pskov there even appeared a third man who claimed to be Dmitri.
Late in 1611, the Russian merchants began to raise funds to drive out the Poles and restore order. They organized a great volunteer army. Led by Prince Pozharski, this army of nobles, traders‚ farmers and serfs laid siege to Moscow. For three months they stormed the Kremlin, starving out the Poles. By November of 1612, Moscow was again free. Pozharski called a great assembly to choose a new tsar and in 1613 the representatives came to Moscow from all over Russia. They chose as tsar Michael Romanov, the grand-nephew of Ivan the Terrible’s wife Anastasia.
RULE OF THE ROMANOVS
Michael, who ruled until 1655, was gentle and sickly, fond of tinkering with clocks and listening to trumpeters. His son Alexis, who succeeded him, was deeply religious but given to fits of temper. The next Romanov tsars were no better. Even so, the empire grew larger and the tsar more powerful, while the peasants grew less free. Alexis reorganized the army into Western-style regiments and set up an army of his own so that he would depend less on the boyars.
Russian merchants increased their trade with European countries, especially with England and the Netherlands. They sold leathers and fur, imported cloth, buttons, paper and other foreign goods. Some Russians began to study European languages and read foreign books, while others enjoyed European clothing and music. A few even wished to make Russian society more European — to organize the workers in guilds, start technical schools and give citizens more freedom. These men later came to be known as Westernizers. Many more people were Slavophiles‚ who despised the foreign customs. When Tsar Alexis bought German picture books and toys for his son Peter, the Slavophiles thought him foolish.
In 1682, Alexis’s sons Peter and Ivan became the rulers of Russia. Ivan, the elder son, was half-witted, so his sister Sophia was named regent. Peter, who was ten, was sent to live on the outskirts of Moscow. A handsome‚ clever child, Peter was so big for his age that a visiting diplomat took him for sixteen. Peter ran wild and did exactly as he pleased. He picked all sorts of playmates — sons of nobles, sons of servants, young men from the nearby European quarter. When they played, they often used real Russian regiments instead of toy soldiers and they armed the men with guns from the Moscow arsenal.
THE EDUCATION OF A TSAR
Peter disliked studying and avoided his lessons‚ but he could do almost anything with his hands. He learned to use a lathe, to print and bind books and he liked to work at the blacksmith’s forge. Hearing of the astrolabe, a wonderful instrument that could measure far distances from any point, Peter sent to Europe for one. When it arrived, no Russian could use it. Finally a Dutch merchant, Franz Timmerman, showed Peter how it worked and taught him arithmetic and geometry so he could use it himself. From Timmerman Peter learned about European sailing boats, which could go both with and against the wind. With his usual energy, Peter decided to build a whole fleet of boats and sail them on a lake. Before he could complete the project, however an emergency called him back to Moscow.
In Moscow a new rumour was spreading. People said that the Regent Sophia was planning to have herself crowned tsarina and rule in her own name. They even said that she planned to murder Peter. Peter and his soldiers took refuge in a monastery and the church and part of the army came to his aid. They put an end to Sophia’s regency. Although Peter was seventeen and old enough to rule, he much preferred to play. He went back to his boats. Then, in 1696, Peter’s brother Ivan died and Peter became the sole tsar of Russia.
Peter announced that he would travel through Europe first. He wanted to learn to build better boats and in Europe he could learn that and much more. There were many things he disliked about Russia and in Europe he might learn how to change them.
Peter made his trip under a false name, pretending to be an ordinary Russian traveler. Since he was almost seven feet tall, most people knew who he was and he was often followed by curious crowds. In Holland Peter worked for a week as a ship’s carpenter. He visited factories, museums, mints, hospitals, and theatres. He learned to make shoes and to dissect a body. He learned about dentistry and he practiced it on his servants. Everywhere he asked, “What is that for? How does it work?” He hired English ship-builders to return with him to Russia as well as Dutch naval officers, Scandinavian sailors and French surgeons. Peter reached home late in 1698, determined to make his own court and kingdom even grander than those he had visited.
Back at court, Peter ordered the barber to shave off the courtiers’ beards. He told them that only barbarians wore hair on their faces. To Russians, the heard was a sacred gift of God, but Peter picked up the razor and shaved some of the courtiers himself. Next he ordered them to throw away their Russian clothes and wear European garments.
To make Russia wealthier, Peter set about to find new resources and introduce new industry. When rich iron deposits were discovered in the Ural Mountains, he encouraged iron production. He set up cloth factories and helped start a stocking factory. To improve Russian wool, he imported European shepherds und ordered the Russian sheep farmers to follow their instructions. Many of Peter’s efforts were not very successful. Although he admitted that he did not know much about trade and manufacturing, he forced the Russians to follow his commands.
To make his government more efficient, Peter sent investigators to study the European systems. He reorganized the Russian government into sixteen departments, called colleges and he replaced the old boyar council with a senate. He named his own friends to the colleges and to the senate.
Even Peter’s most trusted friends could not be trusted too far. For years, Russian officials had made fortunes by bribery and fraud until dishonesty had become a habit. Peter appointed secret inspectors to keep an eye on his officials and later appointed spies to watch the inspectors. He offered huge rewards to anyone who would report dishonest officials and such a great flood of anonymous letters came in that no one had time enough to read them.
WAR WITH SWEDEN
Peter even reformed the Orthodox Church. The Church, he thought, was too rich and too powerful. Worse, it had dared to criticize him. He abolished the office of patriarch and set up a new group, the Holy Synod, to run the Church. Through the synod Peter kept the Church under tight control.
To train the Russians in Western ways, Peter founded new schools. His schools were technical schools, not cultural centres; they turned out shipbuilders and sailors, engineers and architects. When people did not enter the schools voluntarily‚ Peter forced them to attend. In his medical school, unwilling students were sometimes kept in chains.
Peter wanted to regain the Baltic provinces of Karelia and Ingria, the same provinces that Ivan the Terrible had lost to Sweden. He made a secret treaty with Denmark and Poland against Sweden and in 1700 declared open war on King Charles XII of Sweden. He led an army of 35,000 men to attack the Swedish fortress of Narva on the Gulf of Finland. Peter was taking on an enemy much stronger than he knew. Charles XII was eighteen, ten years younger than Peter, but in his own way he was just as tough. He was a great horseman and when hunting he killed bears with nothing more than a wooden fork. His army was better than the Russian force.
Peter’s troubles began even before his army reached Narva. The autumn had been rainy and the roads were impossibly muddy. Wagons kept breaking down in the mud. By the time the troops reached Narva, they were cold and hungry and many were sick. They lay siege to Narva for weeks but everything went badly. In a final battle, 20,000 weary Russians met 9,000 fresh Swedish troops led by Charles. When a sudden snow storm blinded the Russians, the Swedes broke through the Russian lines and won a great victory.
A WINDOW ON EUROPE
Peter realized now how strong he must be to defeat Sweden. He drafted thousands of new soldiers and he had church bells melted down for cannon. His armies began to regain ground and in 1703 he captured a Swedish fortress at the mouth of the Neva River, on the Gulf of Finland. There he began to build a new fort.
Near the fort Peter also began building a new town, named St. Petersburg after his patron saint. At first it was only a village with log huts and unpaved streets, but Peter loved it. He called it his “paradise,” and said it was a “window on Europe” for Russia. European merchants could now reach Russia easily by sailing through the Baltic. In November of 1703, the first ship arrived, loaded with a Dutch cargo of salt and wine. Peter himself went out to guide the ship to port and he welcomed the sailors royally.
Eventually Peter decided to make St. Petersburg his capital. Workmen were sent from everywhere in the empire and by 1718 St. Petersburg had 40,000 buildings. The nobles were not pleased with the new capital. It provided no comforts or amusements. The climate was bad — cold and wet — and the only foods that grew were cabbages and turnips, but the nobles were in no position to defy the Tsar of All the Russias. They grumbled but they moved to St. Petersburg.
Peter continued to make war on Sweden and in 1709 his troops encircled the Swedish army and defeated it at Poltava. The Swedes, however, stubbornly continued to fight, until finally Russian galleys raided the Swedish coast. The peace treaty of 1721 gave Peter not only Ingria and part of Karelia, but Estonia and Livonia as well.
Peter himself brought the news of victory of St. Petersburg. He sailed into the harbour, announced by gun salutes‚ drums and trumpets. All the capital rejoiced and Peter danced on tabletops and sang songs. He announced that he would pardon all condemned criminals and cancel back taxes. The grateful senate glorified him by calling him Peter the Great, Father of His Country, Emperor of All the Russias.
When Peter died in 1725, his wife Catherine became empress and in 1721 the nobles put Peter‘s daughter Elizabeth on the throne. Good-natured but as lazy as her father had been energetic, Elizabeth founded an academy of fine arts, encouraged the theatre and introduced French customs at court. She had no children, so she brought her nephew, the duke of Holstein, from Germany and made him her successor. Her nephew‚ who was renamed Peter was not very bright. Elizabeth was not pleased with him, but she had no other heir.
CATHERINE SEIZES POWER
In 1762 Elizabeth died and the German Peter became emperor. It took Peter only a few weeks to make the Russians hate him. He made the army wear uniforms in the Prussian style; he named only German soldiers to his guard and sent the army to Germany to fight battles for his German duchy. Worst of all perhaps‚ he mocked the Orthodox Church.
Peter’s popular wife, Catherine, hated him, too. A German princess, Catherine had come to Russia when she was fourteen. She was charming, clever and she wanted to be empress. She studied Russian diligently, getting up at night to memorize her lessons. While Peter played with toy soldiers, she read the works of the new European Thinkers. She learned that life should be based on man’s reason, not on the old customs that no one had ever questioned. She was fascinated by these new ideas and she dreamed of becoming an “enlightened despot” — an absolute ruler who would govern for the good of her people.
Soon after Peter became emperor, Catherine began plotting to get rid of him and the nobles were only too glad to help. Early on the morning of June 28, a carriage approached St. Petersburg. Three officers galloped beside it and inside rode Catherine, who was coming to the city to claim the throne. At the army barracks outside the city, the soldiers gathered around her, cheering. They kissed her feet and hands and escorted her into St. Petersburg. The townspeople, too, hurried to join the procession and Catherine later wrote that “The people were mad with joy; I have never seen anything like it.” At the Winter Palace Catherine greeted the senate and the Holy Synod and the nobles wished her well. The army put on its old Russian uniforms to hail the new empress — Catherine II, Autocrat of All the Russias. Catherine had Peter imprisoned in a nearby palace with his dog and his violin and his favourite bed and within a week he was dead. Catherine said he died of intestinal trouble and apoplexy. There were rumours that his guards had murdered him, but no one cared enough about Peter for it to matter.
Declaring that the Russian laws were old-fashioned and confused, Catherine called together a great commission to draft a new code of laws. Five hundred and fifty representatives, representing all free Russians, were elected to work on the new laws. Catherine wrote out their instructions herself, working three hours a day for two years until the work was done. In the instructions, she followed ideas of the philosophers she admired. “The sovereign is absolute,” she wrote. “The aim of monarchy is the glory of the citizen, and state, and the sovereign.” She pointed out that the Russian peasants were overworked and overtaxed and that all Russians should be governed by the same laws so that they might cease to fear one another.
Armed with Catherine’s instructions, the commissioners laboured for two years. Although they held more than 200 sessions, they could agree on nothing. It was not easy to change things in a country as old and big as Russia. Russian law remained as confused and unjust as it had been before.
THE ENLIGHTENED DESPOT
If the commission did nothing for the Russians, it did a great deal for Catherine’s reputation. The instructions she had written were read in every country of Europe, and all forward looking people praised them. They thought the instructions were liberal, wise and that Catherine was a great, enlightened despot. The French philosopher Voltaire wrote Catherine that the instructions were “the finest monument of the century. It will bring you more glory than ten battles on the shores of the Danube.”
Nevertheless, Catherine ruled Russia much as Peter the Great had done. She had good intentions and she wanted to be kind, but, even more, she wanted power for herself. Having gained her throne with the aid of the nobles, she proceeded to make sure that they would not turn against her. She took away the law-making powers of the senate and in 1785 she granted the nobles new privileges. She freed them from taxes and from service to the state and she gave them absolute rule over their land and peasants.
She also helped the nobles to control the serfs. By this time the Russian serfs were no better than slaves. The nobles bought and sold them and auctioned them off in the public square; some traded their serfs for hunting dogs or gambled them away at cards. The serfs lived in the worst kind of misery‚ “What has disgusted me,” wrote a French traveler, “is to see men with grey hair . . . lying on their faces, with their trousers down and flogged like children.” The factory workers, too, were serfs, bought by the owners and often worked to death. Such cruelty made the serfs desperate and during Catherine’s rule there were at least sixty peasant revolts. She sternly crushed each one of them.
CATHERINE THE GREAT
With Russian affairs in order, Catherine set about increasing her empire. From her weak southern neighbour, Turkey, she took the northern coast of the Black Sea and the Crimea. In the east she sent troops into Poland. While her troops were defeating the Polish nobles, Prussia and Austria also attacked Poland. Russia, Prussia and Austria began to divide Poland up between them, by 1795 there was no more Poland and Catherine had gained Courland, Lithuania and the Polish Ukraine.
Since the time of Peter the Great, the Russian court had been magnificent, but Catherine made her court more splendid than anything the Russians had seen. She gave lavish feasts and after one banquet the British ambassador wrote home that the dessert table “was set out with jewels to the amount of upwards of 2 million sterling.” She invited as many as eight thousand guests. Although each came glittering with jewels, Catherine was dressed more richly than any of them.
Catherine was interested in more than magnificence. Energetic and businesslike‚ she encouraged culture as well as extravagance. She hired architects and landscape gardeners, founded schools and hospitals, and introduced vaccinations for smallpox. She started a literary magazine and encouraged artists and playwrights. Never content to sit by and watch, she wrote many plays herself and she corresponded with many great thinkers of the day.
As early as 1767, the Russians had begun to call her Catherine the Great. At first she modestly said that she did not deserve such a title, but long before she died in 1796 she had more than earned it. She had brought Russia new glory. The noble lived richly and Catherine herself was famous in all of Europe. The cost, however, had been great and Russia was deeply in debt.
Before she died, Catherine wrote an epitaph for her tombstone. She wanted it to read: “When she ascended the throne of Russia, she wished to do good and tried to bring happiness, freedom and prosperity to her subjects.” These words were never put over her grave and perhaps it was just as well. For, despite her glory and her good intentions, Catherine had not given most of her people happiness, freedom or prosperity. Indeed, Catherine had made the mass of Russians perhaps even more miserable than they had been before. Her own power had depended largely on a kind of bargain with the nobles; she might rule Russia as she pleased if she let them rule their serfs as they pleased. Although she had wished to make the lives of her subjects happier, there was little that she could have done without angering the nobles. Although later tsars, too, wanted and even tried to make reforms, Russia long remained a land where the rulers had more power and the common people fewer rights than in any other European country.
By the time of Catherine’s death in 1796, the age of absolutism — the age of kings who ruled with absolute power — had ended in the countries of Western Europe. Such kings like the Tudors in England and the Bourbons in France, had succeeded in destroying the power of local lords and in creating strong, unified countries. In making their rules strong, the kings had depended on the support of the growing middle class – merchants, bankers, manufacturers‚ gentleman landowners and country squires. These men of the middle class had become powerful in their own right. In England, they no longer automatically did the bidding of the Tudor kings. In two revolutions they had established parliament’s supremacy over the king and had written their liberties into law. Other European countries, led by France, were beginning to go even further. They would do away with the king altogether and create a new system of government — the republic, ruled by the people.