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Catherine as Enlightened Lawmaker

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It is useful to consider some of the ideas which influenced her policies and look at the ways in which she tried to implement them. As far back as the seventeenth century,  Western thinkers and, in particular, the English political theorist Thomas Hobbes (1588≠-1679) had formulated the theory of the social contract. According to it, the state was created by people who agreed among themselves to transfer part of their rights to the state in return for its protection. But if the state was a creation of man it followed that it was possible to improve and perfect the state for the sake of the common good with the help of  rational and useful laws. 

Catherine the Great

The ideas of the social contract approach were further developed  by French political theorists of the eighteenth century, in particular by Charles-Louis Montesquieu (1689-1755), the author of The Spirit of the Laws (1748), which was highly regarded by Catherine the Great.  Montesquieu believed, that there were three forms of government: monarchy, republic and tyranny.  For a monarch not to turn into a tyrant, laws were needed which would define rights and obligations both of the monarch and his subjects.  The monarch was a wise and enlightened law-maker who gradually perfected the laws on the basis of accurate knowledge of the countryís historical and cultural traditions. 

Montesquieu is also credited with elaboration of the all-important concept of the separation of powers, whereby the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government are independent of each other, and have the power to act as checks and balances over each otherís actions.  He held the separation of powers to be a basic constitutional need if political liberties of citizens were to be protected from tyrannical governments. 


The ideas formulated by Montesquieu were absorbed by Catherine and formed the basis of her theoretical outlook.  They combined with the Empressís own views about the national interests and needs of Russia.  First of all, Catherine saw herself as the heir and successor of Peter the Great, with whom she strove all her life to compete in glory. She saw Peterís main achievement in the Europeanization of Russia, in her transformation into a powerful empire with a leading role in world politics.  Catherine was convinced that the success of the Petrine Reform was the best proof that Russia belonged to European civilization. 

Peterís idea of a Ďregularí state was also near akin to her philosophical outlook.  She, however, disapproved of borrowing uncritically from the West and of the haste and brutality with which Peter carried out his Transformation.  She made a rule of gradualism into one of the most important guiding principles of her reign.

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Catherine the Great


Tsarist Russia

Pre-Petrine Russia
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