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The Legislative Commission

The Revolutionary Masses

One early example of Catherine considering ambitious change based on the Enlightenment was the calling, in 1767, of the Legislative Commission - a temporary consultative body created to revise Russia’s laws. It was a unique and unprecedented attempt in Russian history of a state-sponsored and state-organized national debate, involving a cross-section of the Russian population, on all essential economic, social and legal issues of the day. The membership of the Commission consisted of 572 deputies elected by all classes of the 30 million strong population of Russia, except the serfs. The peasantry, too, was represented; the peasant deputies were not, however, elected to the Commission but appointed by the empress.  



Catherine composing the Instruction. By unknown artist



Catherine requested that  the Commission draft memoranda with suggestions for improvement and change. She herself set the tone for the Commission in a key-note Instruction that she wrote personally. It borrowed many of the ideas of the Enlightenment and was applauded throughout the continent for its liberal spirit. Catherine startled peoples’ representatives by the bold language of the Instruction, which contained references to universal freedom and liberty and even included statements like this: ‘Contrary to the flatterers who daily keep telling the monarchs that peoples were created for them, We believe and take pride in saying that We were created for our people’. And she clearly tried to impress the law-makers of the Commission with more humane ideas, such as opposition to capital punishment and torture.

Deliberations in the Commission took more than a year, but produced no immediate results. Its delegates proved poorly prepared for the law-making activity. Many of them had a low level of education and culture, and lacked parliamentary experience and legal learning. To most of them, the question of universal freedom and liberty raised by the Empress in the Instruction was, apparently, of little interest. They were much more concerned about protecting privileges of a group or class they represented. The nobility, especially, fiercely opposed even a slightest suggestion of other classes encroaching on the sphere of its economic interests, particularly, the agricultural production.  It did not want to hear about any weakening of serfdom, let alone abolishing it. The delegates from the peasantry differed sharply from the representatives of the nobility over the issue of serfdom. Some other social estates, such as townspeople and the merchant class, in particular, sought for themselves some of the privileges enjoyed by the nobility, chief among them the right to buy land and peasants whose labor they could use in their factories.

Bitter confrontations took place among the delegates, and in December 1768, using as the pretext the start of hostilities against Turkey, the Empress dissolved the Commission. Although it failed to provide a new enlightened code of laws, the Commission did give the Empress a clearer picture of the conditions in her adopted country. Catherine’s attempt to effect legislative change in co-operation with representatives of different social groups led her to the realization of a deep-seated conservatism of  broad sections of her subjects. She concluded that it was impossible to introduce a genuinely radical reform. The failure of the  Commission discredited the whole idea of representative legislative assemblies for many years to come.

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Catherine the Great


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