Relations Between Catherine II and Voltaire

The following sample essay on “Relations Between Catherine II and Voltaire”: arguing for that Catherine’s relationship with Voltaire was genuine and not merely based on some contrived  Machiavellianism.

In examining the relationship between Catherine II and Voltaire, there are generally two opposing views one to could take. The first presumes that Catherine ingratiated Voltaire in an effort to gain prestige and legitimacy in her rule over Russia, especially from the view of Western Europe. The second presumes that while even though Catherine’s, and to some extent Voltaire’s, intentions in pursuing their relationship may not have been entirely innocent, it was nonetheless genuine.

Further to this, the second presumes that any indications that Catherine was being manipulative in her relationship with Voltaire may have been more to do with the pragmatics of juggling the Enlightenment sympathies that she shared with Voltaire, with her rule of a nation where her power laid on, at times, tenuous grounds.

In this essay, I will be arguing for the second view that Catherine’s relationship with Voltaire was genuine and not merely based on some contrived and deceitful Machiavellianism.

To do this I will be giving a brief background to Catherine’s tenuous rule as well as examining their reasons for why they pursued their relationship, discussions on domestic affairs, and their discussions on foreign affairs. Catherine II was born in 1729 as Princess Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst of Prussia, and she only became the empress after overthrowing her husband, Peter III, in a palace coup and he was subsequently murdered, although her involvement in the event has been contested by historians.

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Having ascended the throne of the Russian empire in such a manner, she relied heavily on the help of her favourites to secure her reign.

The fact that she was only a Romanov by marriage and not by blood certainly did not help her cause. She was, however, a descendant from the house of Rurik which preceded the Romanovs. During her long thirty-four-year reign, Catherine managed to expand the borders of the Russian Empire by conquest and diplomacy. Domestically, she reformed the administrations of the Russian government, and wanting to follow in Peter the Great’s footsteps, she persisted on the modernisation of Russia in line with the ways of Western Europe. However, her reign also increased the levels of dependency on the serfs because of all these conquests and modernizations. Her rule was likewise considered as the Golden Age of Russia, for she enthusiastically embraced the ideals of the Enlightenment Movement.

By supporting the arts and architecture in the Classical styles she changed the appearance of the country, and she founded the first state-financed higher education institution for women in Europe. Another noteworthy mention of her progressive actions was being inoculated, which was also a first amongst her peers in the rest of Western Europe. She wanted to lead by example and thus started the inoculation of Russians from smallpox during her reign. As mentioned in the previous section, Catherine’s reign began rather tumultuously. In order to legitimize her reign in the eyes of Western Europe, she needed an ally, and since she was well versed in the ideas and philosophy of the Enlightenment, she began her pursuit for such an ally in the pool of well-known philosophers of the time. She first initiated the contact between herself and Voltaire by starting a correspondence through Francois Picet in the fall of 1763.

Francois was Catherine’s Genevan secretary and an acquaintance of Voltaire. Through much effort and flattery on her part, she eventually won over Voltaire and gained a valuable supporter in Western Europe. They continued their correspondence until Voltaire’s death in 1778. Catherine used Voltaire as a propagandist to increase her prestige and renown in Western Europe and Voltaire enjoyed Catherine’s patronage since he was persecuted for his ideas and even exiled from Paris. Because of this, he appreciated her recognition for his talents and progressive ways. Furthermore, once their public relations became intertwined, they both were reliant on the other of having the best image possible. Essentially, if one of them was regarded as unscrupulous, then the other will definitely be judged in the same manner as well.

While Voltaire distrusted the concept of democracy, he had hoped that his correspondence with Catherine could have brought about the possible exploration of Enlightened Despotism. He even assumed that democracy aided in advancing the absurdity of the common masses. Because of this Voltaire considered that only an enlightened monarch would be able to bring about progress to the people by improving the educational system and thus would also offer prosperity to all. Given the societal hierarchy of the time which created mass illiteracy amongst the lower classes, it is no wonder Voltaire would have these opinions about democracy.

With regards to domestic matters, Catherine generally avoided discussions on affairs that would paint her in a light not befitting to one of an Enlightened Despot. As an example, Catherine was reluctant to broach and speak of the topic of serfdom in her correspondences with Voltaire. From this point, we can clearly see that Catherine was being at best socially astute and at worst manipulative in her conduct with Voltaire as it was known that Voltaire advocated the emancipation of the serfs. For example, the Pugachev rebellion of 1773 was never mentioned to Voltaire by Catherine, and when she was prompted concerning this issue, she glossed over the reasons and only responded that she had it handled. Since Voltaire was limited in the information he received from Catherine and due to the physical distance between the two, he was all too ready to trust in Catherine’s supposed broad-mindedness.

In fact, because of her misdirection, Voltaire never found out the economic struggles the that peasant class were experiencing. So in support of the less charitable view, one could say that the reason why Catherine avoided the topic of the serfs was that she knew that the policies that she instituted on the subject would be viewed as less than liberal by Voltaire. In fact, the policies Catherine instituted regarding the serfs can well be seen as regressive. For instance, in 1763, a law was passed which mandated that serfs could not leave the property of their landlord without a permit. This limitation on the freedom of movement on an already impoverished and disenfranchised class would certainly have been disagreeable to Voltaire’s Enlightenment sensibilities. As such, from a manipulative Machiavellian view, Catherine was most wise in not speaking much of serfdom as this would potentially have deprived her of a politically beneficial relationship with Voltaire.

I, however, argue that the reason why Catherine neglected to discuss serfdom is little more nuanced than this. Firstly, her reluctance to speak of serfdom may well have come from a place of shame for having failed to enact enough liberal policies on the subject of serfdom. She did in fact attempt to enact liberal policies on the subject of the serfs in the “Nakaz” or “Instruction”, but it failed to pass due to the nobles. For example, when confronted with the issue of serfdom, Catherine initially suggested in her proposal of “the Instruction” that landowners offer serfs the option to “purchase their freedom” or that the government limit the period of servitude to six years. But for reasons obvious, the nobles obstructed these laws which would have aided the serfs for it did not benefit them financially. Even with these limitations, Catherine did carry out a small number of laws which aided the serfs.

In 1767, a law passed by Catherine forbade foster parents to send their foster children into serfdom. Then in 1781, she outlawed the practice of sending prisoners of war into serfdom as well; also, a law passed that saw that the marriage of a free man to a serf woman, in turn, would emancipate her from serfdom. Catherine is also known to have investigated and then exposed the landowners who were reported to have treated their serfs inhumanely. Catherine had to be pragmatic about her relationship with Voltaire and her relationship with her nation. Because of this, one has to wonder how different things might have been if she had more freedom from the nobility.

In the years between 1769 to 1778, Catherine and Voltaire had the most correspondences for she was heavily involved in foreign affairs and often seek his advice. Due to this, much of their conversations were centred on the conflicts Russia had with Poland and Turkey, and the majority of this were based on religion and civilization. (Besterman, and Wilberger) When Poland was first invaded by Russia, Voltaire assumed that it was done out of religious tolerance. Unfortunately, he was proven to be incorrect in 1772, when Poland was partitioned. Strangely, he never denounced Catherine for giving him false information regarding her intentions instead he praised her for her actions. One could make the point that Voltaire would rather continue in his misconception in order to promote his ideas than to admit that he was tricked. Nevertheless, the effects of this mistake made Voltaire’s reputation plummet greatly.

In the conversation regarding Russia and Turkey, Voltaire essentially encouraged Catherine to advance on to war with them and even suggested that she should have Prussia and Austria be involved in it as well. This is another odd move on Voltaire’s part since he was never a major proponent for war, which brings back the previously stated mindset of Voltaire, that he would do away with his principles if it were done in the name of advancing Enlightenment; since he has long viewed Turkey as a profoundly unrefined state. Naturally, Catherine had other ideas with what she wanted to gain out of this conflict; which was to obtain access to the Black Sea in order to secure a station where she can then move on to possibly conquer Constantinople.

Through all of this we can in some way arrive at the conclusion that while Catherine was not an all too sympathetic character, neither was Voltaire. Even though it appears that they both entered this alliance with ulterior motives, Catherine genuinely considered Voltaire as a guide, having constantly referred to him as her “thinker” and “thought master”. Even after his passing, she encouraged her other contemporaries to familiarize themselves with his work, not wanting Voltaire’s legacy to diminish. In the end, they both left a lasting legacy by the virtue of their actions, thoughts, and willingness to advance their ideologies. They are the products of their circumstances and period in time. ?

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Relations Between Catherine II and Voltaire. (2019, Nov 15). Retrieved from

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