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03.27.2003

Hot Autocrat Sluts Want To Meet You

French Week, Day 6: Hot autocrat sluts want to meet you!

I've been writing all during French Week about France in relation to America. But if you want to unmask me as yet another America-centric navel gazer, you are out of luck, because tonight's post has nothing to do with America at all. Instead, it's about that other enormous country with the space shuttle, rubber-stamp legislature, and slutty teen pop stars: Russia.

One of the main reasons Russia became a European power, instead of one of those humorless religious countries where all the men have beards, is because Catherine the Great developed a huge smoking crush on the Enlightenment philosophers in France. And so in this part of French Week, we celebrate Russia's massive contribution to European culture, courtesy of our cheese-eating friends.

Catherine came to power at a shaky time in Russian history, as part of a rapid series of Tsars to succeed Peter the Great. But she consolidated her power, and ruled for 34 years, vastly expanding the Empire. She was a big fan of Diderot, bought out his library, and immediately started getting fan letters from his buddies. Voltaire would write to her and be all like:

Pardon, your Imperial Majesty, these feeble verses. Gratitude is not always eloquent. If your emblem is a bee, you have a tremendous hive--the biggest in the world! You are spreading your fame and your gifts across the world. For me, the most precious of these are the medallions containing your likeness. Your Majesty's features remind me of the Princess your mother.

Ooh, yeah. Shake that big hive!

And Catherine would be all like:

My head is as hard as my name is unharmonious. I shall reply in bad prose to your charming verses. I have never written any myself. Not that I admire yours any the less for that: they have so spoilt me that I can hardly endure any other author's. I confine myself to my big hive...

And on and on. To be fair to Catherine, she wasn't the only autocrat Enlightenment groupie - Frederick the Great was just as big on Voltaire, and even told him (wink, wink) that:

If among your manuscripts there should be any which, with necessary prudence, you think fit to hide from the public eye, I promise you to keep it secret and to content myself with applauding it in private. I know unfortunately that the faith of princes is little to be trusted in our days; yet I hope you will not allow yourself to be moved by general prejudices and that you will make an exception to the rule in my favor.

But Catherine's infatuation was the more far-reaching, because it sparked a francomania among the new Russian aristocracy that would guide the cultural development of that country for the next hundred years.

In the seventeenth century, Russia was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. The country had had a promising start as thriving commercial empire centered on the beautiful city of Kiev, but then the Mongols came (as they so often will) and ruined everything. The next few hundred years were spent trying to get out paying tribute to the various Mongol overlords, and by the time the Duchy of Muscovy had finally gotten itself established as a powerful state, it was in no mood for fun and games. Russia was a conservative and authoritarian society, and its cultural connections to Western Europe were tenuous to nonexistent.

In the early eighteenth century, midget-collector and gadget freak Peter the Great opened Russia to the West, with an emphasis on engineering and the practical arts. He had travelled Western Europe (in disguise!), seen Western industry and wanted to bring Russia along. But while he enacted fundamental reforms that strengthened and centralized the state, and brought in foreign engineers and artisans to live in special enclaves (think Saudi Arabia), his efforts did very little to bridge the cultural gap between Russia and the West.

When Catherine the Great took the throne in 1762, she did something quite remarkable. Instead of asserting her claim to the Russian throne on traditional grounds (and can you have a better precedent for autocracy than Ivan the Terrible?), she presented a flowery defense of enlightened despotism based on her readings of Voltaire and Montesquieu. Suddenly, French natural philosophy was all the rage at the Russian court. Catherine bought Diderot's entire library, devoted an hour a day to assiduous reading of Montesqueiu, and bought French paintings by the boatload. French became - and would remain, for a century - the first language of the Russian aristocracy.

None of this had the remotest effect on actual policy. Like the antebellum American South, the Russian social and economic system was based on slavery, and there was no way Catherine could act on her French Enlightenment ideals without completely upending the social order. Indeed, she was a pragmatic and ruthless ruler, expanding the empire and, when necessary, having rebellious peasants trucked to Moscow to be publicly drawn and quartered. By the end of her reign, she was on the verge of declaring war on France, having already banned her favorite authors outright, from fear of the French Revolution spreading its contagion abroad.

But the cultural seeds she planted would blossom some years later, during the Napoleonic Wars, when Russian armies (and their aristocrat officers) marched into Paris, and actually saw the culture they had grown up aping. This double encounter with France would affect the Russian aristocracy for the next century. It inspired both a Golden Age in Russian culture, and a series of well-intentioned coup attempts that gradually intersected with another French cultural import - socialism - culiminating in the penultimate, successful revolution in February 1917.

One of the saddest legacies of the Russian obsession with things French is how close that February revolution came to installing a lasting liberal democracy in the country. But the First World War and a big dose of luck swept that hope away. "Power lay in the streets," Lenin said, "and we picked it up".

The point of this windy history is that somehow French enlightenment philosophy - and later French socialism - played a much bigger role in Russian history than all the power politics of the time, which in retrospect look like a sideshow. While Catherine's francophilia seemed like a superficial fad that she herself later rejected, it upturned Russian culture. Suddenly there was a critical perspective on the foundations of Russian monarchy, a Westernized leisure class alienated from its own nation, the beginnings of a golden age in the arts, and a bond to the West so strong that even Napoleon's military adventurism wouldn't sever the tie.

All of this intended to cheer us, in a time of military adventurism, just a little bit.

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