Catherine II (1729-1796)

Nadezda Plavinskaia


1Born Sophie Auguste Friederike, princess of Anhalt-Zerbst, Catherine II (1729-1796, empress of Russia from 1762 to 1769) arrived in Russia in February 1744 and converted to the Orthodox religion under the name of Ekaterina Alekseevna. In August 1745 she married the nephew of empress Elizabeth Petrovna, grand duke Pyotr Fyodorovitch (Karl Peter Ulrich, prince of Holstein-Gottorp, 1728-1762), who inherited the Russian crown in December 1761. Six months later, following a coup d’état, she dethroned her husband Peter III and had herself proclaimed empress.

2An admitted admirer of the philosophes, Catherine II declares in her Mémoires that she became acquainted with the name of Montesquieu in 1744, when the count Gyllenborg recommended to her the reading of Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur des Romains et de leur décadence. In 1754, she discovered L’Esprit des lois, which she was to defend several years later against the critical attacks of Strube de Piermont. He, who was out to refute Montesquieu in his Lettres russiennes (1760), denied the despotic character of the imperial power in Russia, while approving of the practice of serfdom in his adopted country. Catherine II takes her arguments from Montesquieu’s reflection on the “distinctive properties of despotic government” (EL, VIII, 19), replying in the margins of Strube’s work: “A great empire like Russia would destroy itself if any form of government other than the despotic was established there, because it is the only one that can quickly provide remedies, necessitated by the needs of distant provinces […]”.

3After 1765, Catherine II plunged back into the reading of L’Esprit des lois. She took many notes, composing a sort of voluminous summary that would serve as a basis for her Instruction pour la commission chargée de dresser le projet d’un nouveau code de lois [‘Instructions for the commission charged with drawing up a project for a new code of laws’], called the Nakaz (1767). Her attention was concentrated on Books VI, XII, XIX, XX, XXIII and XXVI from which she borrows several pages. She takes nothing, neither in her drafts nor for the definitive edition of the Instruction, from Books IX, XVI, XVII, XVIII, XXV and XXXI, and only a few quotations from the other books. Two tendencies appear clearly in these borrowings: Catherine II ignores passages where Montesquieu mentions Russia and she denies herself the use of the word “despotism”.

4 L’Esprit des lois was not the sole literary source of the Nakaz: at the time of its composition, Cathering also made use of Beccaria’s Treatise on crime and punishment, Bielfeld’s Political Institutions, certain articles of the Encyclopédie, etc. Nevertheless, it is Montesquieu who appears as her principal inspiration: of the 526 articles in the Nakaz published in 1767, at least 245 come from L’Esprit des lois; the eleven articles published in February 1768 are in chapter XXI (“De la police”) appended to the “grande instruction”. In writing the Nakaz the empress used an edition of L’Esprit des lois accompanied by “anonymoous philosophical and political remarks” (numerous Dutch reprintings in 1761-1764). The name of the anonymous author, Élie Luzac, remained unknown to Catherine – she probably suspected D’Alembert – but 21 articles of the Nakaz are largely inspired by Luzac’s commentaries, and three others bear signs of his influence.

5Catherine II was not to disguise the fact that her legislative work derives from L’Esprit des lois. In June 1765 she wrote to D’Alembert: “For the utility of my empire, I have raided Président Montesquieu, without naming him; I hope that if he sees me working from the next life, he will forgive me this plagiarism for the good of thirty million men that will result from it; he loved humanity too greatly to raise an objection. His book was my breviary. That is an example, Monsieur, of the fate of writings of men of genius: they serve the well-being of humankind” (Charles Henry, Œuvres et correspondances inédites de D’Alembert (1866), Geneva: Slatkine Reprints, 1967, p. 239; she was to repeat this to him in substance in 1766). She again praises Montesquieu in a letter to Mme Geoffrin in March 1765: “His Esprit des lois is the breviary of sovereigns if they have any sense” (Recueil de la société impériale russe d’histoire [SRIO], t. I, anonymous, Saint-Petersburg). In 1766 she confided to D’Alembert : “My principal occupations for the last two years come down to copying and evaluating the principles of president Montesquieu. I work at understanding him and erase today what seemed very good yesterday” (Œuvres et correspondances inédites, p. 245-246). In July 1766, Catherine writes to Voltaire that she is preparing a “grande instruction for a committee that will rewrite our laws”, including “a précis of the book De L’Esprit des lois on magic, etc.” (Voltaire’s Correspondence, D13433).

6The Nakaz, the most spectacular example in Russia of a reading of L’Esprit des lois, attempts to root certain ideas and concepts of the European Enlightenment in Russia, while bending them sharply to the personal ambitions of the crowned autocrat. Despite its contradictions, the Nakaz testifies to the will of Catherine to modernize the country. It formulates her political and ideological doctrine and sketches the principles of law of her enlightened absolutism, supported in large part by Montesquieu’s authority -- although he doubtless would not always approve of the use which Catherine made of his book. The empress follows Montesquieu (EL, XIX, 5) in basing her legislative theory on the principles of natural law: “It is up to legislation to follow the spirit of the nation” (art. 57). She sets out to prove that Russia is not a despotic country and adroitly manipulates the notions of “intermediary powers” and “fundamental laws” to postulate the monarchical character of Russian government, while avoiding the problem of the separation of powers and denying the role of “keeper of the laws” to the nobility: “In Russia, it is the Senate which is the depositary of the laws” (art. 23). Catherine II proclaims “the security of each citizen in particular” (EL, VI, 5) as the end of all power and all legislation (art. 33). She seizes on Montesquieu’s formula (EL, XI, 3) to introduce into her discourse the notion of “political freedom” (art. 36-39), although she prefers that of Luzac for treating the equality of citizens (art. 34-35). The principles of her penal policy are largely based on the idea of Beccaria, but the indictment of the practice of the “question” (art. 123) and the idea of limiting the power of the judge to the execution of the law only (art. 98) come textually from Montesquieu.

7Without ever taking on the value of legal code, the Nakaz nevertheless influenced Catherine’s reforms during her entire reign. Translated into several European languages, it had important echoes in the West. Its publication in France in 1769 coincided with an acute political crisis and the ideologues in the parlementary camp made use of this skillful adaptation of Montesquieu’s doctrine of “intermediate powers” to defend their cause (André Blonde, Le Parlement justifié par l’Impératrice de Russie, 1771; Claude May, Maximes du droit public français, 1775), whereas the chancellor Maupeou forbade the entrance of the Nakaz in France. The work of Catherine II was equally discussed in the philosophical salons and Voltaire wrote about her to Bernard Joseph Saurin in April 1769: “You have incited my curiosity. I have reread L’Esprit des lois; I am entirely of the opinion of Mme Du Duffand, it is only wit [esprit] about the laws. I prefer the “instruction” given by the empress of Russia for the redaction of her code. That is clear, precise, and there are no contradictions nor false citations.” (Correspondence, D15572).

8During the reign of Catherine II, the writings of Montesquieu saw several publications in Russian: Considerations on the […] Romans (1769); Lysimaque (1769, 1792); Dialogue of Sulla and Eucrate (1769, 1783); Essay on Taste (1769); The Temple of Gnidus (1770); Arsace and Isménie (1788); Persian Letters (1782 [extracts], 1789, 1792). Between 1769 and 1799, Montesquieu’s texts in Russian appeared at least thirteen times. Yet in this list of translations, his major work is manifestly absent: in the course of the 18th century, L’Esprit des lois was never published in its entirety in Russia, although Catherine II mentions it on the list of books it would be desirable to see published. During the empress’s lifetime, it was translated only partially: the first twelve books of L’Esprit des lois preceded by the Analysis of D’Alembert were published in 1775 and again in 1801. A more considerable translation in twenty-nine books did not appear until 1809-1814, under the reign of Alexander I. These two publications were strongly censored by the translators: all the passages from L’Esprit des lois in which Russia (or Muscovy) is mentioned in an unfavorable or critical context are skillfully deformed (EL, V, 14 ; VI, 16 ; XI, 2 ; XII, 12 ; XII, 26 ; XV, 6 ; XIX, 14 ; XIX, 15). Some are mercilessly amputated, even whole chapters; others take on an opposite sense, while in some direct allusion to Russia is suppressed. “You have to flay a Muscovite to give him feeling”, said Montesquieu, reflecting on the differences in sensory faculties of men in various climates (EL, XIV, 2). “You have to strangle a Lap to give him feeling” retorts the Russian translator.


Albert Lortholary, Les “Philosophes” du XVIIIe siècle et la Russie: le mirage russe en France au XVIIIe siècle, Paris: Boivin, 1951, p. 100-106.

Frédéric Henri Strube de Piermont, Lettres russiennes, suivies des notes de Catherine II, introduction by Corrado Rosso, postface by Carminella Biondi, Pisa: La Goliardica, 1978.

Isabel de Madariaga, La Russie au temps de la Grande Catherine, Paris, 1987, p. 174-187.

Nadezda Plavinskaia, “Catherine II ébauche le Nakaz : premières notes de lecture de L’Esprit des lois”, Revue Montesquieu 2 (1998), p. 67-88.

Nadezda Plavinskaia, “Du Russe au Lapon : traduire L’Esprit des Lois en Russie au XVIIIe et au début du XIXe siècle”, Revue française d’histoire du livre, 2013.

Bibliographical reference

Plavinskaia Nadezda , « Catherine II (1729-1796) », translated by Philip Stewart, dans Dictionnaire Montesquieu [online], directed by Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, ENS Lyon, September 2013. URL :