Nadezda Plavinskaia


1Russia, which Montesquieu, in keeping with the usage at the time, prefers to call “Muscovy”, occupies a place in his thought that is not negligible and arouses in him a genuine interest. The catalogue of his library at La Brède includes a special rubric: Moscovitarum rerum scriptores. A single title of Antonio Possevino’s old work Moscovia (Antwerp, 1587; Catalogue, no. 3150) is in it, but Montesquieu’s writings prove that he used more modern and rather varied sources of information. Among these we find the book of the British engineer John Perry, The State of Russia under the present Czar (London: B. Tooke, 1716), published in French under the title L’État présent de la Grande Russie (The Hague: Jean Dusauzet, 1717); La Relation du voyage de Mr Evert Isbrand, envoyé de Sa Majesté czarienne à l’empereur de Chine, published by Adam Brand in 1699 and accompanied by a “letter on the present state of Muscovy”, and Histoire généalogique des Tatars by Aboul Gazi Bahadour Khan (1726), these last two works appearing in the form of extracts in Geographica II (OC, t. XVI, 2007). There we also find English newspapers and Dutch gazettes, from which Montesquieu takes current news. He must also have had available the oral testimony of his friend prince Antioch Kantemir (Antioche Cantemir), Russian ambassador to France between 1738 and 1744 and first Russian translator of Lettres persanes. Finally, a few striking images of Russia and Russians were furnished to him by other persons he had met in his travels, such as Admiral Deischman or Count de Tarouca. Thus, Montesquieu’s interest in this country (which he never visited) bears principally on the contemporary period – on the times of the czarinas Elizabeth Petrovna, Anna Ioannovna and czar Pierre I, who became in his eyes the key figure of Russian history.

2Montesquieu’s political geography situates Muscovy under the skies of despotism. Several of this country’s specific traits confirm it: the immensity of its “vast estates” intersect with a firm isolation from the outside world, for “the Muscovites cannot leave the empire, even to travel”, he asserts (LP, 49 [51]). Consequently, for a long time “Muscovy was not more known in Europe than Crimea” (EL, IX, 9) and the Russians were a “forgotten nation until now known almost solely to itself” (“nation oubliée jusqu’ici et presque uniquement connue d’elle-même”, LP, 49 [51]). “All slaves” of their sovereigns (ibid.), they know absolutely no freedom. Montesquieu remarks ironically that the Muscovites “long took the freedom to be the custom of wearing a long beard” (EL, XI, 2). To him, political freedom is closely linked to the freedom of commercial activity. He asserts that “trade heals destructive prejudices” (EL, XX, 1), mellows mores and inclines nations to peace. And so, to prove the despotic character of the Russian government, Montesquieu not only shows the obstacles the Russia encounters in foreign trade, but goes as far as to deny the very existence of a merchant class in Russia: “All the subjects of the empire, like slaves, can neither leave nor send their holding out without permission. Currency exchange, which offers the means of transporting money from one country to another, is thus contrary to the laws of Muscovy. Trade itself contradicts its laws. The people is composed only of slaves bound to the land, and slaves who are called ecclesiastics or gentlemen, because they are the lords of those slaves. There is thus no one left for the third estate, which must prepare workers and merchants” (“Tous les sujets de l’Empire, comme des esclaves, n’en peuvent sortir ni faire sortir leurs biens sans permission. Le change, qui donne le moyen de transporter l’argent d’un pays à un autre, est donc contradictoire aux lois de Moscovie. ¶Le commerce même contredit ses lois. Le peuple n’est composé que d’esclaves attachés aux terres, et d’esclaves qu’on appelle ecclésiastiques ou gentilshommes, parce qu’ils sont les seigneurs de ces esclaves. Il ne reste donc guère personne pour le tiers état, qui doit former les ouvriers et les marchands”, EL, XXII, 14).

3A despotic country, Muscovy is a kingdom of excesses, abuses and immoderation. Montesquieu discovers their pernicious effects more or less everywhere in Russian reality. Excess triumphs in the penal system, where the severity of punishments does not manage to attenuate crimes (“In Muscovy, where the punishment of thieves and that of assassins is the same, they always assassinate. […] The dead, they say, do not talk.” EL, VI, 16) and where a request presented to the czar can cost the life of the man who brings it (EL, XII, 26). The example of the persecutions launched by Anna Ioannovna against the Dolgoruki princes serves further to confirm his opinion: everywhere that an arbitrary law of the crime of lese-majesty is established, “not only is freedom gone, but even its shadow”: “In the manifest of the late Czarina, given against the Olgourouki family [note: in 1740], one of the princes was sentenced to death for having pronounced indecent words relevant to her person; another, for having spitefully interpreted her wise dispositions for the empire, and offended her sacred person with disrespectful words” (“Dans le manifeste de la feue Czarine donné contre la famille d’Olgourouki [note : En 1740], un de ces princes est condamné à mort pour avoir proféré des paroles indécentes qui avaient du rapport à sa personne ; un autre, pour avoir malignement interprété ses sages dispositions pour l’Empire, et offensé sa personne sacrée par des paroles peu respectueuses”, EL, XII, 12).

4Abuse reigns in the mores of the barbaric (and very nearly cannibalistic, to believe Pensées, no. 1743) people, which has no virtues and easily sells itself, since freedom has no value (EL, XV, 6). The Muscovites’ character mixes “terror” and predisposition to theft (Spicilège, no. 530) with a penchant for alcohol (according to Montesquieu the Russians “are not indisposed by the use of spirits; on the contrary, they find it necessary” because of the “very thick blood”, Pensées, no. 1199, transcribed between 1734 and 1739) and extreme crudeness. For example, describing the customs of Russian families, he marvels, via the mouth of a Persian, “how Muscovite women like to be beaten: they cannot believe they hold their husband’s heart if he does not beat them as he should” (“combien les femmes moscovites aiment à être battues : elles ne peuvent comprendre qu’elles possèdent le coeur de leur mari s’il ne les bat comme il faut ”, LP, 49 [51]). Excess predominates even in the natural sphere, since the Muscovite climate is so “frightful” that one “would never believe it was a punishment to be exiled from it” (ibid.). That is why the inhabitants of that country seem to him so insensitive to suffering and to physical pain that you have to “flay a Muscovite to make him feel anything” (EL, XIV, 2). All the excesses of the national character are incarnated in the person of Peter I, the “most barbaric of men” (Spicilège, no. 508). Montesquieu emphasizes excess, which points to the vices as well as the gestures of the Russian monarch, in his famous aphorism: “[…] the Czar was not great, he was enormous” (Pensées, no. 1373).

5Nevertheless, Muscovy did not completely fulfill the conditions required for a despotic country. Already its “horrible” northern climate contradicted the rule that despotism reigns ordinarily in warm countries (EL, V, 15). But, and this is the most important thing, it notably lacks the stability or even immobility necessary to that type of government. It is the despot himself who “introduces more changes in the state which he governed than the conquerors do in those they usurp” (“introduit plus de changements dans un État qu’il gouvernait que les conquérants n’en font dans ceux qu’ils usurpent”, Romains, XXII). Peter I, the sovereign “uneasy and constantly in motion”, “wants to change everything” (LP, 49 [51]) in his empire. He establishes new laws of succession (EL, V, 14) and new fiscal norms (EL, XIII, 6 ; XIII, 12). He combats the ignorant ecclesiastics (LP, 49 [51]). He transforms the role of women in society (EL, XIX, 14, 15) and attacks the old mores, making his boyars shave their beards and cut their long robes (EL, XIX, 14). He “tries to make the arts flourish, and forgets nothing to carry the glory of his nation into Europe and Asia(LP, 49 [51]).

6Thus, Petrovian Muscovy “begins to emerge from its early barbarism” (Pensées, no. 599). It is not “a state in decadence”, but “a rising empire” (EL, X, 13). Moreover, Montesquieu recognizes that it is an integral part of the family of European nations (Réflexions sur la monarchie universelle, XVIII; EL, XIX, 15), which already presupposes that despotism must be rather extrinsic than natural to it. He asserts that the Russians’ former mores were foreign to the climate of their country and “had been brought there by the mixture of nations and by conquests”. The capital reason that enabled the Muscovites to police themselves “easily” and “quickly” resides in the fact that Peter I wanted to give “the mores and manners of Europe to a European nation” (EL, XIX, 14). “See, I invite you, how industriously the Muscovite government seeks to emerge from despotism, which weighs heavier on it than on the peoples themselves. The large bodies of troops have been broken up; the penalties for crimes have been lessened; tribunals have been established; laws are being learned; the peoples are being instructed. But there are particular causes that may return them to the misfortune from which they have tried to escape” (“Voyez, je vous prie, avec quelle industrie le gouvernement moscovite cherche à sortir du despotisme, qui lui est plus pesant qu’aux peuples même. On a cassé les grands corps de troupes, on a diminué les peines des crimes, on a établi des tribunaux, on a commencé à connaître les lois, on a instruit les peuples. Mais il y a des causes particulières qui le ramèneront peut-être au malheur qu’il voulait fuir”, EL, V, 14). These particular causes go back to the natural means, which according to Montesquieu make it possible to bring change to a society. “In general, peoples are very attached to their customs; to take them away violently is to make them unhappy: therefore one must not change them, but induce them to change them by themselves.” (“En général, les peuples sont très attachés à leurs coutumes ; les leur ôter violemment, c’est les rendre malheureux : il ne faut donc pas les changer, mais les engager à les changer eux-mêmes.”) Thus the reformer czar had no need of laws to change the mores and manners of his nation. “All he needed to do was to inspire other mores and manners” (“Il lui eût suffi d’inspirer d’autres mœurs et d’autres manières”, EL, XIX, 14). Peter I’s reforms attacked the laws, which are “the particular institutions of the legislator”, but their needless violence was broken by the customs and mores, which are “institutions of the nation in general”, whence the general conclusion which is rather pessimistic: “Muscovy would like to get out of despotism, but it cannot” (EL, XXII, 14).


Albert Lortholary, Les “philosophes” du XVIIIe siècle et la Russie : le mirage russe en France au XVIIIe siècle, Paris: Boivin, 1951.

Rolando Minuti, “L’image de la Russie dans l’œuvre de Montesquieu”, Cromohs, 10 (2005), p. 1-6.

Bibliographical reference

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