Candide revealed – a Voltairean oddity

Candide was published in 1759; 232 years later…

Perhaps no other work of literature from the eighteenth century has entered popular culture to the extent achieved by Voltaire’s Candide. After a shaky start in 1956 Leonard Bernstein’s operetta, Candide, swept the world. Numerous other derivative works have appeared, but none quite so odd as Candide revealed, an erotic fantasy comic version which started publication in 1991 by Eros Comix, an imprint of Fantagraphics, Seattle, the publisher of an enormous range of comic strips and graphic novels, some highly sexual. Candide revealed, ‘The Candide they were embarrassed to show you’ (‘They’ is undefined) is perhaps the most literary of their productions but by no means the most raunchy. There have been other fully illustrated ‘graphic novel’ versions of Candide, but this one is different, in that the text is completely rewritten in an American rough demotic. In traditional comic style, the ‘goodies’ are blond and beautiful in the WASP way, and the ‘baddies’ are ugly and dark. The work nevertheless follows Voltaire’s story very closely, though in a much condensed form and emphasising the erotic and violent episodes, compressing most of the events of the first nine chapters into 89 images, but with frequent allusion to the key phrase of ‘all for the best in the best of all possible worlds’ and other Panglossian sentiments.

The opening spread of Candide revealed.

The authors of the work are not easy to identify with any certainty. The script is attributed to Link Yaco, who may be Lincoln Yaco whose name appears on some other publications from the same source, but about whom little else is known. The drawings are attributed to a certain ‘Simon DeBeaver’, whose echo of a famous French feminist cannot be accidental. The cover colour is attributed to ‘Freesia Bunzoff’, perhaps an elegant reference to the illustration of Candide attempting to sleep in a ploughed field under falling snow. Three volumes of Candide revealed were advertised, but only number one can be found, on the last page of which readers are encouraged to save up to buy the continuation.

The final spread of volume 1 of Candide revealed.

I am grateful to an anonymous member of the staff of Fantagraphics for informing me that no evidence exists that the other two numbers were ever published. Perhaps the work fell between two stools, being too erudite but not sufficiently erotic for their core readership. A sole image from the intended next number confirms the planned publication.

A taster for the unpublished continuation.

Parodies of Candide started early. A. Owen Aldridge, in ‘The vindication of philosophical optimism in a pseudo-Confucian imitation of Voltaire’s Candide’, Asian and African Studies 6 (1997), p.117-25, describes L’Aventurier chinois, ostensibly published in Peking in 1773 (and sold by Mérigot le jeune of Paris). A complete account of pastiches, parodies, operettas and other derivatives is probably impossible to achieve, but some starts have been made. Works related to Candide are treated by Christopher Thacker in ‘Sons of Candide’, Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century 58 (1967), p.1515-31, by J. Rustin in ‘Les “Suites” de Candide au XVIIIe siècle’, Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century 90 (1972), p.1395-1416, and by J. Vercruysse in ‘Les enfants de Candide’ in Jean Macary (ed.), Essays on the Age of Enlightenment in Honor of Ira O. Wade (Geneva, 1977), p.369-76.

There are important studies of illustrated editions of Candide. See Peter Tucker, The Illustrated editions of Candide: the interpretation of a classic: an examination and checklist, with an introduction by Giles Barber ([Church Hanborough], The Previous Parrot Press, 1993). A copy may be seen, in part, here. (It is a limited edition of 185 numbered copies.) The University of Trier has a bibliography (though the illustrations are only accessible on campus). A more specialised investigation is Robert Vilain’s ‘Images of optimism? German illustrated editions of Voltaire’s Candide in the context of the First World War’, Oxford German Studies 37 (2008), p.223-52, which has striking illustrations, including those by Paul Klee. (Available online through academic institutions.)

Illustrated editions of Candide appeared very early. Voltaire disliked illustrations in his works, comparing himself modestly to Cicero, Virgil and Horace in a letter to his publisher Panckoucke concerning an edition (not of Candide) where he says: ‘Je crois que des estampes seraient fort inutiles. Ces colifichets n’ont jamais été admis dans les éditions de Cicéron, de Virgile et d’Horace. Il faut imiter ces grands hommes dans cette simplicité si on ne peut pas imiter leurs perfections’ (12 January 1778, D20980).

These illustrations often concentrated on the erotic, though more subtly than Simon DeBeaver. Two early versions of the monkey episode, by Charles Monnet (1732-1808) in the Bouillon, 1778, edition, and by Jean-Michel Moreau (1741-1814) for a Renouard edition of the works in 1803, differ quite markedly in the nature of the suggested relationship between the women and the monkeys.

Left: Charles Monnet (1778). Right: Jean-Michel Moreau (1803).

This change in approach has been attributed to a hardening of attitudes to black men after the Haiti slave revolt by Mary L. Bellhouse in ‘Candide shoots the Monkey Lovers: representing black men in eighteenth-century French visual culture’, Political Theory 34 (2006), p.741-84 (available online through academic institutions). It is a pity we cannot know how Candide revealed would have treated this episode, and how it would now be viewed through the prism of critical race theory.

A not dissimilar contrast appears in two more modern illustrations of Cunégonde. In Norman Tealby’s account of the rape of Cunégonde by a Bulgarian soldier for an edition of Candide published in 1928 by John Lane The Bodley Head (London) and Dodd, Mead & Co. (New York), the soldier, though fearsome, looks like a Gilbert and Sullivan character, and the fair victim seems almost placid. Cunégonde’s plight is very differently represented by Umberto Brunelleschi (1879-1949) in a Candide published in 1952 by Gibert Jeune, where the blackness of her assailant is emphasised. It is tempting to wonder if Mussolini’s domestically popular African adventures influenced the artist.

Left: Cunégonde by Norman Tealby (1928). Right: Cunégonde by Umberto Brunelleschi (1952).

Images of literary figures and their adventures are constantly changeable and remade for the times and tastes they serve.

– Martin Smith

From Cyclopaedia to Encyclopédie: experiments in machine translation and sequence alignment

Figure 1. Title page from the 1745 prospectus of the first Encyclopédie project. This page image is taken from ARTFL’s 18th Volume of the Encyclopédie.

It is well known that the Encyclopédie ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers began first as a modest translation project of Ephraim Chambers’ Cyclopaedia in 1745. Over the next few years, Diderot and D’Alembert would replace the original editors and the project would be duly transformed from a simple translation into an effort to compile and organise the sum total of the world’s knowledge. Over the course of their editorial work, Diderot, and most notably D’Alembert, were not shy in incorporating these translations of the Cyclopaedia as filler for the Encyclopédie. Indeed, ‘ils ont laissé une bonne partie de ces articles presque inchangés, ou avec des modifications insignifiantes’ (Paolo Quintili, ‘D’Alembert “traduit” Chambers. Les articles de mécanique de la Cyclopædia à l’Encyclopédie’, Recherches sur Diderot et sur l’Encyclopédie 21 (1996), p.75). The philosophes were nonetheless conscious of their debt to their English predecessor Chambers. His name appears some 1154 times in the text of the Encyclopédie and he is referenced as sole or contributing source to 1081 articles, where his name appears in italics at the end of a section or article. Given the scale of the two works under consideration, systematic evaluation of the extent of the philosophes’ use of Chambers has remained, even today, a daunting task. John Lough, in 1980, framed the problem nicely: ‘So far no one has had the patience to make a detailed study of the exact relationship between the text of Diderot’s Encyclopédie and the work of Ephraim Chambers. This would no doubt require several years of arduous toil devoted to comparing the two works article by article’(‘The Encyclopédie and Chambers’ Cyclopaedia’, SVEC 185 (1980), p.221).

Recent developments in machine translation and sequence alignment now offer new possibilities for the systematic comparison of digital texts across languages. The following post outlines some recent experimental work in leveraging these new techniques in an effort to reduce the ‘arduous toil’ of textual comparison, giving some preliminary examples of the kinds of results that can be achieved, and providing some cursory observations on the advantages and limitations of such systems for automatic text analysis.

Our two comparison datasets are the ARTFL Encyclopédie (v. 1117) and the recently digitised ARTFL edition of the 1741 Chambers’ Cyclopaedia (link). The 1741 edition was selected as it was one of the likely sources for the translation original project and we were able to work from high quality pages images provided by the University of Chicago Library (On the possible editions of the Cyclopaedia used by the encyclopédistes, see Irène Passeron, ‘Quelle(s) édition(s) de la Cyclopœdia les encyclopédistes ont-ils utilisée(s)?’, Recherches sur Diderot et sur l’Encyclopédie 40-41 (2006), p.287-92.) In a nutshell, our approach was to generate a machine translation of all of the Cyclopaedia articles into French and then use ARTFL’s Text-PAIR sequence alignement system to identify similar passages between this virtual French Cyclopaedia and the Encyclopédie, with the translation providing links back to the original English edition of the Chambers as well as links to the relevant passages in the Encyclopédie.

For the English to French machine translation of Chambers, we examined two of the most widely used resources in this domain, Google Translate and DeepL. Both systems provide useful Application Programming Interfaces [APIs] as part of their respective subscription services, and both provide translations based on cutting-edge neural network language models. We compared results from various samples and found, in general, that both systems worked reasonably well, given the complications of eighteenth-century vocabularies (in both English and French) and many uncommon and archaic terms (this may be the subject of a future post). While DeepL provided somewhat more satisfying translations from a reader’s perspective, we ultimately opted to use Google Translate for the ease of its API and its ability to parse the TEI encoding of our documents with little difficulty. The latter is of critical importance, since we wanted to keep the overall document structure of our dictionaries to allow for easy navigation between the versions.

Operationally, we segmented the text of the Cyclopaedia into short blocks, split at paragraph breaks, and sent them for automatic translation via the Google API, with a short delay between blocks. This worked relatively well, though the system would occasionally throw timeout or other errors, which required a query resend. You can inspect the translation results here – though this virtual French edition of the Chambers is not really meant for public consumption. Each article has a link at the bottom to the corresponding English version for the sake of comparison. It is important to note that the objective here is NOT to produce a good translation of the text or even one that might serve as the basis for a human edition. Rather, this machine-generated edition exists as a ‘pivot-text’ between the English Chambers and the French Encyclopédie, allowing for an automatic comparison of the two (or three) versions using a highly fault-tolerant sequence aligner designed to pick out commonalities in very noisy document spaces. (See Clovis Gladstone, Russ Horton, and Mark Olsen, ‘TextPAIR (Pairwise Alignment for Intertextual Relations)’, ARTFL Project, University of Chicago, 2008-2021, and, more specifically, Mark Olsen, Russell Horton and Glenn Roe, ‘Something borrowed: sequence alignment and the identification of similar passages in large text collections’, Digital Studies / Le Champ numérique 2.1 (2011).)

The next step was to establish workable parameters for the Text-PAIR alignment system. The challenge here was to find commonalities between the French translations created by eighteenth-century authors and translators and machine translations produced by a modern automatic translation system. Additionally, the editors and authors of the Encyclopédie were not necessary constrained to produce an exact translation of the text in question, but could and did, make significant modifications to the original in terms of length, style, and content. To address this challenge we ran a series of tests with different matching parameters such as n-gram construction (e.g., number of words that constitue an n-gram), minimum match lengths, maximum gaps between matches, and decreasing match requirements as a match length increased (what we call a ‘flex gap’) among others on a representative selection of 100 articles from the Encyclopédie where Chambers was identified as the possible source. It is important to note that even with the best parameters, which we adjusted to get favorable recall and precision results, we were only able to identify 81 of the 100 articles. (See comparison table. The primary parameters chosen were bigrams, stemmer=true, word len=3, maxgap=12, flexmatch=true, minmatchingngrams=5. Consult the TextPair documentation and configuration file for a description of these values.) Some articles, even where clearly affiliated, were missed by the aligner, due to the size of the articles (some are very small) and fundamental differences in the translation of the English. For example, the article ‘Compulseur’ is attributed by Mallet to Chambers, but the machine translation of ‘Compulsor’ is a rather more literal and direct translation of the English article than what is offered by Mallet. Further relaxing matching parameters could potentially find this example, but would increase the number of false positives, in effect drowning out the signal with increased noise.

All things considered, we were quite happy with the aligner’s performance given the complexity of the comparison task and the multiple potential variations between historical text and modern machine translations. To give an example of how fine-grained and at the same time highly flexible our matching parameters needed to be, see the below article ‘Gynaecocracy’, which is a fairly direct translation on a rather specialised subject, but that nonetheless matched on only 8 content words (fig. 2).

Figure 2. Comparisons of the article ‘Gynaecocracy’.

Other straightforward articles were however missed due to differences in the translation and sparse matching n-grams, see for example the small article on ‘Occult’ lines in geometry below, where the 6 matching words weren’t enough to constitute a match for the aligner (fig. 3).

Figure 3. Comparisons of the geometry article ‘Occult’.

Obviously this is a rather inexact science, reliant on an outside process of automatic translation and the ability to match a virtual text that in reality never existed. Nonetheless the 81% recall rate we attained on our sample corpus seemed more than sufficient for this experiment and allowed us to move forward towards a more general evaluation of the entirety of identified matches.

Once settled on the optimal parameters, we then Text-PAIR to generate both an alignment database, for interactive examination, and a set of static files. Both of these results formats are used for this project. The alignment database contains some 7304 aligned passage pairs. The system allows queries on metadata, such as author and article title as well as words or phrases found in the aligned passages. The system also uses faceted browsing to allow the user to summarize results by the various metadata (for more on this, see Note below). Each aligned passage is presented as a facing page representation and the user can toggle a display of all of the variations between the two aligned passages. As seen below, the variations between the texts can be extensive (fig. 4).

Figure 4. Text-PAIR interface showing differences in the article ‘Air’.

Text-PAIR also contextualises results back to the original document(s). For example, the following is the article ‘Almanach’ by D’Alembert, showing the aligned passage from Chambers in blue (fig. 5).

Figure 5. Article ‘Almanach’ with shared Chambers passages in blue.

In this instance, D’Alembert reused almost all of Chambers’ original article ‘Almanac’, with some minor variations, but does not to appear to have indicated the source of the first part of his article (page image).

The alignment database is a useful first pass to examine the results of the alignment process, but it is limited in at least two ways. It identifies each aligned passage, but does not merge multiple passages identified in in article pairs. Thus we find 5 shared passages between the articles ‘Constellation’. The interface also does not attempt to evaluate the alignments or identify passages that occur between different articles. For example, D’Alembert’s article ‘ATMOSPHERE’ indeed has a passage from Chambers’ article ‘Atmosphere’, but also many longer passages from the article ‘Generation’.

To accumulate results and to refine evaluation, we subsequently processed the raw Text-PAIR alignment data as found in the static output files. We developed an evaluation algorithm for each alignment, with parameters based on the length of the matching passages and the degree to which the headwords were close matches. This simple evaluation model eliminated a significant number of false positives, which we found were typically short text matches between articles with different headwords. The output of this algorithm resulted in two tables, one for matches that were likely to be valid and one that was less likely to be valid, based on our simple heuristics – see a selection of the ‘YES’ table below (fig. 6). We are, of course, making this distinction based on the comparison of the machine translated Chambers headwords and the headwords found in the Encyclopédie, so we expected that some valid matches would be identified as invalid.

Figure 6. Table of possible article borrowings.

The next phase of the project included the necessary step of human evaluation of the identified matches. While we were able to reduce the work involved significantly by generating a list of reasonably solid matches to be inspected, there is still no way to eliminate fully the ‘arduous toil’ of comparison referenced by Lough. More than 5000 potential matches were scrutinised, looking in essence for ‘false negatives’, i.e., matches that our evaluation algorithm classed as negative (based primarily on differences in headword translations) but that were in reality valid. The results of this work was then merged into in a single table of what we consider to be valid matches, a list that includes some 3700 Encyclopédie articles with at least one matching passage from the Cyclopaedia. These results will form the basis of a longer article that is currently in preparation.


In all, we found some 3778 articles in the Encyclopédie that upon evaluation seem highly similar in both content and structure to articles in the 1741 edition of Chambers’ Cyclopaedia. Whether or not these articles constitute real acts of historical translation is the subject for another, or several other, articles. There are simply too many outside factors at play, even in this rather straightforward comparison, to make blanket conclusions about the editorial practices of the encyclopédistes based on this limited experiment. What we can say, however, is that of the 1081 articles that include a ‘Chambers’ reference in the Encyclopédie, we only found 689 with at least one matching passage. Obviously this recall rate of 63.7% is well below the 81% we attained on our sample corpus, probably due to overfitting the matching algorithm to the sample, which warrants further investigation. But beyond testing this ground truth, we are also left with the rather astounding fact of 3089 articles with no reference to Chambers whatsoever, all of which seem, at first blush, to be at least somewhat related to their English predecessors.

The overall evaluation of these results remains ongoing, and the ‘arduous toil’ of traditional textual comparison continues apace, albeit guided somewhat by the machine’s heavy hand. Indeed, the use of machine translation as a bridge between documents to find similar passages, be they reuses, plagiarisms, etc., is, as we have attempted to show here, a workable approach for future research, although not without certain limitations. The Chambers–Encyclopédie task outlined above is fairly well constrained and historically bounded. More general applications of these same methods may well yield less useful results. These reservations notwithstanding, the fact that we were able to unearth many thousands of valid potential intertextual relationships between documents in different languages is a feat that even a few years ago might not have been possible. As large-scale language models become ever more sophisticated and historically aware, the dream of intertextual bridges between multilingual corpora may yet become a reality. (For more on ‘intertextual bridges’ in French, see our current NEH project.)


The question of the Dictionnaire de Trévoux is one such factor, as it is known that both Chambers and the encyclopédistes used it as a source for their own articles – so matches we find between the Chambers and Encyclopédie may indeed represent shared borrowings from the Trévoux and not a translation at all. Or, more interestingly, perhaps Chambers translated a Trévoux article from French to English, which a dutiful encyclopédiste then translated back to French for the Encyclopédie – in this case, which article is the ‘source’ and which the ‘translation’? For more on these particular aspects of dictionary-making, see our previous article ‘Plundering philosophers: identifying sources of the Encyclopédie’, Journal of the Association for History and Computing 13.1 (Spring 2010) and Marie Leca-Tsiomis’ response, ‘The use and abuse of the digital humanities in the history of ideas: how to study the Encyclopédie’, History of European ideas 39.4 (2013), p.467-76.

– Glenn Roe and Mark Olsen

Robert Darnton and Zhang Chi: a conversation

Robert Darnton is Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor, Emeritus and University Librarian, Emeritus at Harvard University. He is well known as a leader in the field of cultural history and history of books. Darnton’s works have profoundly changed historians’ understanding of the world of print and communication in eighteenth-century France. On 17 March 2022, he will give a lecture in the Weston Library, Oxford. Please keep an eye on our website for further information.

From 13-22 October 2019, being invited by Zhang Chi (associate professor in the History Department of Zhejiang University, China), Darnton visited Zhejiang University and gave three lectures. Our conversation began with a discussion of Darnton’s recollections of his academic career after nearly half a century of research of the archives of the Société typographique de Neuchâtel.

Zhang Chi: You’ve been into the history of books ever since the 1970s. I suppose it was better to say that it selected you, than that you chose it. We all are familiar with that story: you got in touch with the library in Neuchâtel to get materials on Brissot, and then there were 50,000 letters. You dug into it the way a journalist would do with a murder case. As an American, why did you choose to study French history? What were things like in the field of the history of books when you first got in?

Robert Darnton: First, I would like to express my gratitude for the opportunity to address Chinese readers. During my recent visit to Zhejiang University I was greatly impressed not only by the hospitality I received but also by my hosts’ knowledge of Western history. I realized, too, how much I had to learn about the East. I hope this dialogue will contribute at least in a small way to communication between our two sides of the globe. I have grouped the questions together and omitted a few of them to make my answers more coherent.

As I get older, I have an increasing appreciation of contingency. An epidemic unexpectedly breaks out in a remote city, and the world economy collapses. Events like the American invasion of Iraq have disastrous, unintended consequences. Individuals change the course of history – for better (Nelson Mandela) or worse (Donald Trump). History was not supposed to happen that way, according to the Annales School. When I took a deep dive into Annales history in the early 1970s, I absorbed a view of history as long-term structural change uncovered by statistics – ‘histoire sérielle’, as François Furet called it. Furet introduced me to the historians working with him on Livre et société in 1972. Rather than concentrating on great books by famous writers, they used statistical analysis to detect century-long trends. The Enlightenment appeared implicitly as part of a shift away from religious and toward secular subjects across many decades and on a gigantic scale. A new discipline, histoire du livre, promised to reveal general patterns of culture – profound tendencies comparable to what the Annalistes had discovered in studying economic, demographic, and social history.

It was a compelling project, and I thought I had something to contribute to it, because I had been working in the archives of the Société typographique de Neuchâtel since 1965. I had been doing histoire du livre without knowing it, before the term existed. My research fitted in with that of the Furet group, because it concerned the kind of literature excluded from their sources: illegal books, which I could count and map, showing their diffusion throughout France during the two decades before the Revolution. The history of books has changed enormously since the 1970s, and looking back at it, one factor in my own experience confirms my sense of contingency. I strayed into the archives of the STN by following up a footnote, not to study book history but rather to write a biography of Jacques-Pierre Brissot, who published his works in Neuchâtel. When I abandoned the biography and took up the history of books, I chose a fork in the road, and soon there was no going back. Of course, other factors influenced my decision. It was not a matter of chance.

In answering your question, I want to suggest something that I think has shaped many historians’ careers: opportunities that arise unexpectedly, options taken or rejected, unforeseen consequences, and fortuna. It was good fortune to come of age in the United States during the 1950s, when scholarships were plentiful, and to begin a career in the 1960s, when jobs were easily available. In fact, I have been downright lucky. Unlike my father, who fought in World War I and was killed in World War II, I never had to join the army. As to why I as an American should have been interested in France, a question I am often asked, my answer is that France is interesting, inexhaustably interesting, not only in itself (the cafés, the vineyards, the cathedals) but for its relevance to general questions: How do ideas ‘take’ in a social order? What is public opinion? Why do revolutions occur? Those questions bring me to others that you ask.

Zhang Chi: In What is history?, Edward Carr thought it good for history and sociology to learn from each other. While you belonged to another generation, who were concerned with the conversation between history and anthropology. Many years ago, over 20 years if I remember what you said right, you conducted a joint seminar on history and anthropology together with Clifford Geertz at Princeton University. In addition you have prefaced The Interpretation of cultures. Would you like to talk about this seminar? Why would you think history should be in conversation with anthropology? And on the other hand, what would other disciplines, anthropology, for instance, learn from history?

Robert Darnton: Like many historians, I have found inspiration in anthropology, sociology, and other academic disciplines. Yet I would like to point out a misconception about interdisciplinarity. Speaking for myself, at least, I don’t believe in rummaging around in the social sciences in order to come up with tools. With the exceptions of economics and demography, I don’t think social-science methods can be used to engineer historical research. In place of methodological prescriptions, I would invoke two remarks by historians I admire. Marc Bloch said (I am speaking from memory and may get the words slightly wrong): ‘The historian is like the ogre of the fairy tale; where he smells man, he finds his prey.’ And my friend and colleague, the late Carl Schorske, used to say: ‘Man is a meaning-making animal.’

I think the need for meaning is as fundamental for humans as food and drink. By that I don’t mean to imply that ordinary people think like philosophers. As Lévi-Strauss demonstrated, they express ideas and feelings by combining concrete things in their thoughts. Some things in certain cultures are peculiarly good to think with (the French says it better: ‘choses bonnes à penser’). Anthropologists have come up with famous examples – Mary Douglas’s pangolin, Victor Turner’s milk tree, and E. E. Evans-Pritchard’s witchcraft-substance. The power of such thinkable things consists in the way they are woven into rituals and fit into general patterns of culture. Anthropology can help a historian understand cultural patterns, but it does not provide instruments that will unlock symbolic systems. There is nothing instrumental or mechanical about it. It is exegetic, interpretive, hermeneutical, but it is not arbitrary. Symbolic worlds really exist. In fact, they constitute reality. However, historians, like anthropologists, can get them wrong – and fail to get them adequately right, just as we do when we cannot make ourselves understood in a foreign language. In the seminar I taught with Clifford Geertz, we tried to help the students understand that the interpretation of culture requires rigor, evidence, and conceptual clarity. We had no tool kit to offer, but we were able to orient discussions around a basic problem: what made life meaningful for other people in other times and places.

I fear that I am sounding avuncular, a danger that increases with age. Perhaps it would be better if I gave an example of a sociological concept that I recently found helpful. In The Presentation of Self in everyday life, the sociologist Erving Goffman argues that interpersonal relations can be understood as a form of theatricality. We assume roles and act in conformity with implicit scripts. When I first read the book, I took away from it little more than the notion of role playing, a fairly obvious thought that Goffman works over with a great deal of wit. In rereading it, I understood a more challenging idea: when we assume the roles of audience and actors – for example, in placing an order with a waiter for a meal or in registering with an official to get a driver’s license – we define a situation; we accept a mutual understanding of what is going on. While reading reports of incidents in Paris during the so-called prerevolution of 1787-1788, I found a surprising tendency for contemporary observers to use theatrical metaphors. The Assembly of Notables, for example, was described as a ‘troupe de comédiens’. As I accumulated information, I realized the constant references to acting in roles was a way of construing events – what Goffman calls ‘defining the situation’ or determining ‘what is going on’. As the Parisians understood it, the fundamental situation in 1787-1788 was a struggle against despotism. Yet as historians have traditionally understood it, the prerevolution was an aristocratic revolt. The disparity between the contemporary and the historical views opened up a possibility of rethinking events and of seeing how they figured in the creation of a collective consciousness. That is the subject of the book I am now trying to write.

Zhang Chi: In studying the history of books, you focus on books themselves: how were they made, subscribed, and sold? But you didn’t seem to be concerned with the way people understood them, and the impact such understanding cast on their actions. Is that true? If so, your researches would be different from your friend Roger Chartier’s history of reading. We can know what people read, if there are necessary materials, but it’s hard to know what they think. I think that would be the problem with the history of reading. Would you have divergence with Charter on certain problems? How do you understand the history of reading?

Robert Darnton: I certainly agree that the history of books should include the history of reading, and I have attempted in a few essays to understand the way the French read books two and a half centuries ago. The problem I kept running into was the paucity of sources. Fortunately I found enough evidence to understand how readers responded to the works of Rousseau, but I did not come across documentation about the response to other authors. Of course, we can study marginalia, commonplace books, reviews, and a few other sources. But we do not have enough material to construct a rigorous history of reading – nothing like what we can demonstrate in studying the production and diffusion of books. We are reduced to aperçus. They can be important, suggesting, for example, that silent reading existed in antiquity and that conventions about the spacing of words and punctuation arose during the Middle Ages. I am persuaded by the insights of Roger Chartier and other historians, but I do not think they have produced a history of reading.

I have also followed Roger Chartier in taking inspiration from the works of Michel de Certeau and Richard Hoggarth. They emphasize the active role of readers in construing texts – even to the extent of finding meanings that were not intended by the authors. In this view, readers exert independent power, and readings vary accordingly. However, that raises a problem: if readers behave as poachers, acccording to de Certeau’s famous remark, the poaching, taken as a whole, could look like anarchy, endlessly varied individual experiences, and it would be impossible to perceive general tendencies. One way out of this dilemma could be to fall back on the notion of ‘interpretive communities’ developed by literary theorists such as Stanley Fish. That can be helpful, but how can those communities be detected and described? Where is the evidence of their activities? Like many literary scholars, I have become wary of theory as a way to understand the history of literature.

Despite these difficulties, I think it would be a mistake to ignore the impact of a few important books such as Uncle Tom’s cabin and The Sorrows of young Werther. Rousseau’s works had a profound effect on the reading public in France, even after 1789 when they appealed to émigrés as well as revolutionaries. The Wertherfieber certainly deserves a place in the social history of Germany. In casting about for ways of coping with the difficulties, I have recently been impressed by the insights of the sociologist Gustave Tarde and the historian Benedict Anderson. They relate reading to the formation of collective consciousness. Although, as they acknowledge, individuals read books in different ways, readers as a whole share a sense of participation in the same general activity. Anderson goes so far as to interpret this collective experience as a decisive factor in the development of nationalism in colonial societies. I think that the reading public under the Ancien Régime, varied as it was, developed a general awareness of participating in literary culture. The eighteenth century was a time when writers were celebrated as public personages, when the ‘sacre de l’écrivain’ took hold, and when the intellectual as a social type first emerged. That, too, is the subject of a book I hope to write.

Couronnement de Voltaire sur le Théâtre Français, le 30 mars 1778 (engraving by Charles-Etienne Gaucherl Wikimedia Commons).

Zhang Chi: Compared with the history of books you were concerned with, what kind of breakthrough would the history of communication bring into the understanding and interpretation of history?

Robert Darnton: The connection between reading and collective consciousness has implications for the attempt to understand the relation of the Enlightenment to the Revolution. I think it is clear, for example, that Voltaire mobilized public indignation about abuses in the Church and the judiciary during the Calas Affair. He did not simply ridicule religious orthodoxy as he had done in his early career; he damaged the authority of priests and parlementary magistrates by occupying a higher moral ground. It was the shifting, not just the sapping of moral authority that made the Enlightenment a force. Empowered by that realignment and driven by that ethical energy, the revolutionaries set out to create a new world.

Utopian fervor can spread through the social order like wildfire. Historians have shown how it drove millenarian movements, especially during the Reformation, and I think that something similar took place in the French Revolution. The common people in the Sections of Paris were seized by the energy and vision of radicals who had absorbed the ideas of the Enlightenment during difficult careers in the lower ranks of literature and the law. Pierre Manuel, as I have tried to show in The Devil in the Holy Water, typifies Sectional radicals of this kind. Thanks to the power of the press, men of the same stripe – Brissot, Carra, Marat, Danton, Desmoulins – rose to power at the national level. When I first developed this argument, which identified radicalism with the milieu known as Grub Street, I over-stated the case. But I did not mean to reduce revolutionary energy to the frustrations of hack writers. Instead, I intended to demonstrate the importance of obscure intermediaries in the process of ideological mobilization.

A poster of 1793 displaying the Phrygian bonnet.

Non-print media were crucial to this process. Few sans-culottes read books, even if they were literate. They listened to speeches, sang songs, marched in processions, and ate off plates decorated with Phrygian bonnets and crowing roosters. Newspapers and pamphlets belonged to a general stream of sounds and images that swept through Paris. The same was true before 1789. In Poetry and the police I tried to reconstruct the course of that stream in the context of the political crisis of 1749-1750, a time when the Maurepas ministry was overthrown and when contemporaries attributed its downfall to ‘songs’. That observation was a short-hand way of describing the mixed messages that passed through all the media of the time and that actually shaped events. Chamfort made the point with a witticism: ‘France is an absolute monarchy tempered by songs.’ So, yes indeed, I do believe that the history of books should be situated within the study of other media and of communication in general.

Zhang Chi: In The Cambridge Companion to the French Enlightenment (2014) French scholar Antoine Lilti asked: ‘Is it possible to write a social history of the Enlightenment? What connections should be drawn between the works, ideas and authors that brought great changes to the intellectual and political landscape in France during the long eighteenth century – commonly called the Enlightenment – and the social changes that occurred during this period?’ What would be your answer to this question? Half a century has passed since you first published The High Enlightenment and the low-life of literature in Pre-revolutionary France. In your opinion, what kind of progress have we made in understanding Enlightenment as a social phenomenon generally? Digitization changed a lot about historical researches. What do you think about its implication?

Robert Darnton: I think Antoine Lilti has partly answered his question by his own work on the salons and the nature of celebrity. Both of his books successfully relate the Enlightenment to social life in Paris during the eighteenth century. Yet they do not constitute a social history of the Enlightenment, a large enterprise that would require broader research. One problem, of course, is how to conceive of the Enlightenment itself. I am not a great believer in definitions, because they tend to reify a subject – that is, to treat it as a thing-in-itself, which, once identified, can be traced through history as if it were a radioactive substance in the blood stream. Antoine Lilti is conscious of this danger and therefore emphasizes the games and worldly amusements of the salons along with the performances in them by the philosophes. He puts Rousseau’s influence into a social context by showing how it was carried on the wave of a new phenomenon, the fascination with celebrities, which included a few philosophes but usually featured non-intellectuals like Cagliostro and the cardinal de Rohan. The more we know about the social context of the Enlightenment, the better we can appreciate it as a historical phenomenon. By situating the Enlightenment socially, however, we may raise the danger of blunting the sharpness of the philosophes’ ideas, of underestimating their cutting edge.

That problem did not seem urgent to the generation that set the course of Enlightenment studies immediately after World War II. Although I myself did not intend to become a historian of the Enlightenment, I got to know the leading scholars of that generation thanks to my tutor at Oxford, Robert Shackleton, the expert on Montesquieu. He introduced me to Franco Venturi, the historian of intellectuals and the reform movement in Italy. Later I became a close friend of Roland Mortier and met other specialists like René Pomeau, Ralph Leigh, and Ira Wade. They did not find the Enlightenment problematic, although they disagreed in describing aspects of it. Its leaders could be identified, its ideas analyzed. It was a field of study, with its own reviews, organizations, and congresses. Above all, as they understood it, it challenged orthodox ideas. It took the Church as its principal target, and it fomented reform of all kinds, social and political. This militant Enlightenment suited a generation that had fought fascism in World War II and opposed totalitarianism during the Cold War.

The current generation has other concerns. Without presuming to characterize it as a whole, I would mention two factors that have shaped its scholarship: globalization and digitization. The attempt to see everything globally can appear as a fad, yet it is an appropriate response to the interconnectedness of the world today. The International Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, which was devoted primarily to the famous philosophes (above all Voltaire) at the time of its founding by Theodore Besterman, now includes 37 national societies, which cover most of the globe. Their members want to investigate Enlightenment thought as it affected people in Rio de Janeiro, Tunis, and (yes!) Beijing – and they want to know how those people developed ideas of their own. One line of inquiry that corresponds to the interests of this generation deals directly with connectedness. Enlightenment scholars have studied correspondence networks, showing how intellectuals communicated through the mail and how their exchanges created a common sense of participation in an international Republic of Letters. The correspondence of Samuel Formey, the secretary of the Berlin Academy of Sciences, is astonishing. He wrote and received dozens of letters every day from nearly every part of the Western world.

That brings me to the second subject, digitization. If Formey’s correspondence were digitized, it would be a map of the Republic of Letters. (There have been attempts to do so, but I think they have foundered.) We now have nearly complete editions of the correspondence of Voltaire, Rousseau, Franklin, and Jefferson, and they have been digitized. Taken together, they already constitute such a map; and they have been combined with digital versions of many other writers in a gigantic data base, the Electronic Enlightenment administered from Oxford. The digitization of texts such as ARTFL’s version of Diderot’s Encyclopédie raises endless possibilities for word-searching, context-scrutinizing, and discourse analysis. I won’t mention other examples of big data, which, I gather, are familiar in China. But I would like to conclude by suggesting one direction that might be taken by future scholarship.

The Enlightenment can be understood as a campaign to spread light. Most of its ideas had been developed before the eighteenth century. What gave the ‘Age of Enlightenment’ its peculiar character was the diffusion of ideas, followed up by engagement in putting them into practice. Leaders like Voltaire, Franklin, and Formey consciously manipulated the media of their day. Their strategies could be studied and compared so that we could see them at work, enlisting allies, attacking enemies, empowering reforms, and transforming public opinion. Research of this kind is already taking place and could lead to something like a social history of the Enlightenment. If I were to choose one example of a book that shows the way, I would cite Forging Rousseau: print, commerce and cultural manipulation in the late Enlightenment by the late and much regretted Raymond Birn. It gives a deeply researched and superbly written account of how Rousseau became embedded in the collective imagination of the French.

From a letter by Voltaire to d’Alembert, 28 September 1763 (D11433; Gallica images).

Although I haven’t come close to answering all your questions, I had better stop here at the point where globalization and digitization converge. It should be clear at this point that scholarship cannot be contained within national, disciplinary, or political boundaries. I am sending my replies to you from a place of confinement at the height of the Coronavirus pandemic and at a moment when the destructive forces of nationalism and bigotry seem more threatening than ever. Yet we still hear the call of Voltaire: Ecrasons l’infâme.

Another version of this interview has been published in Historiography Bimonthly (2021, No. 1). Thanks for the authorization from its editors. Especially thanks to Jiao Bing, editor from Historical Research.

The best books on Catherine the Great

She was born in 1729 as Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst, a German princess, but by 1762 had become Empress of All Russia and went on to rule for 34 years as Catherine II. She regarded herself as an enlightened despot who embraced the ideas of the Enlightenment and consorted with the French philosophes. Russian historian Andrei Zorin introduces the remarkably industrious and able politician who is remembered as Catherine the Great.

Before we get to the books, could you briefly tell us who Catherine the Great was? She was born a German princess, I believe. How did she become Empress of Russia and what is her claim to ‘greatness’?
Andrei Zorin, Leo Tolstoy (Chicago, 2020).

Yes. Catherine was a German princess. Germany, which had more than 20 different states, was a pool of eligible princes and princesses for royal marriages. Catherine’s was a very small and poor principality, Anhalt-Zerbst, devoid of any political importance. A royal marriage to the Russian heir to the throne was a very great opportunity for her. Maybe she was chosen for that very reason. Anhalt-Zerbst couldn’t play any political role, but the Prussian king, Frederick II, who was a patron of the principality, also approved of the match because he believed it was his chance to gain some influence in Russia. This was a miscalculation because Catherine was the last person to be influenced by anyone.

Catherine was incredibly well educated for a girl of that age. As a teenager she was reading philosophical literature. When she came to Russia, she was absolutely dazzled by the splendour of the court, under the Empress Elizabeth. It was a luxurious court and a contrast to the very Protestant, Lutheran, poor, German principality she had come from.

She arrived in Russia aged 15, into this entirely alien atmosphere. She converted to the Orthodox faith, as was appropriate, although she never became a real believer, mostly seeing Orthodoxy as a part of Russian traditions. She mastered the language, although she made mistakes in it and spoke with a German accent till the end of her life. Still, her Russian was good enough for her to write fiction, plays, fairy tales and letters. Of course, her main language was not even German but the more aristocratic French.

After Elizabeth’s death, her nephew – Catherine’s husband Peter III – ascended the throne. Catherine later claimed that their marriage was never consummated and her son and the heir to the throne, Duke Paul, was the son of Count Sergei Saltykov, her first lover. She wrote that this affair was arranged by the Empress Elizabeth because the empire needed an heir. We’ll never know whether that was true. Some scholars see likenesses in the images of her husband and her son. But, anyway, relations between the couple were strained and Catherine was afraid of being put into a monastery, which was the fate of several Russian divorced royal spouses. She had studied Russian history very carefully.

Quite apart from this threat, she was incredibly ambitious and realised that her moment was coming. Her husband was never popular in Russia. He was also a German prince but, unlike his wife, displayed utter disgust for Russian customs. For example, Russian Orthodox services are notoriously long, and Peter publicly expressed his boredom and left quickly. Catherine, in contrast, took care to attend them, praying for hours and hours.

Even more importantly, Peter quarrelled with the guard. The guard officers assisted Catherine to seize the throne in a staged coup d’état. In her manifesto there is a wonderfully Orwellian sentence, that she became the empress ‘by the will of all the estates and especially that of the guard’. Everyone is equal but… We don’t know about all the estates, but the guard definitely wanted to have her on the throne. It’s absolutely clear that she was a usurper.

Her husband was assassinated ten days later. We’ll never know whether it was by Catherine’s direct order, tacit agreement, or whether the assassins second-guessed her wishes. No one was punished for the assassination. Catherine was not a bloodthirsty tyrant. Actually, she was averse to excessive bloodshed but, at the same time, she was ruthless when she believed she needed to take somebody out of her way.

‘Her reign is considered the Golden Age’

She came to the throne in a very bad, very precarious situation. She was a German princess, there were rebels, her husband had just been assassinated and there were other pretenders to the throne, who had better rights to it than she did. A significant section of her supporters believed she should be a regent until her son reached maturity. She had other ideas and managed to run the country for 34 years until her death in 1796.

In the 18th century territorial expansion was seen as the greatest proof of a country’s glory. She was glorified for expanding Russia’s borders enormously, mostly to the south and west. Her reign was also a period of cultural blossoming in Russia. It witnessed the huge growth in literacy, the development of the press, theatre and literature. Some scholars claim that it was also a period of significant economic growth although others say that the economic development of Russia during this period was not so successful. It’s still an open question. She did manage to facilitate both external and internal trade and to introduce important reforms. Her system of provincial government exists to the present day. She put in place the foundations of the Russian secondary educational system, which was one of her major successes. She established the rights of different estates – nobles and city dwellers – in her charters.

Where she failed completely was on the peasant question, the serf issue. As a follower of the philosophes she believed serfdom was horrible and akin to slavery. It was contrary to her beliefs but she never tried to mitigate it, let alone abolish it. She had several plans to deal with it, but nothing came of them and the situation of peasants in her reign worsened rather than improved. There was an ongoing civil war between the peasants and their masters. During the 1770s there was a huge peasant rebellion, which nearly threatened the existence of the Russian Empire. It took an enormous effort to put it down. Serfdom was the time bomb beneath the building of the Empire. She left it to her successors, and it was not dealt with until the 1860s.

But for the educated Russian nobility her reign is considered the Golden Age, the age of glory. Also it was seen as a time of peace between the throne and educated society. The first cracks in that coalition appeared in the 1790s, in the very last years of her reign. This division between the despotic monarch and educated society actually started to widen in the 19th century. Catherine’s reign saw very close cooperation between the educated part of the nobility, who saw enormous opportunities in her reign, and the throne, which needed the support of educated people to succeed.

Your first book is by Isabel de Madariaga, Russia in the Age of Catherine the Great. Tell us about it.
Isabel de Madariaga, Russia in the Age of Catherine the Great (London, New Haven, 1981; London, 2002).

The choice of five books is always contentious. Whoever you might ask would give you a different list. However, if you reduced the number of necessary books on Catherine the Great and her reign to just one, I don’t think anyone could possibly disagree. Any expert would say that the most important book written on this topic in any language, not excluding Russian, was the one written by Isabel de Madariaga. She is the founding mother of contemporary Catherine the Great scholarship. It is the only book on my list that is 40 years old. The others, Catherine’s letters aside, were written in the 21st century.

And does the book cover all of those areas of Catherine the Great’s life and times that you spoke about?

Yes, absolutely. The book is called Russia in the Age of Catherine the Great and it is a comprehensive history. It’s a huge book and de Madariaga worked on it for decades. She published it in her 60s and it was her first book. It was the result of an enormous amount of work and a paradigm-shifting book, completely changing the understanding of Catherine the Great and her reign. Before that, Catherine was mostly viewed through her sexual exploits and considered mostly interesting because of her lovers. She was criticised for hypocrisy – she corresponded with the philosophes, but at the same time maintained despotic rule and preserved serfdom. She was much denigrated.

There are two usual explanations why Catherine never tried to address the peasant question. One was that she was hypocritical and never wanted to. The other was that she was afraid of the nobles and didn’t want to undermine their interests, because they constituted her main support. De Madariaga challenged both assumptions and produced her own, much more convincing explanation which, from my point of view, actually solves the paradox.

‘It’s absolutely clear that she was a usurper’

She pointed to the weakness of the Russian state and bureaucratic apparatus. The book makes clear that state machinery was totally lacking when Catherine the Great came to the throne and she had to try and build it. She was not able to contemplate the creation of millions of new subjects that needed to be taxed, recruited to the army and brought to law and had to outsource it to land and serf owners. From her reign until the abolition of serfdom in the 1860s, all Russian emperors, excluding Paul I who reigned just for a few years, hated serfdom and believed that it constituted an abominable evil of the Russian social system. They were absolute rulers, but none of them actually dared to do anything about it because they knew there was nothing they could rely on. The state was virtually non-existent and too weak to deal with this enormous mass of subjects. That was de Madariaga’s basic answer, which solved one of the very important mysteries of Russian history.

She was a daughter of the Spanish ambassador of Republican Spain to England and she worked in the BBC foreign service. Her PhD was on Russian diplomacy at the time of Catherine the Great, and I think her analysis of Catherine’s foreign policy is an absolute masterpiece, too.

For the reader who is reluctant to read this nearly 1000 page book there is a shortened version, Catherine the Great: a short history. But I don’t think that, in the foreseeable future, this book’s pre-eminence is going to change because, if you study the period, there is no way around this very fundamental achievement.

Your next book is Simon Dixon’s Catherine the Great. Is this one more of a straightforward biography of Catherine the Great?
Simon Dixon, Catherine the Great (London, 2001, 2nd ed. 2009).

It’s not so much a biography. Simon Dixon is a professor at University College London and one of the generation of Russian 18th-century scholars who have developed their vision based on de Madariaga’s work. Unlike Madariaga’s book, it is a short history, written mostly for undergraduate students. It’s less than 200 pages long in the first edition. But it constitutes an astute analysis of different aspects of her reign. What Dixon’s book achieves is to bring together Catherine the Great’s policy and her personality. It’s a highly challenging question – when you analyse an absolute ruler where does the person end and the state begin? What is personal and what is political? You can’t fully explain everything by the personal features of the ruler as that would be too simplistic but, at the same time, you can’t avoid them.

Many scholars now think there are only factors, not actors. That approach doesn’t promise an exciting narrative, but what’s worse, may not help us to understand history. Simon Dixon manages both factors and actors very well, in a short, readable, clearly written book. He looks at Catherine’s attitude to absolutism, her conviction that Russia, being as big as it is, could only be ruled by an absolute ruler and, at the same time, explains the influence of Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the laws (L’Esprit des lois) on her political instincts. Some aristocratic thinkers, being fans of Montesquieu, believed that the nobility should, as a corporate body, participate in the running of the government and the country, but Catherine with all her admiration for the French thinker did not buy it. She did want the nobles to enjoy their corporate rights, but was not ready to share her power and responsibility with them.

Dixon succeeds wonderfully in a very short space, in bringing together her vision, her personal impact, her policy, the actual problems she faced during her reign and how she addressed them. It’s a very skilful book, weaving all this together.

Let’s move on to Simon Sebag Montefiore’s book, Catherine the Great and Potemkin. Potemkin was one of one of Catherine’s generals and statesmen, wasn’t he, but also her great love affair?
Simon Sebag Montefiore, Catherine the Great and Potemkin: the imperial love affair (London, 2007).

Yes, he was. Potemkin is arguably the most famous of Russia’s pre-revolutionary statesmen, apart from the rulers. He also enjoys the honour, or notoriety, of having become part of the language because a lot of people have heard about so-called ‘Potemkin villages’. These were imagined settlements along Catherine’s road to Crimea, serving as predecessors to today’s fakes. In fact these villages never existed. They were invented by French diplomats who aspired to draw Turkey into a war with the Russian Empire. They wanted to convince everyone that there was nothing built in the south of Russia except Potemkin villages – to give an incentive for the Turks to start hostilities. The Ottoman Empire paid a huge price for believing that.

Of course, Potemkin produced many performances during Catherine’s famous trip to the south, to show what he had already achieved and planned to achieve there. Such practices were widespread in court life. If we study the court of Louis XIV, who was a model ruler for Catherine, we can see how important all these staged performances were. In a way Potemkin represented his vision. If there were dressed-up peasants, he didn’t plan to deceive the audience, which knew very well that these were theatrical decorations. It was very, very expensive for the Treasury. He spent a lot of money on these performances. But Catherine was shrewd and knew him very well. She easily forgave him excessive expenses, but would never allow him to deceive her.

This book tells us the true story about that. It is a wonderful biography of both lovers. It dwells on the question of their secret marriage, which might have taken place – we’ll never know. Montefiore seems to be all but certain that they were secretly married. Simon Dixon is nearly certain. I’m slightly less certain but it is highly probable, at the very least, that it was the case. And it was an incredible love. Catherine had a lot of lovers throughout her life and Montefiore is specific about her relations with each of them. But very seldom did she allow them to play a serious political or administrative role in the running of the country.

‘She changed her lovers, but she was not promiscuous’

Montefiore discusses the gender bias around the stories of all her lovers. Nobody ever sees it as something to wonder at when male rulers exchange their lovers for new, younger ones. But when it happens to a female ruler it is seen as an act of terrible immorality and deviation. Catherine had about a dozen lovers – maybe there were a couple more – but they followed one after another. She changed her lovers, but she was not promiscuous – at least by modern standards. All of her affairs were conceptualised as love. She was very much under the spell of sentimental literature. Potemkin was the greatest and the strongest of those loves. And Montefiore has worked in the archives, unearthing their exciting correspondence. He gives a vivid portrait of a strange, eccentric man who lived like a sultan but was, at the same time, fervently religious, who contemplated becoming a monk and was an administrative genius. Potemkin’s managerial and administrative skills, arguably, have been unmatched in Russian history.

Montefiore quotes a couple of ambassadors to Russia who had personally met Napoleon and George Washington. Both of them said that Potemkin was the most impressive personality that they’d ever seen. The book confirms that perception. It tells the story of this incredible personality and his incredible love, which continued after Catherine and Potemkin ceased to be lovers and lasted until Potemkin’s death in 1791 – five years before Catherine, although he was ten years her junior. They both had other partners, but their intimacy realised itself in their political cooperation. Potemkin had a great plan of resurrecting Greece and reconquering Constantinople – the notorious ‘Greek Project’. A lot of scholars believed before that it was just a sham. But Montefiore shows that it was a real plan to reorient Russia from the Baltics to the southern borders. For all this, I think it is an exciting book about one of the most important people of 18th century Russia.

Your fourth book is Catherine the Great’s Selected Letters
Catherine the Great: selected letters, tr. Andrew Kahn and Kelsey Rubin-Detlev (Oxford, 2018).

This book is not a scholarly monograph, but a scholarly edition of Catherine the Great’s letters. I think it is worth having a book on the list that gives voice to the Empress herself. Letters, of course, played an enormous role in 18th-century culture and life. Not only did they serve as a main vehicle of communication, but they created information networks, were tools for running policy, and so on.

Catherine was a prolific letter writer. She wrote tens of thousands of letters to 400 correspondents and to nearly half of them she wrote in her own hand. She was a workaholic. As well as the huge number of letters that she wrote, she wrote plays, she wrote articles, she wrote fairy tales for children, for the education of her sons. You wonder when she had time to rule the country. She was the first Russian monarch ever to have a regular day schedule.

This book is not very big, but it gives a glimpse of her networking, of her correspondence with Voltaire and the Baron von Grimm, whom she was keen on making agents of her influence in Europe. She wanted to charm European thinkers. If you read her correspondence with Voltaire, you can immediately see that Voltaire wrongly believes he is playing the leading role and educating this young woman. He saw Russia as a tabula rasa where he could put into practice his ideal of becoming an adviser to the enlightened ruler.

Catherine mainly didn’t follow his advice, not because she was hypocritical, but because she knew she understood her job better than he did. She was very keen on maintaining good relations with the most popular thinker of the age, listened to his opinions and wanted to produce a good impression on him, but she never allowed herself to be guided too much by anyone.

I was going to ask you about Voltaire. Was the story with Diderot the same?

Yes, mostly. We know slightly less about her relations with Diderot because he personally came to St Petersburg, they communicated face-to-face and there are not many letters left. When Diderot arrived, Russia was on the verge of destruction. There was a huge peasant rebellion and a war at the time of his visit, but Catherine found time for daily conversations with him. She was very attentive to, and interested in, what Diderot had to say, but never allowed him to influence her decisions. Diderot was irritated because he believed he had come to St Petersburg to become the counsellor to the ruler.

I think the worst legacy of the French philosophes was that they strongly developed the idea that the role of intellectuals is to give advice to, and to guide, rulers. This delusion never worked well either for the intellectuals or for the rulers. Clearly Catherine understood this but, at the same time, she did believe that she as a monarch, and Russia as a whole, could benefit from their thoughts. She supported them, she bought their libraries. Needless to say, Voltaire and Diderot were not fools who could just be messed around. They perceived real interest on her part, but aspired for real political influence that she never granted to them.

Let’s move on to the last book, Douglas Smith’s Working the rough stone: Freemasonry and society in eighteenth-century Russia. What does this book tell us about Catherine the Great and her age?
Douglas Smith, Working the rough stone: Freemasonry and society in eighteenth-century Russia (DeKalb, Ill., 1999).

This stands a little bit apart from my other choices. The book is the history of Russian Freemasonry in the 18th century, primarily in Catherine the Great’s reign. Freemasonry started to develop in Russia in Petrine times, but it blossomed under Catherine. It was the start of Russia’s public sphere, of a Russian society independent from the throne, at least in some ways. Douglas Smith offers a perceptive analysis of the ways in which the public sphere can function in an unfree and undemocratic country, which doesn’t have open modes of political debate. For Russia, the Masonic lodges provided a sort of alternative network across social boundaries. Smith shows this role of Masonry. He also – I think accurately – discusses the paradox of Masonic secrecy. Masonic meetings were secret and you were supposed to keep silent about what took place. But, at the same time, Freemasons didn’t want their members to conceal the fact that they were Freemasons. They only had to conceal what actually happened at meetings, which worked well to provoke both excitement and animosity.

‘Her system of provincial government exists to the present day’

At first, Catherine was rather condescending. Being a rationalist and a sceptic, she was indifferent to Freemasonic pursuits. She believed she could use them as she needed educated people. But the more mystical they became, and the closer it got to the French Revolution, the more nervous she grew. For a while in the 1780s she even believed that Freemasons wanted to assassinate her. In the last period of her reign, she started to write comedies and pamphlets against them. Her European correspondents lauded her for using comedies and not repression against her opponents. But in the 1790s she actually started limited repressions against one of the groups of Freemasons. One of the leaders was arrested, several were sent to their villages.

But it was some sort of start of an opposition in the country, albeit based on moral grounds and not on political ideology. Smith shows this emergence of public opinion, independent of the throne. I started by saying that for most of Catherine’s reign politics was consensual. But I think this book shows how the cracks between the policy of the throne and the educated part of society started to appear.

– Andrei Zorin

This text was first published in Five Books.