Launching CatCor: towards a digital edition of the letters of Catherine the Great

Catherine II by Fyodor Rokotov (1735-1808) after Alexander Roslin (1718-1793), Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg (Wikimedia Commons).

From the Washington Post to the London Times, Catherine the Great continues to make front page news. The reason? A letter. The subject? Immunization (already sensationally depicted in Season 1 of the television romp The Great). Writing in April 1787 to Count Piotr Rumiantsev, the governor-general of Ukraine, she advised him that one of his most important tasks was the ‘introduction of inoculation against smallpox, which, as is known, causes great harm, especially among the ordinary people’. A decade earlier the Empress had invited the English physician Thomas Dimsdale to St Petersburg to inoculate her, the heir Pavel Petrovich, and members of the court. The variolation technique, a type of immunization, proved successful and Dimsdale did not have to make use of the extraordinary provisions for escape Catherine had devised in the event of her death and an attack by a mob on the foreigners. Another aspect of Dimsdale’s legacy was a gift of Mr Thomas Anderson, sometimes mentioned in her correspondence. No Pretender to the Throne, Mr Tom was in fact her beloved English greyhound given to Catherine by the physician.

It is entirely typical of Catherine that below the headline topic she then goes on to give Rumiantsev detailed advice on how and whom to immunize and how to defray the cost by using local taxes. Catherine was the original micro-manager. She is also one of the most impressive letter-writers of the eighteenth century, an age when letters went global, sped all over continents thanks to new postal routes, and sent sailing across oceans by trading routes. She is comparable to other eighteenth-century ‘enlightened’ monarchs, especially Frederick II of Prussia, in producing an extensive epistolary output as both a tool of policy and a space for intellectual and personal engagement.  Catherine could do everything in a letter from charming a lover to planning a battle, from laying out a garden to playing realpolitik. Her correspondence contains strategic despatches to her generals, back-channelling diplomatic posts, swapping ideas with Voltaire and d’Alembert, point-scoring with Frederick the Great, and sparring with the sculptor Etienne Falconet about the design of the Bronze Horseman: she used her letters to formulate ideas and policies and to inform the world about her aspirations for Russia.

Catherine II, empress of Russia (d.1796), notes stated to be in her handwriting, undated, in French (fol.3). Bodleian Archives and Manuscripts catalogue MS. Montagu d. 20, fol.3. With thanks to Mike Webb of the Bodleian Libraries.

Her letters are of multi-faceted interest, providing a real-time and often blow-by-blow account of personal matters, affairs of state, aesthetics, and ideas, and covering the decades from her arrival as a bride in Russia in 1745 to her mustering of forces against the French Revolution in defence of Enlightenment and Absolutism. Early letters trace her involvement in a court conspiracy with the British ambassador Sir Charles Hanbury-Williams, and her letter about the putsch that put her on the throne – an absolute potboiler of a narration – remains a unique source on those events. She also understood that the artful projection of a civilized personality was itself a statement of cultural superiority. In a letter of 1772 she insinuated that her favourite Grigory Orlov’s cultural superiority would ensure his success at the Fokshani peace congress over the Ottomans: ‘Le comte Orlof, qui, sans exagération, est le plus bel homme de son temps, doit paraître réellement un ange vis-à-vis de ces rustres-là; sa suite est brillante et choisie, et mon ambassadeur ne hait point la magnificence ni l’éclat.’ Catherine needed to project her court’s strength and self-confidence, also manifested in civilised gaiety at Tsarskoe Selo: ‘Il est impossible d’être à la lettre d’une gaité plus folle et d’une folie plus sage que nous l’avons été.’

Count Grigory Orlov (1734-1783) by Fyodor Rokotov (Wikimedia Commons).

‘How many letters did Catherine write?’ is an obvious question and starting point. The best guesstimate is that close to 5,000 letters survive but the number might well rise to over 6,000 or on some accounts closer to 10,000. For reasons of dynastic politics, her letters were never properly collected into a scholarly edition. Many thousands of letters were published in batches or singly in the so-called Russian ‘thick journals’ in the second half of the nineteenth century and are scattered across more than 120 publications and therefore hard to use. To this day there is no definitive inventory of the correspondence. Bright spots have been editions of separate correspondences.  Properly edited collections include letters to Voltaire, Potemkin, de Ligne, and Gustave III of Sweden which have appeared in the past 20 years in French and Russian.  These are just the tip of the iceberg. In English, Kelsey Rubin-Detlev and I have produced a translated anthology, the first of its kind in any language, that can also work as a history of the reign and biography through letters (see also here). Nonetheless, because of their dispersal and inaccessibility, the letters are insufficiently appreciated and remain underused. The solution to the problem of accessing, reading, searching, and using this unique correspondence seemed to lie through the new resources of the Digital Age.

Some years ago, Kelsey Rubin-Detlev and I embarked on a project we dubbed CatCor, officially known as the Digital Correspondence of Catherine the Great. With several rounds of funding, the project advanced from an initial phase to the pilot being launched thanks to the dedication of a great team of research assistants and the expertise of our digital advisers. With nearly 1,100 letters fully marked up, CatCor now contains a critical mass of letters as well as much annotation. Her letters often move fast and are dense with information. As part of its scholarly utility, CatCor includes a new apparatus of editorial notes that facilitates the perusal of the letters with hyperlinks glossing names, places, events and objects mentioned in the correspondence. The pilot database provides new annotations on the letters and the visualization in the map can also generate lists of letters by place. It is possible to browse and filter letters by people, places, events, and objects mentioned.

There is also the sheer delight of browsing through a single correspondence. In this pilot containing a cross-section of letters from her reign, readers can take in virtually the entire set of letters Catherine wrote to Falconet, while extensively sampling the letters she wrote to Grimm, of a very different character stylistically and thematically. CatCor also also provides the most extensive and only inventory of letters with open access links to the print sources. This display of metadata (listed in the Calendar function), the first list of its kind ever to have been done, gives a good idea of the remaining work needed to achieve a comprehensive digital edition. We hope that CatCor will contribute to a new discussion of the perennially troublesome tension between theory and practice in Catherine’s engagement with the values of the European Enlightenment.

Please come and take a look.

And please let us have your feedback.

Andrew Kahn (e-mail)

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