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.

Imperial letters don’t burn

“Burn my letters so that they will not be printed in my lifetime” – Catherine the Great wrote these words to one of her most trusted correspondents, Friedrich Melchior Grimm, in 1787. Note the caveat – Catherine did not really want her letters to be destroyed. What she sought was control over who read her letters, when, and how. My book, The Epistolary Art of Catherine the Great, explores how Catherine skilfully designed every aspect of her correspondence to shape her image and to regulate how it reached different readers.

Portrait of Catherine II in front of a Mirror, Vigilius Ericksen, 1762-64. (The Hermitage Museum)

A German princess who married the heir to the Russian imperial throne, Catherine overthrew her husband in 1762 and subsequently ruled the empire successfully for thirty-four years. A prolific writer and author of some two dozen plays, a history of Russia, a series of remarkable memoirs, and much more, Catherine also produced several thousand letters by which she sought to win over supporters, manage her empire, and leave behind for posterity a legacy as a great ruler and appealing individual.

We’re very familiar today with the perils associated with email security for public figures – suffice it to think of the scandals surrounding Hillary Clinton’s emails and those of her staff in 2016. Catherine had similar concerns: receiving letters from the empress of Russia was so exciting that some readers could not resist leaking them to the press. Very few of the empress’s correspondents could get away with such indiscretions without a scolding – even Voltaire was allowed to publicise his elaborate exchange with the empress only within well-defined limits. Even more than that, the responses to Catherine’s letters could be truly outlandish: one was even the occasion for a séance at the Prussian court in 1791.

Yet Catherine’s choices regarding the publicity of her letters can also look quite bewilderingly different from twenty-first-century norms. Some of Catherine’s letters were indeed private, such as her love notes to her possible secret husband and most loyal deputy, Grigory Potemkin. But often they were not: writing to the salon hostess Marie-Thérèse Geoffrin, for instance, Catherine was actually addressing the select group of elite intellectuals, socialites, and political figures who gathered in Geoffrin’s home. The hostess might allow her guests to read the latest letter, or she would read it aloud; nonetheless, she and her guests knew better than to make copies or to publish what they heard. Rather, these privileged readers and listeners were meant to think positively about the empress when they read her witty, friendly letters, and they were to influence public and government opinion on her behalf. At the same time, Catherine firmly believed that, if she could win over elite readers in her own day, the best readers of future generations would agree with their enlightened views.

The Epistolary art of Catherine the Great is the August 2019 volume of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series.

More sneakily, Catherine decided to make use of widespread government surveillance of correspondences for her own benefit. As Jay Caplan has explored in Postal Culture in Europe, the rapid expansion of the postal service in early-modern Europe coincided with the development of sophisticated “Black Chambers” or cabinets noirs to spy on letters in transit. Naturally enough, ordinary citizens were of less interest to governments than those close to power, and so Catherine could rely on the governments of the territories her letters passed through to give in to temptation. So, when she wrote to a celebrity like Voltaire about Russian military successes, she was actually writing past the philosophe to inform the nosy French government that Russia had the resources and the military strength to be a major power in Europe.

Digital approaches to Catherine’s correspondence can help us to better visualise Catherine’s efforts to make herself present across Europe through her letters. That said, only close reading of rhetorical strategies can uncover how Catherine formulated in her letters the image she hoped to transmit to today’s readers. My study draws on both approaches to analyse for the first time the full range of Catherine’s correspondences and to argue for their status as a literary masterpiece of eighteenth-century epistolary writing.

– Kelsey Rubin-Detlev, University of Southern California

Kelsey Rubin-Detlev is the author of The Epistolary art of Catherine the Great, the first book to analyse Catherine the Great as an outstanding Enlightenment letter-writer, and the August volume of the Oxford University Studes in the Enlightenment series, published in collaboration with the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford.

This post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press.

Catherine II et Friedrich Melchior Grimm : les clés d’une correspondance cryptique

Catherine II, par Fiodor Rokotov, 1763.

Catherine II, par Fiodor Rokotov, 1763.

On comprendrait difficilement l’intense relation d’échanges et de transferts culturels qui s’est établie entre l’Europe occidentale et la Russie dans le dernier tiers du XVIIIe siècle sans étudier la correspondance, entre 1764 et 1796, de Catherine II, Impératrice de Toutes les Russies, et de son principal agent d’influence, Friedrich Melchior Grimm, natif de Ratisbonne établi à Paris qui fut longtemps le directeur de la Correspondance littéraire destinée aux têtes couronnées du continent. Cette correspondance ne comporte pas moins de « 430 lettres », ce chiffre étant cependant « donné à titre approximatif parce que les limites entre les lettres ne sont pas toujours très nettes », les épistoliers pouvant inclure dans une énorme « pancarte » plusieurs lettres écrites à des dates successives. Elle n’était jusqu’alors connue que par les éditions données par Iakov Karlovitch Grot dans le Recueil de la Société impériale russe d’histoire en 1878 (lettres de Catherine II à Grimm, t. 23) et 1885 (lettres de Grimm à Catherine II, t. 44). Quelque utiles qu’aient pu être ces éditions à des générations de chercheurs, force est de reconnaître qu’elles ont fait leur temps. Outre le fait que la séparation des correspondance active et passive en deux volumes rendait difficile de suivre le fil de l’échange, Grot ignorait plusieurs manuscrits, commit certaines erreurs et retrancha des lettres certains passages qu’il jugeait malséants.

Aussi attendait-on avec impatience l’édition de cette correspondance par Sergueï Karp, directeur de recherche à l’Institut d’histoire universelle de l’Académie des sciences de Russie, qui travaille depuis longtemps sur Voltaire, Diderot, Grimm et leurs relations avec la Russie. Il a fait paraître en juillet 2016 le premier volume d’une édition qui devrait en comporter au moins cinq autres[1]. Il couvre les années 1763-1778 qui virent Grimm passer du statut de simple commissionnaire à celui de principal agent de l’Impératrice. Faute de disposer de ce volume au format papier, on pourra le consulter au format électronique sur le site de l’éditeur moscovite.

Force est d’évoquer la qualité, la richesse et l’importance de l’échange épistolaire. Plus qu’un agent de premier plan, Catherine II a trouvé en Grimm un ami et un confident avec lequel elle pouvait plaisanter en toute liberté. Ne lui a-t-elle pas écrit : « avec vous je jase mais n’écris jamais […] je prefere de m’amusér et de laisser aller ma main », ou, mieux encore, « je n’ai jamais écrit à personne comme vous»? Si cette correspondance est en ce sens familière ou « privée », elle est aussi « artistique » et « politique » pour reprendre le titre de l’édition. Catherine II n’était pas une simple collectionneuse mais une collectionneuse de collections; c’est à Grimm qu’elle confia le soin d’acquérir les bibliothèques de Diderot, de Galiani et de Voltaire, les loges du Vatican, pour ne donner que ces quelques exemples de cette frénésie d’acquisitions, de sorte qu’il n’est pas exagéré d’écrire que la Russie est redevable à l’Impératrice de la richesse de certaines de ses plus grandes institutions culturelles, comme la Bibliothèque nationale de Russie et le Musée de l’Ermitage.

Friedrich Melchior Grimm, gravure de Lecerf, dessin de Carmontelle, 1769.

Friedrich Melchior Grimm, gravure de Lecerf, dessin de Carmontelle, 1769.

On soulignera tout particulièrement la qualité des notes éditoriales de S. Karp. Elles sont requises pour éclairer la lecture de ces lettres qui, « dans la plupart des cas[,] sont strictement personnelles et volontairement obscures : c’est ainsi que Catherine a voulu les protéger contre la curiosité des tierces personnes ». S’adressant en 1801 à l’empereur Alexandre Ier, petit-fils de Catherine II, peu après son avènement, Grimm ne constatait-il pas « qu’il s’était établi entre l’immortelle et son pauvre correspondant, une espèce de dictionnaire qui a besoin d’une clef pour ne pas rester énigmatique »? Telle est cette clé que S. Karp offre au lecteur en faisant la lumière sur ce qui était destiné à rester obscur.

On s’attachera à l’« Introduction » pour au moins deux raisons : la première, due à l’éditeur général, consiste dans une étude précise de l’évolution du rôle joué par Grimm qui a su se rendre indispensable à l’Impératrice ; la seconde, œuvre de G. Dulac et de C. Scharf, étudie avec finesse les particularités de son maniement du français et de l’allemand. Surprenant est, en ce qui concerne la première de ces langues, le paradoxe d’une souveraine qui recourt tout à la fois à des néologismes éloquents et à des tournures archaïsantes, que l’Impératrice a parfois héritées de son institutrice huguenote, Mme Cardel, parfois du théâtre de la Foire et parfois aussi de la plume de Voltaire, qu’elle considérait comme son « maître » dans le domaine des belles-lettres. On sait en revanche qu’elle ne possédait que des rudiments d’anglais et qu’elle maîtrisait mal le russe.

S. Karp décrit admirablement l’arrière-plan de cette Correspondance. Suite au coup d’État par lequel son mari Pierre III fut renversé en 1762, Catherine II éprouva le besoin de justifier idéologiquement son règne tant au plan intérieur que sur la scène internationale, en sollicitant la plume des philosophes français qui façonnaient l’opinion publique. Grimm fut incontestablement le principal intermédiaire entre l’Impératrice et la scène philosophique occidentale. Mais contre l’opinion qui consiste à croire que les philosophes furent naïvement manipulés par une souveraine machiavélique, S. Karp considère fort justement, d’une part, que Catherine II a bien été la fille des Lumières, mettant en œuvre de nombreuses réformes qui ont permis une modernisation sans précédent de la Russie, et que, si instrumentalisation il y a eu, elle fut réciproque, les philosophes jouissant de l’actif soutien de cette puissante cour et ayant « utilisé l’exemple russe comme argument rhétorique pour critiquer les pratiques de la monarchie française » dont ils dénonçaient le despotisme.

Frappant est le contraste de la Correspondance de Catherine II avec Voltaire, d’une part, et Grimm, d’autre part. Alors que la première est soigneusement relue et revue, empreinte de formalisme, la seconde est spontanée, souvent écrite à la diable et emplie de facéties. S. Karp montre clairement que leur liberté de ton « abolissait fictivement la distance sociale » qui les séparait. Il fait également justice de l’interprétation, notamment accréditée par Grot, consistant à dénoncer les « flatteries » obséquieuses dont les lettres de Grimm seraient farcies. Il remarque fort justement que « l’humour respectueux » des lettres de Grimm ne s’apparente pas à de la flatterie et que les « formes outrées de la politesse restaient traditionnelles au XVIIIe siècle, comme une composante obligatoire du dialogue entre un souveraine et un simple mortel » (à preuve, les lettres de Diderot ou de Voltaire). Catherine II ne se laissait pas prendre à ces éloges obligés, elle qui se moquait d’elle-même et de ses obligations de souveraine. Ce qui prime dans les lettres de Grimm, c’est leur humour : « ses plaisanteries et ses sarcasmes contribuaient largement à créer cette atmosphère de complicité et de gaieté dans laquelle purent se développer leurs relations ».

Tout spécialiste du siècle des Lumières en général, et de Voltaire en particulier, devra désormais se référer à l’édition des lettres de l’Impératrice et de Grimm qu’on ne nommera désormais plus que « l’édition Karp » et dont on attend avec impatience l’achèvement tant elle contribue à renouveler notre compréhension du dernier tiers du XVIIIe siècle.

– Christophe Paillard

[1] Catherine II de Russie. Friedrich Melchior Grimm. Une correspondance privée, artistique et politique au siècle des Lumières. Tome I. 1764-1778, édition critique par Sergueï Karp, avec la collaboration de Georges Dulac, Christoph Frank, Sergueï Iskioul, Gérard Kahn, Ulla Kölving, Nadezda Plavinskaia, Vladislav Rjéoutski et Claus Scharf, Centre international d’étude du XVIIIe siècle, Ferney-Voltaire, et Monuments de la pensée historique, Moscou, 2016, lxxxiv p., 341 p. et 3 p. non paginées, 26 illustrations.

Perfect correspondences

Enlightenment Correspondences, a two-day colloquium, took place last June at Ertegun House in Oxford. The organisers want to share a brief summary of the findings of a dream group of epistolary scholars as a thank you.

A group of participants at Ertegun House.

A group of participants at Ertegun House, June 2015.

Day One focused on the material aspects of epistolarity and infrastructure. If you wanted to know how much it cost to receive a letter; how many postal stations were on the map of France (or England); how the intra-urban post functioned (and why messengers were called ‘poulets’); how celebrities like Voltaire became so overwhelmed by a deluge of post they had to take out adverts in newspapers advising fans and readers please not to enter into correspondence – there was much to learn and enjoy in the papers and discussion.

Historian Laurence Brockliss brought real panache to a contrarian argument in focusing on a number of French provincial figures who demurred at the expense, labour and relative obscurity of letter-writing, in some instances preferring the essay and prize competition as ways of building a reputation.

The cost and procedures of writing, folding, sealing and posting letters earned a delightfully anecdotal but clear procedural exposition in Jay Caplan’s paper that dovetailed nicely with Nicholas Cronk’s fascinating analysis of how Voltaire’s many thousands of letters (over 16,000) eventually became collected into a corpus posthumously shaped into one of the great correspondences of the age. The hand of the writer could be seen from time to time in certain stunts such as the cycle of letters Voltaire originally rewrote as an epistolary fiction (Paméla – revealingly edited by Jonathan Mallinson [1]) that were later mistakenly edited as real letters.


A letter from the Grand Duchess Ekaterina Alekseevna (the future Catherine II) to Sir Charles Hanbury-Williams (1756).

That creation of a corpus was the subject of a first presentation on Catherine the Great, hugely famous and yet as a letter-writer unknown because her correspondence has yet to be fully constructed. The launch of the Digital Correspondence of Catherine the Great Pilot Project, a British Academy/Leverhulme funded pilot created at Oxford, showed how vital a part Digital Humanities can play in expanding the empire of letters – and in this case that would mean making fully available and searchable about 5,000 letters written by Catherine. The subject of how much value recipients and Catherine herself attributed to her letters as tokens of esteem and marks of favour formed the topic of Kelsey Rubin-Detlev’s paper which illuminated the connections between letter-writing and gift-giving.

We enjoyed a spectacular treat thanks to the kind offices of Chris Fletcher and Mike Webb, who arranged a visit to one of the state of the art seminar rooms in the Weston Library. It was a real feast for the eye, and gratifying to see actual autograph letters of some of the writers discussed.

Questions about the utility of the private/public dichotomy and continuum provided one thread linking many papers, including the detailed examination by Andrew Jainchill of a small set of letters which Voltaire and the minister d’Argenson exchanged on the subject of politics, protection and war – issues of state policy on which d’Argenson’s seemingly subversive views required the forum of private letters in order to skirt the dangers of publicity. ‘Protection’ opened up a rewarding discussion on the differences from patronage and letter-writing as a sketchbook of radical ideas. This looked ahead to the riveting discussion by Lauren Clay on the eleven chambres de commerce which, during the revolutionary period, lobbied politicians and the Estates General very hard on behalf of business by concerted campaigns of letter-writing, designed to show that their commercial interests did not pit them against the ideals of the Revolution.

This stream of pragmatic correspondence seemed a world apart from the high-minded philosophical letters published in Berlin by Moses Mendelssohn and Thomas Abbt. As Avi Lifschitz showed, these letters, with a certain nod to Socratic dialogue, refashioned in letter form investigations into sometimes highly metaphysical questions of religion and ethics. Isabel Matthews-Schlinzig’s touchingly illustrated exploration of the Herder family focused not on the great philosopher himself but rather on preserved copies of letters by one of his sons – epistolary ‘home movies’ as it were, that taught us a great deal about the practice of Bildung and the construction of childhood.

Madame de Sévigné was seemingly born to be a great letter-writer, and Wilda Anderson’s fascinating paper explored the discourse of race in her writings (ramifying out into examples from Racine’s tragedy) as an expression of an aristocratic ethos that carries a nearly biological imperative to write well.

Clare Brant offered a marvelous reconsideration of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s account of her visit to the Turkish baths, a favourite text in feminist, Orientalist and post-colonial readings. Clare’s reading stripped away that layer of varnish in order to refocus on the visual clues and references contained in the text, and she showed how signals that might have looked clear to Montagu’s readers seem to have got lost in a fog of lit. crit. preoccupied with voyeurism and theories of the gaze.

With a similar attentiveness to actual words and personal affinities, Pamela Clemit took us into the world of the Godwin-Shelley circle, decoding salutations, signatures, the order of letters in a sequence and, above all, the emotional expectations recipients had of letter-writers. A century or so earlier, the readers of classic and minor Restoration and eighteenth-century fictions, starting with Aphra Behn and Haywood and going on to Richardson and Fielding, would have found many letters in the stories of novels. Eve Bannet’s delightful and careful teasing out of the texture and viewpoints of narrative voices showed us how the cleverest of novelists possibly set up careless readers who might be gulled into taking the writers of these embedded letters at their own words.

Correspondences scholars at the Weston Library, June 2015.

Correspondences scholars at the Weston Library, June 2015.

Sociability is a key Enlightenment virtue, and on this occasion rarely felt more natural as academic events go. Scholars of literature and history shared a common approach and there was a welcome ease of exchange. Historians did close reading and literature scholars historicised and contextualised. Both methods are now second nature in both disciplines. Letter-writing seems to be a cross-section of every possible Enlightenment activity, and to crystallise the whole complex of factors that make its European manifestation so dynamic. Whether lobbying, emoting, protecting, publicising, celebrating, philosophising, retiring, ironising, commanding, educating or entertaining – nobody could really do without pen and paper in a great age of letter-writing.

– Andrew Kahn

See also: The Letter: Purloined and Printed, Anonymous and Edited.

[1] Œuvres complètes de Voltaire (Oxford, Voltaire Foundation), vol.45c (2010).

The Letter: Purloined and Printed, Anonymous and Edited

Oxford, United Kingdom

3 February 2014

À mes très chères lectrices et très chers lecteurs,

What are the ethics of writing, answering, and editing letters? Without aiming to rival Lacan, much less Poe, I too will start my story with a purloined letter, or rather with some purportedly purloined letters.

LaBeaumelle_croppedIn late 1752 Voltaire began a many-year quarrel with Laurent Angliviel de La Beaumelle (the ongoing VF edition of whose correspondence has just received the prestigious Prix Edouard Bonnefous). Seeking to discredit the man who had dared to reprint the Siècle de Louis XIV supplemented with extremely critical footnotes, Voltaire’s best weapon was to accuse La Beaumelle of stealing the letters of Mme de Maintenon, which La Beaumelle had published the very same year and which constitute a key source for anyone writing a history of the Sun King. Voltaire used his own letters to spread the rumour, gradually working out the story of how the letters passed from Mme de Maintenon to her nephew-in-law, the maréchal de Noailles, then to his secretary, who lent them to one of the king’s squires, who passed them on to Louis Racine (son of the famous dramatist), from whose mantelpiece, Voltaire claimed, La Beaumelle stole them. Even as he condemned what he viewed as La Beaumelle’s shady practices in acquiring, publishing, and interpreting the letters, Voltaire nonetheless did not hesitate to seek out future volumes as a source.

Already a master in the art of the polemical printed letter from his Lettres philosophiques (1734) to his printing of the letters of the Calas family (as a means of defending them before the public, 1762, as discussed in volume 56B of the Complete Works of Voltaire), Voltaire returned to the charge against La Beaumelle in 1767 with a published Lettre de Monsieur de Voltaire. Signing this polemical piece in epistolary form but addressing it to no one in particular, Voltaire opened with the belligerent declaration that he had passed on to the police the 95th letter he had received from an anonymous correspondent, since ‘every writer of anonymous letters is a coward and a rogue’. Voltaire thus staked out another tenuous position on the ever-slippery slope of eighteenth-century epistolary conduct: while his (fictional) correspondent broke the rules by sending an anonymous (i.e. unsigned) denunciatory missive, Voltaire not only denounced the correspondent to the authorities, but also rendered his own reply even more anonymous, in the sense that thousands of anonymous members of the public were to read it.

Cowards and rogues were not the only authors of unsigned letters, though: on 2 March 1791, Rosalie de Constant, a Swiss naturalist and illustrator, wrote an anonymous letter of admiration to the renowned author Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre. When he too employed the media of print (posting a reply to his unknown correspondent in the Journal de Lausanne) and of epistolary guesswork (writing a reply to the wrong woman, mistaking her for the author of the initial missive), Rosalie de Constant wrote again, begging him to burn both her letters. Luckily, he did not: they struck up an ephemeral but artful correspondence, focused on their shared love of nature and on the ethical questions of whether a young lady can write a letter to a published author and whether he may reveal her secret in printed or manuscript letters (to read more, have a look at the born-digital edition of Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s correspondence on Electronic Enlightenment).

Kennedy_letterNowadays, we have more than just manuscript and print media for publicizing and exploring epistolary commerce, but we face related questions: even if we generally agree that letters from the past should be made available to present and future readers, how can we best edit, present, read, analyse, and write about them? With a recent resurgence of interest in correspondences, not just as historical but also as literary objects of study, many excellent print and digital editions of eighteenth-century letters have been appearing.

Even in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, these editions have generated new letters: when the VF’s founder Theodore Besterman sent President Kennedy the first edition of Voltaire’s correspondence (the definitive edition of which has just been made available in a new reprint), he received a personal epistolary reply, in which the president declared it was an ‘extraordinary scholarly achievement’ and ‘an outstanding example of good book making’.

Looking to the future, UCL’s Centre for Editing Lives and Letters explores standards and possibilities for using new technologies to study early-modern letters, while, here in Oxford, the TORCH Enlightenment Correspondences Network will be holding its first meeting on 24 February to discuss, alongside plans for a year-long series of conversations about Enlightenment letters, a current print edition of William Godwin’s letters and a pilot project for a digital correspondence of Catherine the Great of Russia. Do drop us a line and join the conversation!

J’ai l’honneur d’être, avec la plus haute estime,

votre très humble servante,

Kelsey Rubin-Detlev