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Catherine shared the common error, and believed that it lay in her power to divest herself of despotism; but she discovered at length her mistake, as will be shown hereafter."
From the above we learn two astounding facts, and which are the more so from not being the relation of a traveller, but the statements of a native who witnessed them for fifty years-namely, that there exists in Russia a despotism so bad as never yet existed elsewhere under the sun; and that this despotism has not been established by an autocrat, or a succession of autocrats, but is the offspring of a slavish spirit in the people themselves, from which, we are told, there is no hope of emancipating them. Gibbon has already said the same, and to the causes assigned by the Admiral of this woeful phenomenon, may be added that of the Russians having been thoroughly intermingled with two inferior races the Tshoud and Tatar, besides the numerous others which compose the population of Russia. Peter the Great, who does not appear to be in favour with any enlightened Russian, aggravated the evil, by destroying the last vestiges of Russian nationality, and by establishing a kind of military Chinese rule. It might exhaust the ingenuity of a Plato to define all the qualities requisite in a sovereign to enable him, if not to substitute a world of good for this world of evil, yet at least to ameliorate it in a degree despaired of by some of the friends of humanity. The Admiral settles the question as usual in an original manner, and not without some plausibility. He thinks that a woman is by her nature better fitted than a man for such a Titan-like task, and these are his reasons.
"It is now generally acknowledged that a representative government is of all human institutions that which comes nearest to perfection. To the advantages of hereditary monarchy it unites those of an elective one. On the other hand it is a well-known fact, that nothing is more hostile to true civilization than a military government, ever prone to lower the civil authority in favour of an armed force. The head of a representative government must not be viewed in the light of a commander-in-chief, but in that of the first magistrate of the state. For this reason the king of Great Britain cannot put himself at the head of his army; whilst in despotic countries, or such as do not understand the true principles of government, the armed force is always in the hands of the sovereign, to the prejudice of the general good. On this account, the government of women is preferable, in such countries, to that of men women being unfit to command troops, and to enter into military details which absorb and narrow the minds of despots, who are usually ignorant of the art of war and merely playing at being soldiers. Besides these advantages the reigns of women have been always more distinguished for impartiality: women have usually shown more right judgment, and those around them less baseness. Even flattery ceases to be ignominious when addressed to a woman, for it then assumes the character of gallantry. Russia knows
from experience that of the four women who ruled subsequently to Peter the Great, two proved good sovereigns, and one was great; whilst of the six emperors who have reigned since that epoch, the Emperor Alexander alone can be instanced as a well-meaning autocrat."
To her accidental advantages of womanhood, Catherine united those of having been born and educated in Germany, from which country she imported sound notions of social organization, unknown to all former sovereigns of Russia. Married to the presumptive heir of the crown (the ill-fated Peter), she devoted a great portion of her time to the study of history, politics, legislation and general literature. Thus prepared, she mounted the throne with sanguine hopes of substituting for the desolating maxims of the Russian government those of humanity and justice. For her starting point, and for the foundation stone of the edifice she proposed to raise, Catherine selected the charter which her predecessors had granted to the nobility, and which was a first step towards something like civilization. Peter III. also born, and partly educated abroad, felt himself as it were humbled by reigning over slaves, and his first act had been to emancipate the nobility. Catherine wished to develope that germ of liberty and granted letters-patent to the nobles, which secured to them their acquired rights, and at the same time gave them the power of chosing magistrates. She also established municipal laws which conferred certain privileges on the citizens; and these were so many preparatory measures which she deemed were calculated to familiarize the nation with elective forms, and gradually to introduce a representative government. With her own hand, she drew up a code of civil and criminal laws, and abolished barbarous punishments-the inquisition, torture and confiscation; and continued to enforce the abolition of capital punishment decreed by the Empress Elizabeth. Catherine also simplified the administration of her empire, and parcelled it out into several grand divisions, the government of which was entrusted to her lieutenants, who, though furnished with extensive powers, were obliged to confine themselves strictly within the limits of her injunctions. Having thus established a kind of confederative system, she is said to have discovered the best means of governing that monstrously extended empire. Finally she introduced perfect toleration in matters of religion, which in her time, America excepted, did not virtually exist in any other country. We have now summed up nearly all that Catherine attempted for the benefit of her subjects, and which it would appear was planting the dragon's teeth-for the Admiral says in his usual quaint and forcible manner—
"Catherine, like another Cadmus, caused men to spring out of the earth, whilst her successors know only how to bury them in it."
The truth is that, intent upon arousing her people from their death-like apathy, she, unlike both her predecessors and successors, looked for men of talent, not amongst foreigners, but amongst her own subjects, and succeeded in finding Russians well fitted for every branch of public service. Amongst the many we need only mention Prince Potemkin, a statesman of the highest merit, the presiding genius of her councils; and the field marshals Romanzoff and Souvaroff, who with other able generals rendered her armies everywhere victorious both on land and sea. Her government is praised for having been economical and just; the expenses of four departments of the ministry having amounted only to a million and a half of roubles, whilst under Alexander, in 1819, one department alone, that of the finances, cost the treasury twentyfive millions of roubles. After her death not a single ukase was found that had not been put in execution, whilst Alexander left at his twenty-four thousand, which had not been carried into effect, and which probably never will be. "This inability," says the Admiral, "of executing the ukases is the sole barrier which a pitying Providence opposes to the arbitrary will of despots, and it diminishes in some degree their fatal effects.”
Though a foreigner, Catherine did more for the cultivation of the Russian language and literature than any of her predecessors, by establishing the Russian Academy of St. Petersburg on the model of the French Academy. The following curious circumstance provoked this measure on the part of Catherine, and gives a Tacitus-like picture of the Russian people.
"During her journey to the Crimea, she distributed to each of her companions for translation different chapters of Belisarius, reserving one for herself, and this gave her an opportunity of perceiving how entirely the Russian language had been neglected, how replete it was with low and common expressions, and how absolutely deficient in words of a refined and exalted kind. Such words as sentiment, admiration, genius, man of honour, virtue, capacity, and nice distinctions of terms such as bravery, courage, valour, gallantry, did not exist at all. The language was equally deficient in terminology of science and the arts; and when the Academy of St. Petersburg was required to publish a Russian version of Buffon's works, after many efforts, the execution of the task was found to be impossible. The Empress therefore established the Academy with a view to polishing and enriching this language, which she thought was susceptible of being improved. But a single reign is not sufficient to ensure satisfactory results in such cases; and the Russian language has therefore undergone but few changes, and the small number of good authors of that period was lost in the mass of ignorance."
A fatal therefore, of this kind, seems to have lurked behind all the efforts of Catherine to raise her people in the scale of moral worth. At length, forgetting that a single reign, as the Admiral
justly remarks, was not sufficient for bringing her reforms to maturity, she gave up the hope of civilizing her people by the arts of peace, and let loose the demon of war, in order, we are told, to accomplish that object by bringing the Russians into immediate contact with civilized nations.
We suspect that the wise Indian would have said, that she had not fire enough to burn up the sins of her people, but only to exhibit a series of illuminations, or rather to make a conflagration of the world, for which purpose a very small spark would suffice. Her method was calculated to produce a result the very reverse of that she desired, as she could not reasonably expect that her subjects should learn to know what is right, so long as she trampled upon the sacred rights of nations. To the aggressive spirit of Russian policy should be traced the entire absence amongst the Russian people of all just notions of right and wrong. Madame de Staël, whose partiality for the Emperor Alexander is well known, said, that they equally admired stealing and giving. With the view of civilizing her people by bringing them in immediate contact with other nations, Catherine determined, as a first step, upon the conquest of Poland, and as the next, upon that of Turkey. That Russia ever entertained such a design upon the latter country, has been denied a thousand times, and even now there exists a treaty founded upon this assumption, for the preservation of Turkey, to which Russia has become a willing party. It is therefore infinitely important to listen to the confession of a Russian minister of state on this very subject. The Admiral says—
"Her object was to develope to the greatest possible extent the moral power of her empire; but at the very outset she met with invincible obstacles. On casting her eyes towards the north, she saw herself placed at the most desolate extremity of Europe, and even of her dominions, almost in the vicinity of the polar circle, in short, in a region
'Dark and wild, beat with perpetual storms
Of whirlwind and dire hail, which on firm land
and far removed from the more fertile provinces, and from all the resources of her empire. Her capital lay close to a sea, or rather lake, which is frozen during one half of the year, in consequence of which all trade is paralyzed. If she turned her attention to the south, she perceived there a thinly scattered population, without arts and civilization, although placed in the centre of great material resources; and there she beheld again another sea, closed not during one half of the year only, but perpetually, another state holding the keys of it. And yet the vital resources possessed by this part of her empire could neither be developed nor put in circulation except by the Black Sea being open. In that case,
Russia would have a free communication by the Mediterranean and the Atlantic with the rest of the world-a communication indispensable to her prosperity. Catherine was therefore desirous of removing those obstacles, by uniting to her empire countries which, blest with a genial sky, contained all the elements necessary to the welfare of their inhabitants, who, nevertheless, owing to barbarism and ignorance, were sunk in wretchedness and anarchy. The advantages of this acquisition, contrasted with the evils of an inhospitable climate, and the situation of a capital often threatened with submersion, flattered the policy of Catherine, and had she succeeded in obtaining it, the Greeks would have been delivered from bondage without that effusion of blood which has been subsequently witnessed. Trade, the arts and science, would have revived in their ancient fallen country. To deliver men from slavery was her favourite idea, and having met with insurmountable obstacles to this design in her own country, she would have rejoiced to restore liberty to the Greeks-a people once free, and capable of becoming so again. She would have introduced genuine civilization into her Turkish dominions, instead of those absurd and ridiculous innovations which only hasten the fall of the Ottoman empire. Her moderation alone delayed the accomplishment of her projects, for no other obstacle could have arrested her, as great Turkish armies constantly fled before a handful of her troops."
We are willing to give Catherine credit for her good intentions, although with such it is said that hell is paved; but was she capable of realizing them? We will further grant that she might have been successful, but what guarantee could she give that her successors would follow the same policy? That this was not in her power is proved beyond a doubt, by her having been unable to secure, even to the Russians, the benefits which she had bestowed upon them. Her successor mounted the throne with the avowed intention of undoing all that she had done, and he kept his promise but too well. Putting aside the question of the right of nations, the notion of which the French philosophers of the eighteenth century had entirely obscured,-and Catherine in this respect was not superior to her age, we say with the Admiral, that no country, and Russia least of all, should attempt to subjugate another, when it is unable to confer upon it thereby any essential benefit. With regard to the assertion that Catherine's moderation alone delayed her conquest of Turkey, we differ from the Admiral, and are of opinion that Turkey lay beyond her grasp, so long as Poland was not definitively partitioned. The following passage, from a work written by a Pole, is calculated to remove any further doubt on this subject.
"Had Poland remained independent and intact, these gigantic schemes (the conquests of Turkey and India) could never have been contemplated by the Czars. Let Russia (the geographical situation of Poland being borne in mind) be imagined as extending from the Icy Sea to the Crimea, without the Polish provinces on the one hand; and on