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Imperial Expansion and Maturation: Catherine II

Catherine II's reign was notable for imperial expansion and internal consolidation. The empire acquired huge new territories in the south and west. A war that broke out with the Ottoman Empire in 1768 was settled by the Treaty of Kuchuk-Kainarji in 1774. Russia acquired an outlet to the Black Sea, and the Crimean Tatars were made independent of the Ottomans. In 1783 Catherine annexed Crimea, helping to spark the next war with the Ottoman Empire in 1787. By the Treaty of Jassy in 1792, Russia acquired territory south to the Dnestr River. The terms of the treaty fell far short of the goals of Catherine's reputed "Greek project"--the expulsion of the Ottomans from Europe and the renewal of a Byzantine empire under Russian control. The Ottoman Empire, nevertheless, was no longer a serious threat to Russia and was forced to tolerate an increasing Russian influence over the Balkans.

Russia's westward expansion was the result of the partitioning of Poland. As Poland became increasingly weak in the eighteenth century, each of its neighbors--Russia, Prussia, and Austria--tried to place its own candidate on the Polish throne. In 1772 the three agreed on the first partition, by which Russia received parts of Belorussia and Livonia. After the partition, Poland initiated an extensive reform program, which in 1793 led to the second partition. This time Russia obtained most of Belorussia and Ukraine west of the Dnepr River. The partition led to an anti-Russian and anti-Prussian uprising in Poland, which ended with the third partition in 1795. The result was that Poland was wiped off the map.

Although the partitioning of Poland greatly added to Russia's territory and prestige, it also created new difficulties. Russia, having lost Poland as a buffer, had to share borders with both Prussia and Austria. In addition, the empire became more ethnically heterogeneous as it absorbed large numbers of Poles, Ukrainians, Belorussians, and Jews. The fate of the Ukrainians and Belorussians, who were primarily serfs, changed little at first under Russian rule. Roman Catholic Poles, however, resented their loss of independence and proved to be difficult to integrate. Jews, who had been barred from Russia in 1742, were viewed as an alien population, and a decree of January 3, 1792, formally initiated the Pale of Settlement (see Other Major Nationalities , ch. 4). The decree permitted Jews to live only in the western part of the empire, thereby setting the stage for anti-Jewish discrimination in later periods. At the same time, the autonomy of Ukraine east of the Dnepr, the Baltic republics, and various cossack areas was abolished. With her emphasis on a uniformly administered empire, Catherine presaged the policy of Russification practiced by later tsars and by their successors.

Historians have debated Catherine's sincerity as an enlightened monarch, although few have doubted that she believed in government activism aimed at developing the empire's resources and making its administration more rational and effective. Initially, Catherine attempted to rationalize government procedures through law. In 1767 she created the Legislative Commission, drawn from nobles, townsmen, and others, to codify Russia's laws. Although no new law code was formulated, Catherine's Instruction to the Commission introduced some Russians to Western political and legal thinking.

During the 1768-74 war with the Ottoman Empire, Russia experienced a major social upheaval, the Pugachev Uprising. In 1773, a Don Cossack, Emelian Pugachev, announced that he was Peter III. He was joined in the rebellion by other cossacks, various Turkic tribes who felt the impingement of the Russian centralizing state, and industrial workers in the Ural Mountains, as well as by peasants hoping to escape serfdom. Russia's preoccupation with the war enabled Pugachev to take control of a part of the Volga area, but the regular army crushed the rebellion in 1774.

The Pugachev Uprising bolstered Catherine's determination to reorganize Russia's provincial administration. In 1775 she divided Russia, strictly according to population statistics, into provinces and districts and gave each province an expanded administrative, police, and judicial apparatus. Nobles, who were no longer required to serve the central government, were given significant roles in administering provincial governments.

Catherine also attempted to organize society into well-defined social groups, or estates. In 1785 she issued charters to nobles and townsmen. The Charter to the Nobility confirmed the liberation of the nobles from compulsory service and gave them rights that not even the autocracy could infringe upon. The Charter to the Towns proved to be complicated and ultimately less successful than the one issued to the nobles. Failure to issue a similar charter to state peasants, or to ameliorate the conditions of serfdom, made Catherine's social reforms incomplete.

The intellectual Westernization of the elite continued during Catherine's reign. An increase in the number of books and periodicals also brought forth intellectual debates and social criticism. In 1790 Aleksandr Radishchev published his Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow, a fierce attack on serfdom and the autocracy. Catherine, already frightened by the French Revolution, had Radishchev arrested and banished to Siberia. Radishchev was later recognized as "the father of Russian radicalism."

In many respects, Catherine brought the policies of Peter the Great to fruition and set the foundation for the nineteenth-century empire. Russia became a power capable of competing with its European neighbors on military, political, and diplomatic grounds. Russia's elite became culturally more like the elites of central and west European countries. The organization of society and the government system, from Peter the Great's central institutions to Catherine's provincial administration, remained basically unchanged until the emancipation of the serfs in 1861 and, in some respects, until the fall of the monarchy in 1917. Catherine's push to the south, with the founding of the city of Odessa on the Black Sea, provided the basis for Russia's nineteenth-century grain trade.

Despite such accomplishments, the empire built by Peter I and Catherine II was beset with fundamental problems. A small Europeanized elite, alienated from the mass of ordinary Russians, raised questions about the very essence of Russia's history, culture, and identity. Russia's military preeminence was achieved by reliance on coercion and a primitive command economy based on serfdom. Although economic development was almost sufficient for Russia's eighteenth-century needs, it was no match for those of the Western countries that were being transformed by the Industrial Revolution. Catherine's attempt at organizing society into corporate estates was already being challenged by the French Revolution, which emphasized individual citizenship. Russia's territorial expansion and the incorporation of an increasing number of non-Russians into the empire set the stage for the future nationalities problem. Finally, the first questioning of serfdom and autocracy on moral grounds foreshadowed the conflict between the state and the intelligentsia that was to become dominant in the nineteenth century.

Data as of May 1989


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