An English Ambassador on Catherine II and Her Reign (1778)

[excerpted from Readings in Modern European History, James Harvey Robinson and Charles Beard, eds. (Boston:Ginn and Company, 1908), pp. 210-213]

A letter from the English ambassador, Harris, written in 1778, gives his impressions of Catherine II and her court :

PETERSBURG, 16th January, 1778

My dear Sir:

. . . Prepared even as I was for the magnificence and parade of this court, yet it exceeds in everything my ideas : to this is joined the most perfect order and decorum. The empress herself unites, in the most wonderful manner, the talents of putting those she honors with her conversation at their ease, and of keeping up her own dignity. Her character extends throughout her whole administration ; and although she is rigidly obeyed, yet she has introduced a lenity in the mode of government to which, till her reign, this country was a s'ranger. . . . I have not been here long enough to write with any degree of precision on the several characters which compose the court and first society here. Great luxury and little morality seem to run through every rank. Flattery and servility characterize the inferior class, presumption and pride the higher one. A slight though brilliant varnish covers in both the most illiterate and uninformed minds. Their entertainments, their apartments, and the number of their domestics are quite Asiatic ; and what is very odd, though perhaps -,-cry natural, although they imitate the foreigners in everything, and have (I speak of the higher class) neither customs nor character of their own, yet, generally speaking, a stranger is ill received when he comes among them. I, however, am very far from laying myself this imputation at their door, since I have experienced, as well as Mrs. Harris and my sister, every possible civility from them....

The immense extent of the Russian empire and the security of its frontiers doubtless render it a desirable ally and almost an inaccessible enemy. The various articles of commerce the rest of Europe must necessarily fetch from hence, and the very few which this country need receive from them, insures its independence and wealth. Russia, therefore, incontestably stands very high among the European powers, but it may be controverted whether it can come up to the high reputation it enjoys, or to the superiority it assumes. The advantages just mentioned are merely the effects of situation - they existed before this people were civilized, and will remain with them if they ever should return to that state of barbarity from which they have so recently emerged.

To give an empire preëminence abroad, its political system should be uniform, wise, and steady. To make it respectable at home, fixed rules of interior policy should be established, and their administration should be secure and uncorrupted. I must confess, my lord, since my residence here, my researches after such a system and such rules have been fruitless ; and it is in vain that I have attempted to discover on what those highflown encomiums of this government, which everywhere met my ear, were founded.

In an absolute monarchy everything depends on the disposition and character of the sovereign : my principal object, therefore, has been to investigate that of the empress, and, as well from my own observations as from the relations of unprejudiced and well-informed men, it appears to me that she has a masculine force of mind, obstinacy in adhering to a plan and intrepidity in the execution of it - but she wants the more manly virtues of deliberation, forbearance in prosperity, and accuracy of judgment, while she possesses, in a high degree, the weaknesses vulgarly attributed to her sex, -- love of flattery and its inseparable companion, vanity, an inattention to unpleasant but salutary advice, and a propensity to voluptuousness, which leads her to excesses that would debase a female character in any sphere of life.

If we recapitulate the events of the sixteen years which have elapsed since her accession, they will, I believe, on a fair and candid inquiry, appear to be in great measure the effects of such a character. On tracing her operations in Poland we shall find that, after having given a king to that country, on no very laudable motive, she, by sometimes supporting his measures too violently, and at others by not supporting them at all, reduced that republic to a state of despair and anarchy, which, in the first instance, brought on herself the Turkish war, and, in its consequences, forced her into a connection that induced her to make a most unjustifiable treaty, which, besides leaving an indelible blot on her reign, has added force to the only two powers from whom she had anything to apprehend, and left them in future an influence in the Polish affairs equal to her own. What other evils the Turkish war may produce it is difficult to foresee ; the events are still depending, and that peace, which at first appeared as glorious as it was unexpected, has only proved an armed truce, and given time to the sinews of this country to relax and be enervated. . . .

If we turn our reflections to the interior administration of government, I fear the result of them will not be more advantageous. A mistaken lenity, arising either from fear or indolence, has subverted the great purposes of law and justice. The great men oppress their inferiors wantonly,- the inferiors pilfer and steal in security. From a conviction of this remissness, and from the special pretext of the cruelty of their lords, we have seen a rebellion break out in the heart of the empire, which, had it been led by men of judgment or courage, would have shaken it to its foundations. No troops were ready to make head against it - a panic had seized half the country ; and the same spirit of sedition which animated Pugatscheff had infected the rest. He was within a few days' march of Moscow, and the court was near retreating to Riga, when, from want of resolution and conduct, he was defeated and tranquillity restored to the empire. The sparks of discontent, however, are not yet extinguished, and it is much to be apprehended that, in case of any national calamity, they would blow out afresh.