Catherine II’s Nakaz and enlightened absolutism in Europe

         Did Catherine II’s Nakaz (Instructions for the Commission to draft the project of a new Code of Law, 1767) represent a real and original attempt of the supreme power of the Russian Empire to introduce certain ideas and values of the European Enlightenment into legislative practice? Can we recognize that the manifestly “philosophical” origins of the Nakaz, which incorporated large borrowings from Montesquieu’s Spirit of Law, Beccaria’s On Crimes and Punishments and some others, assured the empress’s work a place among the most liberal texts of the Russian Enlightenment? Such an approach allowed the Russian historian Vassili Klutchevski to conclude, about l890, “If the Nakaz was unable to introduce an overall new regime here, it nevertheless had disseminated a new civic spirit in the upper strata of society.”

But did the Nakaz not represent, quite to the contrary, an act of pure propaganda, a simple compilation of demagogical declarations with the purpose of beguiling public opinion and masking the despotic nature of power in an empire where servitude prevailed? The profound contrast that leapt from the page by confronting the grand principles enunciated by the imperial instruction with the somber reality of Russian life incited Alexander Pouchkine, in his Notes on Russian History in the Eighteenth Century, written during his exile in Chisinau in 1822,  to style Catherine II “Tartuffe in a skirt and crown” and to accuse the Nakaz of a hypocrisy that aroused nothing but “legitimate indignation.” In the West, where “Catherine’s code” became an object of reflection and interpretation thanks to a wide diffusion of its translations at the end of the eighteenth century, this contrast became even sharper with the renewal of political ideas and practices provoked by the French Revolution.

This second approach dominated research throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and is not neglected today. At the beginning of the twenty-first century the Nakaz is still perceived as an element in the Russian state myth. Unlike the modernizing reforms attempted by Frederick II, Joseph II, and other sovereigns considered “enlightened despots”, enlightened absolutism in Russia is always interpreted by certain writers as mainly the product of the political mythology created by the supreme Russian power for the purpose of developing and reinforcing the autocratic regime (see for example the works of Victor Jivov, the eminent Russian philologist and linguist, or Richard Wortman, the eminent American specialist of Russian history).

Can one assert, however, that this same aspiration was absolutely foreign to Frederick II, Joseph II, or other “enlightened despots” who tried to modernize their countries during the Enlightenment? Can one consider that the dissimilarity between the different national versions of enlightened absolutism in western and eastern Europe was finally revealed to be so considerable that it forbids seeing in them a common phenomenon? The organizers of this colloquium hope to obtain new answers to these questions and to other interrogations that arise as this problem, which remains strong and controversial, is approached through the prism of the Nakaz.

This colloquium will group historians, literary scholars, philosophers, linguists, and specialists in other disciplines to discuss in a pluridisciplinary manner (including comparative) new approaches to the study of ideologies and practices of enlightened absolutism in the different countries of Europe, with particular attention to cultural politics and its role in the ideological evolution of the European elites.

We invite all interested researchers to submit proposals of subjects to be discussed which present original studies on the proposed theme. We privilege the following aspects:

– The philosophers and absolutism: respective strategies;

– The philosopher and the monarch: between admiration and distrust;

– Ideologies and practices of enlightened absolutism in Europe;

– Successful reforms, unsuccessful reforms, aborted reforms;

– Reformist discourse in the Enlightenment;

– Catherine II’s Nakaz: sources, translations, circulation, reception.

We hope that the pandemic situation will allow us to meet in this framework in Lyon in October 2022. The exact dates will soon be set.

The languages of this colloquium are French and English.

Proposals (title of the paper, name of the author, and his/her affiliation, as well as a brief summary) are to be addressed to the organizers:

Nadezda Plavinskaia,

Serguei Karp,

Catherine Volpilhac-Auger

The deadline for proposals is 30 October 2021.

The organizers will communicate their decision before the end of November 2021.