Room 25. “Enlightened Absolutism” of Catherine the Great

The room is devoted to the rule of Empress Catherine the Great (1729–1796), one of the most outstanding figures in Russian history. A former German princess, well-educated and ambitious, she made the ideas of the European Enlightenment philosophers her political program. This was why the time of the reign of Catherine the Great was called the epoch of “enlightened absolutism”. The essence of this concept is disclosed in the exhibits of the two central cases — 1 and 9. There are items demonstrating the characteristic feature and main contradiction of the epoch — the coexistence of serfdom, or virtual slavery, with the humane ideas of the Enlightenment.

case 1
Case 1 recreates the interior of a study of a rich magnate. Above an exquisite wooden writing desk is a portrait of Catherine the Great who contributed to popularizing the Enlightenment ideas in Russia. The interior is also decorated by a sculptural portrait of Voltaire, one of the ideologists of the European Enlightenment, who exerted a considerable influence on the personality of Catherine the Great.

The Empress’s socio-political work, the direction of her reformist activity along the line of promoting the Russian ideas of the Enlightenment, the range of her personal interests not only created a special atmosphere at the imperial court, but also exerted a favourable influence on the entire Russian society, having provoked, among other things, a great interest in patronizing art and collecting works of art. Catherine the Great herself was an ardent collector of them, thus having laid the foundation for the rich collection of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. Case 1 shows various objects of collections. In the centre there is the picture by the artist A. Zyablov, “I. Shuvalov’s Study”. It shows a rich collection of European fine art which Count Shuvalov gathered and presented to the Academy of Art in 1758. This picture is a copy of the lost canvas by F. Rokotov made in 1757, with the only picture of the interior in Russian fine art of the 18th century.

This case also contains the Kholmogory Chronicle, one of the few books from the famous collection of Count A. Musin-Pushkin, which was lost in the fire of Moscow in 1812. Beside it is a fragment of the collection of carved stones and intaglios which the empress liked so much.

The portrait of Catherine the Great kept there is a copy of the gala portrait which was done by F. Rokotov on the occasion of her coronation in 1763. One of the most outstanding artists of the time, Rokotov painted gala portraits of a new type, striving to portray a real personality with his or her individual features. Numerous copies of his work testify to its success and popularity.

Catherine the Great came to power as a result of a palace coup, having overthrown her husband, the legitimate Emperor Peter III. Despite this, her reign was one of the most successful in the history of Russia.

cases 2, 3
Cases 2 and 3 are devoted to Catherine’s accession to the throne. There are prints depicting scenes of the coup on June 28, 1762, and the coronation three months later. Among the portraits of the participants in the coup, mention should be made of the portrait of Princess E. Dashkova in the uniform of the cuirassier regiment of the Guards commanded by her husband. The portrait of the Orlov brothers depicts one of them, Grigory, against the background of Moscow in the grip of plague (1771) where he was sent to fight the epidemic, while Alksey is shown against the background of Cesme battle which he won and became famous. A. Orlov was handed a lavishly decorated document giving him the title of count for his participation in the coup. A gold snuff -box, one of the thirty ordered by the empress in 1774 to award the main participants in the coup, is a great rarity. Only two of them have been preserved to this day.

case 4
The 18th century was a time of the great popularity of the genre of allegory. Case 4 presents a vivid sample of it — a table decoration for the dessert set of Catherine the Great which was presented to her by King Friedrich II of Prussia. The multifigure sculptural composition embodies the triumph of the empress’s domestic and foreign policy. The allegoric sculptural composition “Annexation of Tauria to Russia” was commissioned by Catherine the Great in connection with the Crimea becoming part of Russia in 1783 (case 9).

case 5
One of the ideals of the empress was a strong state and society ruled by reasonable laws. This aim was served by the transformations described by the exhibits in case 5. The central place there is taken by the materials telling about the most significant event of the first years of the reign of Catherine the Great, namely, the convocation in 1767 of a Commission for preparing and compiling a new Code of laws; the Commission consisted of deputies elected from various sections of the population. Among the exhibits is the first full edition of the “Nakaz” (Mandate) to the deputies written by the empress in 1767, which determined the main directions of the policy of “enlightened absolutism”, as well as the deputy’s badge with the inscribed motto “Benefit for One and All” (bronze imprint of the 19th century). There is also the original of the speech made by the deputy, Prince M. Shcherbatov in defence of the rights of the noblemen to possess serf peasants, which reminds of the heated debates around the rights of different sections at the sessions of the Commission.

case 6
The items of case 6 tell about Catherine’s reforms: administrative- territorial and social-class ones in 1770–1780. An important document issued during the reign of Catherine the Great was on “Offices for governing the gubernias of the Russian Empire”, which was endorsed in 1775 and revised in 1780. It laid the foundation for the gubernia reform, as a result of which the administrative-territorial division of the country was put to order, a new system of the local power bodies was created, the courts were reformed, and the bodies of the socio-class self-government of the nobility and urban dwellers were set up, which existed, though with slight modifications, until 1917. Among the rare exhibits are the seals of local government bodies, which came into being as a result of the gubernia reform.

This case also contains two important documents: one is the “Deed to Confirm the Rights, Freedoms and Privileges of the Russian Nobility” and the other “Deed on the Rights and Benefits of Cities of the Russian Empire”. Published on April 21, 1785, they legislatively endorsed the personal and class rights of the noblemen and urban dwellers.

In case 6 there are separate items from the almost lost festive silver sets made for gala occasions. After Catherine’s death they were returned to the state treasury and subsequently remelted.

Some territorial-administrative units created in the course of the gubernia reform united two or three gubernias under the rule of the governor general, a person having a special trust of the empress. Above the case are portraits of two such governor generals — Count Y. Sivers, the governor general of the Novgorod, Tver and Pskov gubernias, who was invited by the empress to take part in the work on the reforms of the 1770– 1780s, and M. Krechetnikov, the governor general of the Tver, Tula and Kaluga gubernias.

Cartographic work was carried on in the course of the gubernia reforms, and emblems of all towns and gubernias of Russia were designed and endorsed. The case shows the emblems of the Oryol and Riga administrative units, as well as a hand-drawn map of the Voronezh administrative unit.

There is a small portrait of Prince G. Potyomkin-Tavrichesky who was justly considered Catherine’s co-ruler. He headed the state construction and economic development of the North Black Sea area. Beside the portrait is his richly decorated red morocco briefcase, on both sides of which his numerous titles, ranks and duties were inscribed.

case 7
The deed granted by Catherine the Great to the Moscow Orphanage for rights and privileges (1774), as well as her gloves presented to N. Andreyev and I. Gerasimov, who were the charges of the Orphanage visited by the empress in 1767, merit special attention. Case 7 contains exhibits connected with another educational project — the organization of a network of popular schools in provincial towns. They worked on uniform curricula and accepted representatives of all classes. As a result of the implementation of this project, a system of people’s education was created in Russia for the first time. Beside a portrait of F. Jankovich de Mirievo, a Serbian teacher who took part in the drawing up of the school reform of 1782–1786, there are textbooks and manuals for popular schools. Above a children’s writing-desk is a water-colour with a view of the new building of Moscow University in Mokhovaya Street, the first special university building designed by the architect M. Kazakov and built in 1786–1793.

case 9
The unbearable oppression of the serf peasantry caused the growing disconent of the rural people, which oft en turned into open disobedience and resistance to the authorities. Case 9 contains materials telling about the history of the Pugachev uprising (1773–1775). A copy of his portrait made in the first quarter of the 19th century recreated the real image of the Don Cossack Y. Pugachev; his original portrait was painted in 1774 in Simbirsk on commission of the commander of the tsar’s troops, General Count P. Panin.

Among the samples of the weapons of the rebels there is a cannon “cast by the villains” at one of the Ural factories and found near the Sysertsky plant near the Urals, which was attacked by the rebels without success in the winter of 1774. There are the iron cage and irons in which Pugachev was put and kept in Moscow during the investigation until the day of his execution on January 10, 1775.

The empress lavishly rewarded those who took part in suppressing the uprising. There are a big silver pitcher presented to the merchant M. Britvin for his part in rebuffing the insurgents’ attack on the town of Yadrin, Nizhni-Novgorod gubernia, in the summer of 1774, and a smaller silver pitcher presented to the Siberian governor D. Chicherin and scribe I. Martyshev “for the rebuff to the villain Pugachev, preservation of the entire Irbit suburb by talking people out of joining the rebels, and for resistance to the villain”. The Cossacks, merchants and the national elder who distinguished themselves in suppressing the uprising were given personalized gold medals. The bronze impression of the medal presented to the Colonel of the Orenburg Cossack Regiment V. Mogutov in 1774 can be seen beside the pitchers.

The epoch of Catherine the Great was one of the flourishing of culture. The empress herself contributed a great deal to the progress of intellectual life in Russia, having made the formation of the cultural medium part of government policy. She regarded the development of popular education a major task of her reign. In the 1760s, according to I. Betsky’s plan, approved by the empress, it was opened a number of elite class educational institutions. Among them there were: a closed educational establishment for girls of noble families founded at the Smolny Convent in 1764, orphanages in Moscow and St. Petersburg, a school at the Academy of Art, as well as cadet corps for young boys. In the view of the author of the project, these institutions “would bring up and educate a new breed of people”, in isolation from the pernicious influence of society and under the impact of the humane ideas of the Enlightenment, who would become the foundation of a more perfect society (That was why children began to study at the age of five to seven and ended by 18 to 22). The buildings housing these schools, as well as pupils themselves, can be seen in case 8. Nearby are items connected with the process of study: a dummy used at the Academy of Art, textbooks and the certificate belonging to Prince F. Khovansky which he received on graduation from the Land force cadet school, as well as medals presented to good students.

cases 10, 11
The exhibits of cases 10 and 11 tell about the development of science in Russia in the latter half of the 18th century. On T. Malton’s print is the new building of St. Petersburg’s Academy of Sciences on Vasilyevsky Island. It was headed by Princess E. Dashkova in 1783–1796, the only woman who ever held such a post.

case 10
In the latter quarter of the 18th century the process of the formation of Russian national self-consciousness was stepped up, and it was accompanied with the growing interest in the country’s past. Case 10 has portraits and works by outstanding historians — Prince M. Shcherbatov, I. Boltin, N. Bantysh-Kamensky and A. Schletzer. It was not accidental that “Notes on Russian History” by Catherine the Great is also there. It gives the official concept of the history of Ancient Rus from 862 until 1132, which were in line with the interests of the autocracy. There are four bronze medals as part of the “historical series”, consisting of 235 medals and worked out by the empress herself as a visual aid to the “Notes”. Among the exhibits is the “Dictionary of the Russian Academy”, the first explanatory and standard dictionary of the Russian language compiled by members of the Russian Academy set up on the initiative of Princess E. Dashkova in 1783.

case 11
Case 11 shows materials of broad investigations of the territory, its natural resources and the population of Russia undertaken by the Academy of Sciences in the 1770s– 1780s. At the time major geographical discoveries were made by Russian entrepreneurs and merchants in the north-eastern sector of the Pacific. There are portraits and works of the heads of scientific expeditions I. Lepekhin, N. Ozeretskovsky, and others, medals given to merchants — trail-blazers (imprints of the 19th century). Special mention should be made of a unique letter carved on a walrus task by N. Daurkin, the interpreter of the North-East expedition in 1785–1793, in which he reported to his bosses of his journey and the just discovered Alaska Peninsula. There are also two rare silver snuffboxes with pictures of Siberian and American people, maps of Siberia and the newly discovered Aleutian Islands.

Above the case, beside the portrait of the merchant G. Shelekhov, the founder of the first Russian settlements in Alaska, there is a unique hand drawn map of the coast of North-east Asia and North-west America, compiled at the Admiralty on the basis of the maps submitted by Russian merchants. While hunting sea animals, they discovered the Aleutian Islands and Alaska Peninsula. Numerous corrections and additions glued in reflect changes in the ideas about these lands.

case 12
The exhibits of case 12 describe ideological quests in society. There are well-known satirical journals “Vsyakaya Vsaychina” (“Miscellany”) (1769–1770) published with the participation of Catherine the Great, and “Zhivopisets” (“Painter”) (1772) printed by the well-known book publisher, man of letters and freemason N. Novikov. He was later sentenced to a long prison term in the Schlisselburg Fortress.

Special mention should be made of the book “Voyage from St. Petersburg to Moscow” by A. Radishchev in which he condemned the autocracy, serfdom and the vices they caused (the rarest copy of the first edition of the book which was burnt by Radishchev is kept in this case). Radishchev was sentenced to death, but the sentence was commuted and he was exiled to Ilimsk in Siberia.

In the 18th century freemasonry became widespread in Western Europe, America and Russia. The intellectual elite of the society was drawn to the ideas of self-improvement through education and charity which were preached by the freemasons. Case 12 contains unique materials connected with freemasonry: the seat of the Grandmaster of St. John’s lodge, signs of the freemason lodges of “Osiris and “Neptune” (1770s) and objects of freemason ritual (hammer, compasses).

cases 13, 14, 15
Cases 13, 14 and 15 are devoted to Russian literature, theatre and music. Case 13 shows works by outstanding writers of the time whose works were the upper crust of Russian literature of the 18th — first half of the 19th century. The Russian socio-political comedy “The Minor” by D. Fonvizin and G. Derzhavin’s “Ode to Wise Kyrgyzkaisatskaya Tsarevna Felitza” were good examples of the traditional form with a new content, and they brought their authors recognition and fame. The founder of sentimentalism, a new trend in Russian literature at the end of the 18th century, was N. Karamzin. His works laid the foundation of the modern Russian literary language.

Case 14 contains samples of dramatic literary works which became popular in the latter half of the 18th century. These were tragedies, comedies, dramas of everyday life of common people and comic operas. There are portraits of some famous professional actors — P. Plavilshchikov, A. Karatygina-Perlova, and also the outstanding composer and director of the court choir D. Bortnyansky, whose works are performed to this day with invariable success. The “New Russian Collection of Songs” containing numerous folk songs was quite popular at the time. There is also the title page of the musical edition of six Russian songs arranged for two violins by the composer I. Khandoshkin, the founder of the Russian violin school. An artistically decorated harp and harpsichord show that teaching music was a must for the children of noble families (case 15).

The last half of the 18th century was a time of the flourishing of serf theatre. Above case 15 there are portraits of the owner of one of the most renowned troupes of serf actors, Count N. Sheremetev and two of his actresses, the opera singer P. Kovalyova-Zhemchugova, who became Countess Sheremeteva after marriage, and her friend, the ballerina T. Shlykova-Granatova. Serf actors, artists and architects were part of the democratic intelligentsia, which began to emerge at the time.

Current exhibitions

Exhibitions in 2017

1 Jan. — 31 Dec., 2017