Biographies & Memoirs

The Government and the Church

HAVING RECOGNIZED and rewarded those who had helped put her on the throne, Catherine turned next to the two powerful institutions, both pillars of the state, that had given her essential support. Both the army and the church wanted immediate reversal of specificactions by Peter III. With the army, this was easily done. To cement the favor of the officers and men, exhausted by seven years of war and smarting from the humiliation of the dishonorable peace with Prussia, she canceled the new alliance with Frederick II. She also assured the Prussians that she had no intention of fighting them or anyone else. She abruptly halted and withdrew from the barely begun war with Denmark. Russian army commanders in Prussia and central Europe were given a simple order: Come home! Rewarding the church was more complicated. Her first step was a temporary suspension of Peter’s hastily decreed confiscation of church lands and wealth. The church hailed her as a deliverer.

These early steps left unresolved other critical problems pressing on the empire. The Seven Years’ War had bankrupted the treasury; Russian soldiers in Prussia had not been paid for eight months. No credit was available from abroad. There was a calamitous rise in the price of grain. Corruption and extortion had spread through all levels of government. In Catherine’s words: “In the treasury there were seventeen millions of rubles’ worth in unpaid bonds; almost all branches of commerce were monopolized by private individuals; a loan of two millions attempted in Holland by the Empress Elizabeth had met without success; we enjoyed no confidence or credit abroad.”

Those who hoped that the overthrow of Catherine’s husband and his pro-Prussian policies would bring about a reinstatement of the Austrian alliance were disappointed. In the first days of her reign, she had encouraged these partisans by issuing a manifesto referring to “an ignominious peace” with the “age old enemy,” meaning Prussia. When the foreign ambassadors were invited to her first official reception, the Prussian ambassador—Baron Bernhard von Goltz, Peter III’s former confidant—begged to be excused, saying that he “had no suitable costume.” But continued hostility with Prussia was not Catherine’s intention. During her first week on the throne, couriers were riding to European capitals with assurances that the new empress wished to live in peace with all foreign powers. Her letter to the Russian ambassador in Berlin said, “Concerning the peace lately concluded with His Majesty, the King of Prussia, we command you to convey to His Majesty our solemn intention of upholding the same so long as His Majesty gives us no cause to break it.” Her one condition was the immediate, unobstructed return of all Russian soldiers in the war zone. They were to fight neither for nor against Prussia, and neither for nor against Austria; they were simply to return home. Only four days after the reception that Goltz had failed to attend, he was back at court, playing cards with Catherine.

Confronted by this array of problems, Catherine sometimes seemed to shrink before the immensity of the task. The French ambassador heard her say, not with pride, but wistfully, “Mine is such a vast and limitless empire.” She began her reign with no experience in administering an empire or a large bureaucracy, but she was eager to learn and prepared to teach herself. When it was proposed that, following custom during the reigns of Elizabeth and Peter III, the burdensome task of reading all diplomatic dispatches and ministerial reports be spared the sovereign and only extracts provided, Catherine refused. She wished to know every detail of the problems Russia faced and every ingredient in the decisions she needed to make. “Full reports will be brought to me every morning,” she declared.

She was equally forceful in dealing with the Senate. Since the time of Peter the Great, the Senate had administered the laws of the empire, making certain that the decrees handed down by the autocrat were carried out. Having no power to make law, the Senate’s role was to administer the state on the basis of existing laws, no matter how useless or out-of-date. During the coup, Catherine had associated herself closely with this body; it was through the Senate that her first orders were issued to Russian troops abroad, and it was to the care of the Senate that she confided her son, Paul, when she rode off at the head of the Guards to Peterhof. Once she was on the throne, the meetings of the Senate were moved to the Summer Palace to make it easier for her to attend. On her fourth day as empress, she was present at a session of the Senate which began with reports that the treasury was empty and that the price of grain had doubled. Catherine replied that her imperial allowance, amounting to one-thirteenth of the national income, should be used by the government. “Belonging herself to the nation,” she said, she considered that everything she possessed belonged to the nation. In the future, she continued, there would be no distinction between the national and her personal interests. To deal with the grain shortage, she ordered a prohibition on the export of grain; within two months, the price came down. She abolished many of the private monopolies held by great noble families such as the Shuvalovs, who controlled and made a profit on all the salt and tobacco sold in Russia.

At these meetings, she quickly discovered that in the Senate there were heavy layers of ignorance. One morning, when the senators were discussing a distant part of the empire, it became apparent that none of them had any idea where this territory lay. Catherine suggested looking at a map. There was no map. Without hesitation, she summoned a messenger, took five rubles from her purse, and sent him to the Academy of Sciences, which had published an atlas of Russia. When the messenger returned, the territory was identified and the empress made a gift of the atlas to the Senate. Hoping to improve their performance, she wrote, on June 6, 1763, to the senators as a body: “I cannot say that you are lacking in patriotic concern for my welfare and the general welfare, but I am sorry to say that things are not moving towards their appointed end as successfully as one would wish.” The cause of this delay, she said, was the existence of “internal disagreements and enmity, leading to the formation of parties seeking to hurt each other, and to behavior unworthy of sensible, respectable people desirous of doing good.”

Her agent in the Senate was the procurator general, an office established by Peter the Great to be the link between the autocrat and the Senate—“the eye of the sovereign,” he called it—and to provide supervision over the Senate. Specifically, this official’s task was to set and keep track of the Senate’s agenda, report to the monarch, and receive and pass along his or her commands. Catherine’s newly appointed procurator general, A. A. Vyazemsky, received her analysis:

In the Senate, you will find two parties.… Each of these parties will now try to get you on their side. On the one, you will find honest people, if of limited intelligence. On the other, I think more long-range plans are harbored.… The Senate has been established for the carrying out of laws prescribed to it. But it has often issued laws itself, granted ranks, honors, money and lands, in one word … almost everything. Having once exceeded its limits, the Senate now finds it difficult to adapt itself to the new order within which it should confine itself.

More important than this admonitory advice to Vyazemsky regarding the behavior of the Senate was Catherine’s message to the new procurator general, setting out the relationship she expected to have with him personally:

You must know with whom you have to deal.… You will find that I have no other view than the greatest welfare and glory of the fatherland, and I wish for nothing but the happiness of my subjects.… I am very fond of the truth, and you may tell me the truth fearlessly, and argue with me without any danger if it leads to good results in affairs. I hear that you are regarded as an honest man by all.… I hope to show you by experience that people with such qualities do well at court. And I may add that I require no flattery from you, but only honest behavior and firmness in affairs.

Vyazemsky justified Catherine’s expectations and remained the “eye of the sovereign” for twenty-eight years, until his retirement in 1792.

Within a few days of her accession, Catherine summoned Russia’s two most experienced statesmen, Nikita Panin and Alexis Bestuzhev. Each had supported her at a critical time in her life, but the two had never worked together. When Bestuzhev was recalled from exile and restored to his honors and property, he anticipated recovering his place as the empire’s leading minister. He was in his seventies and wearied by humiliation and isolation, and Catherine had no intention of elevating him to the chancellorship.

Nikita Panin became the leading political figure in the new government. Combining a keen intelligence with extensive European experience, Panin, her son’s tutor, and the counselor who had helped steer her through the planning and execution of the coup, immediately became her chief ministerial adviser. In 1762, Panin was forty-four years old, a short, plump, perfectly mannered bachelor. He got up late, worked during the morning, and, after a heavy midday dinner, took naps or played cards. Catherine valued him for his intelligence and truthfulness, but she began her reign with certain reservations about him. She knew that his twelve years as ambassador in Sweden had instilled in him a respect for constitutional monarchy that she believed would be unworkable in Russia. She also knew that Panin had hoped that she would be satisfied to serve as regent for her son, Paul. The idea of a regency, of course, had no appeal for Catherine; she had never said or even hinted that she might be willing to rule only as caretaker for Paul.

Catherine was also aware that Panin disapproved of the increased prominence she had given the Orlov brothers. He feared that the relationship between Catherine and Gregory Orlov would prove as damaging to orderly, efficient government as the influence on Elizabeth of some of her handsome favorites had been. Panin was a realist, however. He recognized that Catherine had been swept to power primarily by the Orlovs’ influence in the Guards, and he understood that her gratitude, along with her continuing personal bond with Gregory, would permit no diminution of the brothers’ role. Adjusting to the situation, Panin altered his approach. Before helping Catherine overthrow Peter, he had spoken to her privately about his hope for a more liberal structure of government in Russia—something on the order of the system he had come to admire during his years in Sweden. With Catherine on the throne and seeking to make the imperial government more efficient and responsive to Russia’s needs, he began an effort to persuade the empress to agree to a restriction of her authority. He needed to tread carefully. He could not openly propose limitations on the autocrat’s absolute power; therefore he suggested the establishment of a permanent executive institution, an imperial council, with precisely defined functions and powers to “assist” the autocrat. In this newly created structure, his council would place organizational limits on the monarch’s authority.

Catherine, having attained supreme power, intended neither to share it nor to allow it to be restricted. Catherine’s tactic, once in power, was to ask Panin to put his ideas in writing. Panin did so quickly, and before the end of July 1762, he had laid before her his plan to establish a permanent imperial council. In his new structure, the autocrat still retained the principal rule of the state, but, for efficiency’s sake, the sovereign would share power with a council of eight imperial councillors. Panin did not explain how or by whom these councillors were to be chosen, although at least four were to be the state secretaries representing the colleges of War, the Navy, Foreign Affairs, and Internal Affairs. (To make his suggestion more palatable to Catherine, Panin included Gregory Orlov on his list of candidates for one of the other places on the council.) All matters outside the legislative responsibility of the Senate were to be taken up by the council “as if by the empress in person.” No decree or regulation coming from the imperial council would be valid without the endorsing signature of the autocrat.

Panin knew that in proposing this council, he was on shaky ground: his plan trespassed on sovereign prerogative. Councillors’ appointments were to be for life; they could not be dismissed by the sovereign, but were to be removable only in cases of misconduct, and then only by a full assembly of the Senate. When Catherine read Panin’s proposal, she understood immediately that it was designed to limit her authority by infringing on her right to choose and dismiss her leading public officials. From the moment of her first reading, Panin’s plan was doomed; she had not waited all these years for the throne to accept limitations.

During her life, Catherine never wavered in her conviction that an absolute monarchy was better suited to the needs of the Russian empire than rule by a small group of permanent officials. She was not alone in opposing the idea of an imperial council. The majority of the nobility opposed it, feeling that a council of this kind would place the imperial government in the hands of a small, permanently entrenched group of bureaucrats rather than leaving it in the hands of the autocrat, the arrangement familiar to them. The opposition of the nobility reinforced Catherine’s position, and, by the beginning of February 1763, it was clear that there would be no council. Catherine was careful not to offend Panin by outright rejection. She made a show of pretended interest in his plan, then put it aside and never mentioned it again.

Catherine’s decision to bury his plan for an imperial council was a setback for Panin, but in August 1763 the empress made it up to him. She appointed Panin senior member of the College of Foreign Affairs. Bestuzhev, defeated and weary, chose to retire. For the next eighteen years—until 1781—Nikita Panin remained Russia’s chief minister for foreign affairs.

While managing the financial crisis, satisfying the army, reorienting Russian foreign policy, and attempting to make government administration more efficient, Catherine also had to deal with the Orthodox Church. She had converted to Orthodoxy, accepted its dogma, and observed its practices, all in striking contrast to her husband, Peter. In the second month of his brief reign, Peter had decreed the secularization of all church property and announced that Russian Orthodoxy must transform itself into a faith akin to the Protestantism of north Germany. Because high church leaders believed that Catherine opposed and would reverse her husband’s decisions, they enthusiastically supported her seizure of power. Once it succeeded, the church hierarchy hastened to claim its reward by demanding permanent return of all church properties. On her accession, Catherine had repaid her political debt to the church by revoking Peter’s decrees. Inwardly, however, she hesitated. Despite her public displays of conventional faith, she regarded the church’s vast wealth as a scandal and refused to accept what she considered the squandering of so large a part of the nation’s wealth. Like Peter the Great, she believed that this wealth should be used for the needs of the state. Also like the great tsar, Catherine wanted the church to assume, under state guidance, an active role in social welfare and education. The problem of the disparity between the poverty and needs of the state, and the vast wealth represented in the land and serfs owned by the church, remained to be resolved.

At the time of Catherine’s accession, the Russian population included ten million serfs, most of them peasants who furnished the overwhelming majority of the agricultural laborers in an overwhelmingly agricultural state. From the beginning of her reign, Catherine wanted to deal with the fundamental problem of serfdom, but the institution was too deeply interwoven into the economic and social fabric of Russian life for her to approach in her first months. Nevertheless, if a permanent, overall solution must be postponed, she could not put off the question of the church’s extensive lands and the one million male serfs who, with their families, worked these lands. She revoked Peter III’s decree secularizing church properties, but this act, temporarily restoring all lands and serfs to the church, was not the solution she favored. Catherine’s goal lay in the opposite direction.

Confronting the problems of the church’s wealth and power, and of the relationship between church and state, Catherine was following in large footsteps. Peter the Great, half a century before, was less concerned with the spiritual salvation of his people than with their material welfare. Disregarding the church’s concern with the next world, he wished it to serve his purpose in this one: namely, the education of a population of honest, reliable citizens of the state. To this end, Peter diminished the power of the Russian Orthodox Church hierarchy by eliminating the supreme religious office of Patriarch, who had wielded near-equal power with the tsar. In the place of this single powerful figure, Peter established the Holy Synod of eleven or twelve members, not necessarily churchmen, to administer the temporal affairs and the finances of the church. In 1722, he appointed a civilian Procurator of the Holy Synod, charged with supervising church administration and exercising jurisdiction over the clergy. In this way, Tsar Peter made the church subordinate to the state, and it was his example Catherine meant to follow. After Peter, however, his daughter Elizabeth had partially reversed this relationship. The empress, flamboyantly hedonistic and also deeply religious, had sought absolution for the excesses of her private life by raining wealth and privileges on the church. During her reign, the church hierarchy regained authority to administer its lands and serfs. When Elizabeth was followed by her nephew, Peter III, the pendulum swung back. On taking the throne, Catherine had reversed it again, immediately revoking her dead husband’s decree, and granting the church renewed possession and administration of its land and serfs. A few months later, she changed course again.

The unfolding of this political and religious drama was marked by indecision, opposition, and, finally, a major confrontation. In July 1762, Catherine ordered the Senate to investigate and tabulate the immense wealth of the Orthodox Church and to recommend a new policy for the government to follow. The Senate’s first response was a compromise proposal: the estates should be returned to the church but the tax on church peasants should be increased. This created a split within the church hierarchy. The majority, led by Archbishop Dimitry of Novgorod, accepted the overall idea of surrendering the burden of administering their agricultural estates and becoming paid servants of the state on the same footing as the army and the bureaucracy. To examine the problem and work out the details, Dimitry proposed setting up a joint religious and secular commission. Catherine agreed, and on August 12, 1762, signed a manifesto confirming her temporary annulment of Peter III’s decree and returning church lands to ecclesiastical administration. At the same time, she established Dimitry’s recommended commission of ecclesiastical and civil representatives (three clerics and five laymen) to examine the matter.

Catherine had to treat the church hierarchy carefully. She had always exercised a rational flexibility in matters of religious dogma and policy. Brought up in an atmosphere of strict Lutheranism, she had as a child expressed enough skepticism about religion to worry her deeply conventional father. As a fourteen-year-old in Russia, she had been required to change her religion to Orthodoxy. In public, she scrupulously observed all forms of this faith, attending church services, observing religious holidays, and making pilgrimages. Throughout her reign, she never underestimated the importance of religion. She knew that the name of the autocrat and the power of the throne were embodied in the daily prayers of the faithful, and that the views of the clergy and the piety of the masses were a power to be reckoned with. She understood that the sovereign, whatever his or her private views of religion, must find a way to make this work. When Voltaire was asked how he, who denied God, could take Holy Communion, he replied that he “breakfasted according to the custom of the country.” Having observed the disastrous effect of her husband’s contemptuous public rejection of the Orthodox Church, Catherine chose to emulate Voltaire.

Her principal advisers disagreed as to how to handle the church. Bestuzhev had favored leaving the church hierarchy in control of church affairs; Panin, closer to the beliefs of the Enlightenment, favored state administration of the church and its property. As it was, the manifesto of August 1762, hinting at the desirability of freeing religion from the burden of worldly cares, carried ominous forebodings for the church’s future. When the commission began its work, concerns about secularization stirred clerical anxiety, but the majority of priests were uncertain what could or should be done. Few were ready to fight.

One towering exception to this submissive attitude was Arseniy Matseyevich, metropolitan of Rostov, who was a fierce opponent of any state interference in church affairs, and especially of the secularization of church properties. Sixty-five years old, a Ukrainian nobleman by birth, a member of the Holy Synod, he presided over the richest of all the church sees (the see owned 16,340 serfs), and he believed firmly that the church had been granted its property not for secular but spiritual purposes. Fearless, passionate, and equipped with a thorough knowledge of theology, he prepared to use his pen and his voice to challenge the empress. He hoped that a scheduled face-to-face meeting with the new autocrat would provide him an opportunity to convince her that he was right and she was wrong.

Early in 1763, Catherine was to make a pilgrimage from Moscow to Rostov to consecrate the bones of Saint Dimitry Rostovsky, known as Saint Dimitry the Miracle Worker, a newly canonized saint who had been Arseniy’s predecessor. The bones were to be placed in a silver shrine in the presence of the empress, after which Arseniy meant to speak to her. But as the time approached, Catherine postponed her visit.

When this delay was announced, Arseniy seized the initiative. On March 6, 1763, he forwarded to the Holy Synod a violent denunciation of the policy of secularization, which, he declared, would destroy both church and state. He reminded the Synod that on her accession, Catherine had promised to protect the Orthodox religion. He railed against the suggestion that the church should be responsible for education in philosophy, theology, mathematics, and astronomy; its only Christian duty, he thundered, was to preach the Word of God. Bishops should not be responsible for establishing schools; this was the duty of the state. If the church were secularized, he said, bishops and priests would no longer be shepherds of their people but “hired servants, accountable for every crust of bread.” He aimed harsh words at his clerical colleagues in the Holy Synod, who, in this crisis, “sat like dumb dogs without barking.”

He rose before the assembled clergy of Rostov and condemned those who challenged the church’s right to its property in land and serfs: these were “enemies of the church … [who] stretch out their hands to snatch what has been consecrated to God. They want to appropriate the wealth formerly given to the church by the children of God and by pious monarchs.”

Arseniy had miscalculated. He had underestimated Catherine’s strength and that of other powerful elements in the Russian state arrayed against him. The high nobility were deeply secular; local landowners wanted more access to church-owned land and labor; government officials, struggling with the state’s financial condition, agreed with Catherine that the wealth and revenues of the church should be used for secular purposes.

When Catherine read Arseniy’s petition to the Synod, she realized that it was aimed directly at her. Describing the metropolitan’s arguments as “perverse and inflammatory distortions,” she insisted that “the liar and humbug” be punished as an example. Commanding the Synod to act, she signed a decree committing Arseniy for trial. On March 17, the offending cleric was arrested and brought under guard from Rostov to a monastery in Moscow for examination. In a series of nocturnal sessions, the members of the Synod interrogated their former colleague. Catherine, who was present, listened as Arseniy brought up questions of her right to the throne and the death of Peter III. “Our present sovereign is not native and not firm in the faith,” the archbishop cried. “She should not have taken the throne which should have gone to Ivan Antonovich [Ivan VI].” The empress, covering her ears, shouted, “Stop his mouth!”

The Synod’s verdict was not in doubt. On April 7, Arseniy was found guilty, sentenced to loss of ecclesiastical rank, dismissed from his see, and banished to a remote monastery on the White Sea. He was denied the use of pen and ink and condemned to do hard labor three days a week, carrying water, chopping wood, and cleaning cells. His ecclesiastical degradation was staged at a public ceremony in the Kremlin. Arseniy, appearing in flowing robes, was ritually disgraced: one by one, his ecclesiastical garments were removed. Even during this procedure, he refused to remain silent, shouting insults at his fellow churchmen and predicting that all would die violently. Four years later, incarcerated in the far north, he was still denouncing Catherine as a heretic and despoiler of the church, and still challenging her right to the throne. The empress then deprived him of all religious status and had him transferred to solitary confinement in a cell in the fortress of Reval on the Baltic. Here, the fiery voice was finally silenced: until his death in 1772, his guards, who spoke no Russian, knew him only by the name Andrew the Liar.

Catherine had established the supremacy of the state over the church. A month after sentence was passed on Arseniy, she appeared before the Synod to give her reasons:

You are the successors to the apostles who were commanded by God to teach mankind to despise riches, and who were themselves poor men. Their kingdom was not of this world. I have frequently heard these words from your lips. How can you presume to own such riches, such vast estates? If you wish to obey the laws of your own order, if you wish to be my most faithful subjects, you will not hesitate to return to the state that which you unjustly possess.

No second Arseniy rose to challenge her.

By imperial manifesto issued on February 26, 1764, all ecclesiastical lands and property became state property, and the church itself became a state institution. All church serfs were upgraded to the status of state peasants; as a result, one million male peasants—more than two million persons, counting wives and children—came under state control, paying taxes to the state. Power and administrative autonomy were stripped from the clergy, high and low, and all priests became salaried employees of the state. Along with loss of administrative autonomy, the church lost its economic base. Hundreds of churches were forced to close. Of 572 previously existing monasteries, only 161 survived. To this sweeping change in Russian religious, social, cultural, and economic life, there was no vocal opposition.

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