Jean-Antoine Houdon 
French 1741–1828

Catherine the Great’s intellectual pursuits extended far beyond her collection of art. Exchanging letters over a fifteen year period with French writer, historian and philosopher Voltaire, she was spurred to bring Russia into the modern era through ideas raised by the Enlightenment and its supporters.

During her reign the Russian court was ripe with ideas of European Enlightenment and formed a hub for European writers, philosophers, artists, master craftsmen and architects. While the Empress did not ‘teach’ the Russian intelligentsia about literature or philosophy, she did further the education of young writers by sending them abroad to study.

What is perplexing about Catherine’s relations with the Russian writers of her day – Radishchev and Denis Fonvizin in particular – is that she did not tolerate the kind of free thought practiced by her French protégées, Diderot and Voltaire.

It has been claimed that Diderot’s thought was a corner stone of the French Revolution, and while Catherine would never support such free thought in her own country, she supported Diderot financially.

To illustrate this contradiction even further, in 1790 during the French Revolution Catherine sent Radishchev into Siberian exile for 7 years after he published his travel diary A Journey from St Petersburg to Moscow which documented the problems in Russia that surrounded her reign.

Alexander Pushkin, the 19th century poet, novelist and playwright, was highly critical of Radishchev’s text, claiming that it did not comply with the poetics of narodnost’ – populism. Yet when we look at the content of Rasdishchev’s Journey today we see that Pushkin’s judgment is unfounded. Radishchev’s book is indeed an encyclopaedia of Russian life of the time. Pushkin’s evaluation may have been prompted by the censorship conditions of absolutism which prevailed after Catherine the Great in unmitigated form, demonstrating the impact of Catherine’s rule on not only Russian writers of her own time, but subsequently as well.

Learn more about Russian literature during the time of Catherine the Great from Millicent Vladiv-Glover when she speaks at the NGV on Sunday 4 October as part of a special four-part lecture series for Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great.

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