Philosophy, Literature and Catherine the Great

Alexander Roslin 
Swedish 1718–93

A public lecture to accompany the NGV’s current exhibition of paintings and objects from the vast collection of Catherine the Great in the Hermitage sounded daunting. I am not a Fine Arts specialist.  But I have been to St Petersburg many times, and helped friends and tourists work their way through the endless corridors of the classical green-and-white Hermitage.

In any case, the NGV has its own art critics to call on. Better for me to stick to my own forte – introducing the cultural history of Russia, making sure people register how utterly different the cultural development of Russia was from that of the West. Can you imagine Eng. Lit. without Shakespeare, French drama sans Racine or Molière?

No, you say, but what about Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Chekhov?  Ah! But they came later! Second half of the nineteenth century. Before that, virtually no one.

It would have been the same for art in Catherine II’s time – a tiny, random trickle of imported works – if she had not, in the late 1760s, grasped the role art could play in two spheres: its educative and civilising effect on her own barbaric citizens, and the power of the vast collections she purchased to impress the very nations she bought from. The Rubenses and Rembrandts were mute indications of Russia’s untold wealth.

Moreover, Catherine was amazingly intelligent, whether in foreign policy, or her own personal relations (she remained friends with all her cast-off favourites). Social policy was her one blind spot – the serfs not emancipated until 1861. Yet, what a privilege to reveal this extraordinary woman to an audience!

Associate Professor Judith Armstrong spoke of Catherine the Great’s Russia on Sunday 6 September in the first of four lectures being presented as part of the Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great exhibition over September and October.

To find out more and book tickets to the next lecture, visit

The University of Melbourne is the education partner of this exhibition.