Conditions in Poland Victories in the Black Sea Pugatchek the Pretender Peasants' War Reforms Partition of Poland Characteristics of Catherine and of her Reign Her Death



European diplomacy at this period was centered about the perishing state of Poland. That kingdom, once so powerful, was becoming every year more enfeebled.

It was a defective social organization and an arrogant nobility that ruined Poland. There existed only two classes--nobles and serfs. The business and trade of the state were in the hands of Germans and Jews, and there existed no national or middle class in which must reside the life of a modern state. In other words, Poland was patriarchal and mediaeval. She had become unsuited to her environment. Surrounded by powerful absolutisms which had grown out of the ruins of mediaeval forces, she in the eighteenth century was clinging to the traditions of feudalism as if it were still the twelfth century. It was in vain that her sons were patriotic, in vain that they struggled for reforms, in vain that they lay down and died upon battlefields. She alone in Europe had not been borne along on that great wave of centralization long ago, and she had missed an essential experience. She was out of step with the march of civilization, and the advancing forces were going to run over her.

The more enlightened Poles began too late to strive for a firm hereditary monarchy, and to try to curb the power of selfish nobles. Not only was their state falling to pieces within, but it was being crushed from without. Protestant Prussia in the West, Greek Russia in the East, and Catholic Austria on the South, each preparing to absorb all it could get away--not from Poland, but from each other. It was obvious that it was only a question of time when the feeble kingdom wedged in between these powerful and hungry states must succumb; and for Russia, Austria, and Prussia it was simply a question as to the share which should fall to each.

Such was the absorbing problem which employed Catherine's powers from the early years of her reign almost to its close. Europe soon saw that it was a woman of no ordinary ability who was sitting on the throne of Russia. In her foreign policy, and in the vigor infused into the internal administration of her empire, the master-hand became apparent.

As a counter-move to her designs upon Poland, the Turks were induced to harass her by declaring war upon Russia. There was a great surprise in store for Europe as well as for the Ottoman Empire. This dauntless woman was unprepared for such an emergency; but she wrote to one of her generals: "The Romans did not concern themselves with the number of their enemies; they only asked, 'Where are they?'" Her armies swept the Peninsula clear of Tatars and of Turks, and in 1771 a Russian fleet was on the Black Sea, and the terror of Constantinople knew no bounds. If affairs in Europe and disorders in her own empire had not been so pressing, the long-cherished dream of the Grand Princes might have been realized.

A plague in Moscow broke out in 1771 which so excited the superstitions of the people, that it led to an insurrection; immediately following this, a terrible demoralization was created in the South by an illiterate Cossack named Pugatchek, who announced that he was Peter the Third. He claimed that instead of dying as was supposed, he had escaped to the Ukraine, and was now going to St. Petersburg with an army to punish his wife Catherine and to place his son Paul upon the throne. As a pretender he was not dangerous, but as a rallying point for unhappy serfs and for an exasperated and suffering people looking for a leader, he did become a very formidable menace, which finally developed into a Peasants' War. The insurrection was at last quelled, and ended with the execution of the false Peter at Moscow.

In the midst of these distractions at home, while fighting the Ottoman Empire for the shores of the Black Sea, and all Europe over a partition of Poland, the Empress was at the same time introducing reforms in every department of her incoherent and disordered empire. Peter the Great had abolished the Patriarchate. She did more. The monasteries and the ecclesiastical estates, which were exempt from taxes during all the period of Mongol dominion, had never paid tribute to Khans, had in consequence grown to be enormously wealthy. It is said the clergy owned a million serfs. Catherine placed the property of the Church under the administration of a secular commission, and the heads of the monasteries and the clergy were converted from independent sovereigns into mere pensioners of the Crown. Then she assailed the receiving of bribes, and other corrupt practices in the administration of justice. She struggled hard to let in the light of better instruction upon the upper and middle classes. If she could, she would have abolished ignorance and cruelty in the land, not because she was a philanthropist, but because she loved civilization. It was her intellect, not her heart, that made Catherine a reformer. When she severely punished and forever disgraced a lady of high rank for cruelty to her serfs,--forty of whom had been tortured to death,--it was because she had the educated instincts of a European, not an Asiatic, and she had also the intelligence to realize that no state could be made sound which rested upon a foundation of human misery. She established a Russian Academy modeled after the French, its object being to fix the rules for writing and speaking the Russian language and to promote the study of Russian history. In other words, Catherine was a reformer fully in sympathy with the best methods prevailing in Western Europe. She was profoundly interested in the New Philosophy and the intellectual movement in France, was in correspondence with Voltaire and the Encyclopedists, and a student of the theories of Rousseau.

Of course the influence exerted by French genius over Russian civilization at this time did not penetrate far below the upper and highly educated class; but there is no doubt it left a deep impress upon the literature and art of the nation, and also modified Russian characteristics by introducing religious tolerance and habits of courtesy, besides making aspirations after social justice and political liberty entirely respectable. Catherine's "Book of Instructions" to the commission which was created by her to assist in making a new code of laws contained political maxims which would satisfy advanced reformers to-day; although when she saw later that the French Revolution was their logical conclusion, she repudiated them, took Voltaire's bust down from its pedestal, and had it thrown into a rubbish heap. The work she was accomplishing for Russia was second only to that of Peter the Great; and when she is reproached for not having done more and for not having broken the chains forged by Boris upon twenty million people, let it be remembered that she lived in the eighteenth, and not the nineteenth, century; and that at that very time Franklin and Jefferson were framing a constitution which sanctioned the existence of negro slavery in an ideal republic!

A new generation had grown up in Poland, men not nobles nor serfs, but a race of patriots familiar with the stirring literature of their century. They had seen their land broken into fragments and then ground fine by a proud and infatuated nobility. They had seen their pusillanimous kings one after another yielding to the insolent demands for their territory. Polish territory extended eastward into the Ukraine; now that must be cut off and dropped into the lap of Russia. Another arm extended north, separating Eastern Prussia from Western. That too must be cut off and fall to Prussia. Then after shearing these extremities, the Poland which was left must not only accept the spoliation, but co-operate with her despoilers in adopting under their direction a constitution suited to its new humiliation. Her King was making her the laughing-stock of Europe--but before long the name Poland was to become another name for tragedy. Kosciusko had fought in the War of the American Revolution. When he returned, with the badge of the Order of the Cincinnati upon his breast and filled with dreams of the regeneration of his own land by the magic of this new political freedom, he was the chosen leader of the patriots.

The partition of Poland was not all accomplished at one time. It took three repasts to finish the banquet (the partitions of 1792-1793-1794), and then some time more was required to sweep up the fragments and to efface its name from the map of Europe. Kosciusko and his followers made their last vain and desperate stand in 1794, and when he fell covered with wounds at the battle of Kaminski, Poland fell with him. The Poles were to survive only as a more or less unhappy element among nations where they were aliens. Their race affinities were with Russia, for they were a Slavonic people; their religious affinities were with Catholic Austria; but with Protestant Prussia there was not one thing in common, and that was the bitterest servitude of all. The Poles in Russia were to some extent autonomous. They were permitted to continue their local governments under a viceroy appointed by the Tsar; their Slavonic system of communes was not disturbed, nor their language nor customs. Still it was only a privileged servitude after all, and the time was coming when it was to become an unmitigated one. But effaced as a political sovereignty, Poland was to survive as a nationality of genius. Her sons were going to sing their songs in other lands, but Mickiewiz and Sienkiewicz and Chopin are Polish, not Russian.

The alliance of the three sovereigns engaged in this dismemberment was about as friendly as is that of three dogs who have run down a hare and are engaged in picking nice morsels from its bones. If Russia was getting more than her share, the Turks would be incited by Austria or Prussia to attack her in the South; and many times did Catherine's armies desert Poland to march down and defend the Crimea, and her new fort at Sebastopol, and her fleet on the Black Sea. In 1787, accompanied by her grandsons, the Grand Dukes Alexander and Constantine, she made that famous journey down the Dnieper; visited the ancient shrines about Kief; stood in the picturesque old capital of Saraļ, on the spot where Russian Grand Princes had groveled at the feet of the Khans; and then, looked upon Sebastopol, which marked the limit of the new frontier which she had created.

The French Revolution caused a revulsion in her political theories. She indulged in no more abstractions about human rights, and had an antipathy for the new principles which had led to the execution of the King and Queen and to such revolting horrors. She made a holocaust of the literature she had once thought entertaining. Russians suspected of liberal tendencies were watched, and upon the slightest pretext sent to Siberia, and she urged the King of Sweden to head a crusade against this pestilential democracy, which she would help him to sweep out of Europe. It was Catherine, in consultation with the Emperor of Austria, who first talked of dismembering Turkey and creating out of its own territory a group of neutral states lying between Europe and the Ottoman Empire. And Voltaire's dream of a union of the Greek peoples into an Hellenic kingdom she improved upon by a larger plan of her own, by which she was to be the conqueror of the Ottoman Empire, while her grandson Constantine, sitting on a throne at Constantinople, should rule Greeks and Turks alike under a Russian protectorate.

Upon the private life of Catherine there is no need to dwell. This is not the biography of a woman, but the history of the empire she magnificently ruled for thirty-four years. It is enough to say she was not better than her predecessors, the Tsaritsas Elizabeth and Anna. The influence exerted by Menschikof in the reign of Catherine I., and Biron in that of Anna, was to be exerted by Alexis Orlof, Potemkin, and other favorites in this. Her son Paul, who was apparently an object of dislike, was kept in humiliating subordination to the Orlofs and her other princely favorites, to whose councils he was never invited. Righteousness and moral elevation did not exist in her character nor in her reign; but for political insight, breadth of statesmanship, and a powerful grasp upon the enormous problems in her heterogeneous empire, she is entitled to rank with the few sovereigns who are called "Great." A German by birth, a French-woman by intellectual tastes and tendencies--she was above all else a Russian, and bent all the resources of her powerful personality to the enlightenment and advancement of the land of her adoption. Her people were not "knouted into civilization," but invited and drawn into it. Her touch was terribly firm--but elastic. She was arbitrary, but tolerant; and if her reign was a despotism, it was a despotism of that broad type which deals with the sources of things, and does not bear heavily upon individuals. The Empress Catherine died suddenly in 1796, and Paul I. was crowned Emperor of Russia.