Catherine the Great Takes Notice of the American Revolution

Catherine the Great By Ivan Argunov (Wikimedia Commons)

Catherine II, aka Catherine the Great, was one of the most dynamic and substantive monarchs of the eighteenth century.  A wealth of contradictions characterized her reign.   A reformer who corresponded regularly with the likes of Voltaire and Diderot, she was also a dedicated imperialist who divvyed up Poland in league with her neighbors and waged offensive wars to the south while colonizing as much of Siberia and Central Asia as she could.  She seized power in a de facto coup, watched her rivals conveniently die, and embraced a Russian tradition of banishing unreliable or undesirable subjects, defined as those did not serve her interests, to Siberia.  At the same time, she explicitly located the sovereignty of the nation among its people, sought to expand the number and classes of subjects with a role in administrative decision-making, and sincerely desired be seen as a what might be called a “democratic autocrat.”[1]  So, one might expect Catherine’s Russia to have a mixed view of the American Revolution.  As always, she was sure not to disappoint.

The years prior to Lexington and Concord were exhausting for Russia.  In 1772, it completed the first partition of Poland in cooperation with Prussia and Austria.   In 1774, it finally brought a six-year war with the Ottoman Empire to a successful resolution in the Treaty of Kuchuk-Kainarji, which expanded Russian territory in the south, giving it greater access to the Black Sea.[2]  Throughout the period, Catherine dealt with a number of internal rebellions and uprisings built around phony claimants to her throne.   By far the most dangerous was a Cossack uprising led by Emil Pugachev, who claimed to be Catherine’s deposed husband Peter III.  He was caught at the end of 1774 and executed in 1775.  When Britain’s North American colonies rebelled, it rated notice, but little attention in the Russian capital, St. Petersburg.  Before too long Britain came calling, requesting 20,000 troops to suppress the rebellion.   Catherine declined, but wrote a correspondent that she expected America to become independent in her lifetime.[3]  Then her government turned toward its latest round of internal reform meant to improve the administration of its vast and growing territory.  That might have been the end of it, but European politics intervened.

British strategy in 1775 was blunt: 1) impose order through force, which presumably would restore colonial government, and 2) impose a trade embargo to demonstrate the costs of rebellion and deny rebels external sources of arms.  The latter may have cut America off from ready access to foreign suppliers, but it also made the smuggling business even more profitable.  Britain attempted to stop the practice by routinely stopping ships at sea, inspecting their paperwork and cargo, and essentially seizing anything that it considered war materiel bound for the colonies.  It was an old practice.  Few could argue that Britain did not have legal grounds to impose and enforce an internal trade embargo against its own colonies.  So, Europeans defying the embargo legally moved cargo close to the colonies and then transferred it to swift ships ready to run British naval patrols.  

For countries surrounding the Baltic Sea, war was good for business.  Britain carried on an extensive trade in the region to secure many of the maritime goods it needed to build ships and which it had previously gotten from the colonies.  While a Dutch policy of “free goods, free trade” held its attractions, the value of British trade was superior to most Baltic littoral states.  However, as Britain’s navy grew and its embargo strengthened, the British practice began to grate.   Simultaneously, with the Royal Navy away conducting operations in North America and the Caribbean, the balance of naval power in the Baltic began to shift. Whereas individual Baltic states could not match British naval power, by combining they might be able to achieve superiority in the Baltic over the divided British fleet.[4]

France’s entry into the war, and then Spain’s, transformed what might be considered an internal British matter to an international war.  They also radically affected the calculations of other nations as Britain began expanding the list of things it considered war contraband and applying its “stop and search” rules to ships suspected of trading with its European enemies.  While Russia had little commerce with the Americans, a wider British trade war hit closer to home.  The Baltic was also a source of naval stores for France and Spain.[5]   Britain’s leverage might be waning.   

Yet, the Russian government’s initial concern was about its trade with England and in 1778 Catherine ordered a squadron to be posted at Archangelsk to convoy British merchants coming through the White Sea.[6]  In July 1778, Denmark and Russia unofficially floated the idea of an armed neutrality among the states of the Baltic littoral, but the trial balloon went nowhere for reasons having to do more with political dynamics in the Baltic region than the American Revolution or the Anglo-French War.  By September, Russian diplomats were raising the need for joint action against raiding vessels in the Baltic with the courts of Denmark and Sweden, which took a dimmer view of British policy than the Russians were prepared to embrace.  In December, the Russian Minister for Foreign Affairs, Count Nikita Panin, proposed to Catherine that she announce her intention to close the North Sea against predations by all commerce raiders—British, French, and American alike.  In practice, few commerce raiders that might threaten British merchants were entering the White Sea.  So, the proposal might be viewed as leaning toward Britain, which would not have to convoy its own ships engaged in the trade.  She approved his suggestion, but it was more symbolic than substantive.[7]  Simply, Count Panin did not think it was in Russia’s interests to move toward a confrontation with Britain and its embargo policy.[8]  Britain remained a significant trading partner and its navy was stronger.  Instead, Russia’s response focused on commerce raiders—whether naval vessels or privateers—close to home and not specifically against Britain’s stop, search, and seize policy.  It did not take decisive action.  Yet, the flurry of diplomatic activity in 1778 clearly indicates the American Revolution was beginning to affect Russian interests and intrude into its political calculations.  Catherine’s early moves in 1778 might up-end Britain’s naval strategy if they established a widespread precedent for neutrals to resist the embargo.  

[1]                John T. Alexander, Catherine the Great: Life and Legend, ibooks ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), Chapter 1, 54.

[2]                Brian Davies, The Russo-Turkish War, 1768-1774 (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016).

[3]                Alexander, Catherine the Great, chapter 8, 592.

[4]                John D. Grainger, The British Navy in the Baltic, Kindle ed. (Rochester, NY: Boydell & Brewer, 2014), 128.

[5]                Grainger, 122.

[6]                Dmitrii Katchenovsky, Frederic Thomas Pratt, trans., “Prize Law: particularly with reference to the Duties and Obligations of Belligerents and Neutrals,” in James Brown Scott, ed., The Armed Neutralities of 1780 and 1800 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1918), 123-124.

[7]                Katchenovsky, 124.  

[8]                Katchenovsky, 124.

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