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.” 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. 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. 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.Continue reading “Catherine the Great Takes Notice of the American Revolution”