Russia as a European Power in the Age of Enlightenment

Russia as a European Power in the Age of Enlightenment

Elise Wirtschafter, Cal Poly Pomona / Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen; Ingrid Schierle, Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen
Vom - Bis
26.01.2018 -
Johannes Gläser, Institut für Osteuropäische Geschichte und Landeskunde, Universität Tübingen

Russia’s role as a European power during the reigns of Catherine II, Paul and Alexander I raises significant questions about the Empire’s opportunities and challenges in foreign policy. In this context, an international workshop took place at the Institute for Eastern European History and Area Studies at the University of Tübingen, sponsored by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). The workshop’s agenda examined “Russia as a European Power in the Age of Enlightenment”. After welcoming the participants, ELISE WIRTSCHAFTER (Pomona / Tübingen) highlighted the variety of their approaches to Russia’s role in foreign policy during the age of Enlightenment.

In his paper, ALEKSANDR KAMENSKII (Moscow) reconsidered Catherine the Great’s foreign policy by confronting the empress’ achievements and failures. He acknowledged that Russian historians usually praise her military victories and incorporation of right-bank Ukraine, Belorussia, Lithuania and the Crimean Peninsula into the Russian Empire. Most Western historians describe Catherine’s foreign policy as aggressive, yet also hail her ‘great successes’. Kamenskii emphasized Catherine’s ambivalent self-perception. As an idealistic ‘international newcomer’, Catherine paid special attention to the Ottoman Empire and Polish Commonwealth in an effort to win the favour of public opinion through quick and spectacular victories. At the same time, she provoked permanent problems which were intensified by the French Revolution and volatile relations with her allies. For instance, she wasted a lot of money as Russia became involved in everything that happened in Poland. Thus, Kamenskii argued, it remains difficult to say whether or not Catherine perceived herself as successful empress – for two reasons: First, her frequent change in allies made Russia vulnerable to being outmanoeuvred by more experienced rulers. Second, her experience in foreign policy taught Catherine that her initial principles of ‘fair play’ did not work.

JAN KUSBER (Mainz) depicted the French Revolution and the resulting ‘changed coordinates’ in Europe as a major challenge for Catherine’s reign. Kusber based his argument on letters, documents, and directives provided by Catherine’s close advisors. In his paper, he emphasised two opposing perspectives on Catherine’s policy toward the revolution. On the one hand, Kusber argued, she supported the House of Bourbon as a member of the monarchist family because the indebted Bourbon monarchy had provided her with a new source of influence in the affairs of the West. On the other hand, her attention focused on practical politics and Russia’s conflicts with Sweden, the Ottoman Empire and Poland. For Kusber, this is why she was unable to form a stable coalition or send Russian troops to end the ‘anarchic’ situation in France. Kusber concluded that Catherine regarded the French revolution as a chaotic upheaval threatening the stability of the whole continent. Yet she failed to persuade Great Britain, the heir to the French island colonies, to pay a subsidy for the empress’ intervention. In conclusion, Kusber called for future research to analyse and shed light on Catherine’s real intentions – and not those attributed to her – to attain an accurate picture of her policy toward the French Revolution.

Looking at diplomatic relations between Russia and Great Britain, ELENA SMILIANSKAIA (Moscow) concentrated on a British ambassador’s life in Russia. From 1768 to 1771 Sir Charles Cathcart and his family were dispatched to St. Petersburg. Historians characterize Anglo-Russian relations of the time as collegial, stating that both powers expressed interest in each other. Smilianskaia’s history of diplomatic culture examined how these relations influenced ceremonial practices, individual contacts, and the image of Russia and Russianness created by personalities who were warmly greeted by foreign rulers and society. In her study of the official correspondence of Lord Cathcart, the family’s account book, and the journal of Lady Cathcart, Smilianskaia found that although the Cathcart’s participated in imperial ceremonies, they regarded Russian society as backward. In the light of divisions in Russian society, Smilianskaia continued, the Britons were unsure whether or not Catherine’s Empire could be considered a European power. They were impressed by the imperial environment in St. Petersburg, though they also commented on the cultural and economic inequality. Smilianskaia argued that the Cathcart case study could become a model for comparative studies of other hostile or friendly foreign missions in Russia. Then, alongside our analyses of foreign affairs, historians using this additional approach may be able to draw new portraits of those who developed international relations.

A journey of Catherine’s son travelling incognito through Europe was the focus of the paper presented by ANNA ANANIEVA (Tübingen / London). The year-long trip of Pavel Petrovich, which started in 1781, followed established traditions of incognito travel by European rules. The ceremonial requirements of an incognito journey have long been neglected by historians. But, according to Ananieva, this courtly mobility created new opportunities in the realm of diplomacy: First, incognito status enabled physical movement through foreign territories. Second, incognito travel made it possible to interact in different social milieus. Third, the formal conditions of an incognito journey offered a certain amount of political innovation. Extending this theoretical framework, Ananieva then examined how European media reported Pavel Petrovich’s incognito journey across the continent. Since many British newspapers (wrongly) expected an imminent visit in Great Britain, they provided detailed and consistent information about the composition of the incognito’s entourage and his motives. Recent research on European courtly ceremony and early modern diplomatic practices has drawn attention to ceremonial incognito practice. Finally, Ananieva stated that further research in press history remains important to reconstructing international flows of information. This combined perspective on incognito travel, Ananieva concluded, could prove to be useful for future research on courtly mobility, intelligence, diplomacy, and entertainment.

CLAUS SCHARF (Mainz) analysed the diplomacy of Alexander I at Tilsit and Erfurt. Modern historical research in Russia still claims that the ‘heroic’ Patriotic War of 1812 marked a decisive moment in the formation of an historical self-image and national identity in nineteenth-century Russian society. By contrast, Scharf argues that the Russian memory of the Napoleonic era, including the image of Alexander before the narrative turning point after the Battle of Borodino, was not at all heroic. Drawing on popular considerations in public and academic debates, Scharf discussed the question of whether or not Napoleon could have been removed earlier. Scharf pointed out that, after the battle of Austerlitz in 1805, Alexander had tried to form coalitions with Prussia and Austria by emphasising the common interests in Poland. Thus, both Napoleon and Alexander had understood that the pursuit of their respective long-term interests made another war inevitable. The conferences in Erfurt and Tilsit, Scharf explained, illustrated their double-dealings. Napoleon and Alexander merely concentrated on gaining more time to prepare for their final battle. To sum up, Russia continued her militarily unsuccessful fight of 1805-7 by using diplomatic means, the ‘power of the weak opponent’, against the French hegemony established at Tilsit. Therefore, Scharf’s presentation highlighted the ambivalent policy discretion of Alexander’s empire.

In her presentation, ELISE WIRTSCHAFTER (Pomona / Tübingen) reflected on the Congress of Aix-la-Chapelle (1818) and Alexander’s proposals for a treaty of guarantee in Europe. According to Wirtschafter, differences of opinion among the allies at no point threatened the unity of the alliance or their commitment to the work begun in Vienna and Paris. The personal authority and friendship of the sovereigns remained critical to the process of completing and implementing the peace. The proceedings and protocols of Aix-la-Chapelle revealed a flexibility in Russian diplomacy that first and foremost sought to preserve allied unity. Wirtschafter found that the diplomatic documents of this time repeatedly presented the moral principles of family and friendship as the model for political relationships. Still, in nineteenth-century Europe, the principle of moderate Enlightenment turned out to be the path not taken. To sum up, Wirtschafter’s presentation reminded historians of the need to distinguish between rulers’ aspirational statements and the actual decisions that were made. It was particularly important not to give undue weight to the grandiose, abstract, and idealistic pronouncements of Alexander. Of equal, if not greater, significance were the measured, pragmatic, and realistic actions taken by rulers and diplomats.

In her concluding discussion and commentary, INGRID SCHIERLE (Tübingen) pointed to further research questions that the workshop began to outline and propose. First, she highlighted the significance of the war experience during the Napoleonic era. These events, which could be considered a turning point for a European vision of peace, should be further examined. Second, she called for analysis of the Enlightenment policy pursued by Alexander I. Further research should determine whether his speaking and acting coincided. Third, Schierle emphasised the degrees of hierarchy among the European countries by distinguishing ‘great powers’ and ‘secondary powers’. Thus, research projects should focus on these power relations and look into the processes of negotiation which they embodied. Picking up on current scholarly debates, Schierle urged historians to combine perspectives on foreign, interior, and economic policy. Furthermore, future research should analyse how international treaties were implemented in Europe.

Summarising the international workshop, the presentations offered insight into current research about Russia as a European power in the age of Enlightenment. The participants examined a time frame of fifty years from 1768 to 1818. By further developing their promising approaches, astonishing perspectives and connections could enrich future debates.

Conference Overview:

Welcome and Introduction

Elise Wirtschafter (Pomona / Tübingen)

Aleksandr Kamenskii (Moscow): Catherine the Great's Foreign Policy Reconsidered

Jan Kusber (Mainz): Changing Coordinates: The French Revolution as a Challenge for Russia in the Reign of Catharine II

Elena Smilianskaia (Moscow): A British Ambassador in St. Petersburg: Russian life of the Sir Charles Cathcart Family in 1768-1771

Anna Ananieva (Tübingen / London): Intelligence, Diplomacy, Entertainment: The Son of Catherine II Traveling Incognito Through Europe

Claus Scharf (Mainz): The Power of the Weak Opponent: The Diplomacy of Alexander I at Tilsit and Erfurt

Elise Wirtschafter (Pomona / Tübingen): The Congress of Aix-la-Chapelle (1818) and Russia’s Proposals for a Treaty of Guarantee

Concluding Discussion and Commentary

Ingrid Schierle (Tübingen)

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