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  • From Paris to St. Petersburg:Voltaire’s Library in Russia
  • Inna Gorbatov (bio)

For nearly all of her forty-nine years Catherine II, empress of Russia, had known about Voltaire, the most famous writer of her age. Serious about her education in her youth, she had enjoyed works by French writers, but among them, she later said, Voltaire so "amused" her during a long, sad period of her life that he became her favorite author. As she wrote him in 1763, "By chance your works fell into my hands; and since then I have never stopped reading them, have not wished to have anything to do with books which were not written as well and from which the same profit could not be derived."1 So admiring of Voltaire was she that, following his death in 1778, she set about to acquire his personal library.

French writers and French fashion had come into vogue among the Russian nobility a generation earlier, when in 1741 Elizabeth Petrovna, the daughter of Peter the Great and Catherine I who had hoped to marry the French king, Louis XV, or at least a French duke, came to power. On the Russian throne the new tsarina habitually looked to Paris for style and inspiration and maintained her French ways. As a result, Russian aristocracy scrupulously copied French fashion, took on French manners, and adopted French interior designs for their palaces. French theater, under the direction of Serigny, opened its doors in St. Petersburg. French language, literature, and philosophy became integral elements in the education of the Russian upper class.

In January 1762 Peter III succeeded his aunt Elizabeth but ruled only a few months before, on July 9, 1762, the Imperial Guards, helped by court aristocrats, overthrew him and placed his thirty-three-year-old wife, Catherine, on the throne. The new empress of Russia, who admired Voltaire so deeply, had been born in 1729 in the German city of Stettin (Szczecin, Poland, today). The daughter of Prince Christian August of Anhalt-Zerbst, she had been christened Sophie d'Anhalt-Zerbst. In 1744 Russian empress Elizabeth Petrovna, who had no children, invited the [End Page 308] fifteen-year-old Sophie to move to Russia and marry her nephew Peter Fedorovich, heir to the throne. Converting to the Russian Orthodox Church and taking the Russian name of Catherine Alekseevna, she married Peter in 1745 and in 1754 fulfilled her duty of giving birth to a son, Pavel, the future emperor.

After she ascended the throne in 1762 Catherine embarked on reshaping Russia into a European nation politically, administratively, and culturally. In her youth Catherine had shown no particular preference toward France; she seemed to be more interested in political theories than literature. But she studied what fashion dictated during those years, which saw the triumph of Montesquieu and the maturation of Voltaire. Catherine had been tutored in Stettin by a French governess, Mlle Gardel, and in St. Petersburg by "the most French of all Poles," Stanislas Poniatowski, who became her lover and whom she later installed on the throne of Poland. Having received the solid education worthy of a German princess of her time, Catherine was fluent in French, loved the language, and used it in her personal correspondence. She belonged to the cosmopolitan elite, who expressed themselves in French, and, as empress, she made French the language of her court.2

Not surprisingly, during Catherine's reign the French language became an important subject in Russian educational institutions at all levels and was introduced in regular schools. In Moscow and St. Petersburg French and German acquired the same importance as Latin and Greek. The Smolniy Institute, which Catherine created on the model of the Saint-Cyr School of Mme de Maintenon, opened its doors in St. Petersburg and welcomed 480 daughters of the Russian nobility.3

Although French had been excluded from use at the Academy of Sciences, Catherine introduced it along with Latin. Indeed, after 1776, Les actes et les mémoires of the academy were usually written in French. The Academy of Sciences was, in fact, a genuine educational institution and contained a university with three departments. The university studies of young aristocrats...


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