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Imperial letters don’t burn

Thursday, 15 August, 2019

“Burn my letters so that they will not be printed in my lifetime” – Catherine the Great wrote these words to one of her most trusted correspondents, Friedrich Melchior Grimm, in 1787. Note the caveat – Catherine did not really want her letters to be destroyed. What she sought was control over who read her letters, when, and how. My book, The Epistolary Art of Catherine the Great, explores how Catherine skilfully designed every aspect of her correspondence to shape her image and to regulate how it reached different readers.

Portrait of Catherine II by Ericksen

Portrait of Catherine II in front of a Mirror, Vigilius Ericksen, 1762-64. (The Hermitage Museum)

A German princess who married the heir to the Russian imperial throne, Catherine overthrew her husband in 1762 and subsequently ruled the empire successfully for thirty-four years. A prolific writer and author of some two dozen plays, a history of Russia, a series of remarkable memoirs, and much more, Catherine also produced several thousand letters by which she sought to win over supporters, manage her empire, and leave behind for posterity a legacy as a great ruler and appealing individual.

We’re very familiar today with the perils associated with email security for public figures – suffice it to think of the scandals surrounding Hillary Clinton’s emails and those of her staff in 2016. Catherine had similar concerns: receiving letters from the empress of Russia was so exciting that some readers could not resist leaking them to the press. Very few of the empress’s correspondents could get away with such indiscretions without a scolding – even Voltaire was allowed to publicise his elaborate exchange with the empress only within well-defined limits. Even more than that, the responses to Catherine’s letters could be truly outlandish: one was even the occasion for a séance at the Prussian court in 1791.

Yet Catherine’s choices regarding the publicity of her letters can also look quite bewilderingly different from twenty-first-century norms. Some of Catherine’s letters were indeed private, such as her love notes to her possible secret husband and most loyal deputy, Grigory Potemkin. But often they were not: writing to the salon hostess Marie-Thérèse Geoffrin, for instance, Catherine was actually addressing the select group of elite intellectuals, socialites, and political figures who gathered in Geoffrin’s home. The hostess might allow her guests to read the latest letter, or she would read it aloud; nonetheless, she and her guests knew better than to make copies or to publish what they heard. Rather, these privileged readers and listeners were meant to think positively about the empress when they read her witty, friendly letters, and they were to influence public and government opinion on her behalf. At the same time, Catherine firmly believed that, if she could win over elite readers in her own day, the best readers of future generations would agree with their enlightened views.

The Epistolary art of Catherine the Great

The Epistolary art of Catherine the Great is the August 2019 volume of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series.

More sneakily, Catherine decided to make use of widespread government surveillance of correspondences for her own benefit. As Jay Caplan has explored in Postal Culture in Europe, the rapid expansion of the postal service in early-modern Europe coincided with the development of sophisticated “Black Chambers” or cabinets noirs to spy on letters in transit. Naturally enough, ordinary citizens were of less interest to governments than those close to power, and so Catherine could rely on the governments of the territories her letters passed through to give in to temptation. So, when she wrote to a celebrity like Voltaire about Russian military successes, she was actually writing past the philosophe to inform the nosy French government that Russia had the resources and the military strength to be a major power in Europe.

Digital approaches to Catherine’s correspondence can help us to better visualise Catherine’s efforts to make herself present across Europe through her letters. That said, only close reading of rhetorical strategies can uncover how Catherine formulated in her letters the image she hoped to transmit to today’s readers. My study draws on both approaches to analyse for the first time the full range of Catherine’s correspondences and to argue for their status as a literary masterpiece of eighteenth-century epistolary writing.

– Kelsey Rubin-Detlev, University of Southern California

Kelsey Rubin-Detlev is the author of The Epistolary art of Catherine the Great, the first book to analyse Catherine the Great as an outstanding Enlightenment letter-writer, and the August volume of the Oxford University Studes in the Enlightenment series, published in collaboration with the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford.

This post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press.

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