Episode 28 – Writing on Human Skin – Enlightened Despotism, part I, Russia


The Enlightenment’s emphasis on science, progress, tolerance and rationality attracted not only philosophers — even absolute monarchs dreamt of “Enlightenment Now.” But how do you incorporate the enlightenment’s revelations without undermining the traditions and ideas that legitimate absolute rule in the first place? Fortunately for Europe’s modernizing rulers, some of the continent’s most prominent 18th century philosophers — including Voltaire — stood ready to praise the new winds of “enlightened despotism” that took hold in places like Russia and Prussia.

In this episode, we cover Russia — the ground zero of enlightened despotism — and Tsar Peter the Great, who, according to Voltaire, single-handedly dragged the country across both time and place from the Dark Ages and Asia into the 18th century and Europe.

Among the topics tackled are:

  • How the benefits of modern science, learning and the fresh air of religious tolerance attracted Peter the Great;
  • How Peter believed in “moving fast and breaking tradition” and combined enlightenment reforms with ruthless suppression;
  • How Peter kicked off his modernizing reform with a fashion statement: ordering men to shave their beards and women to dress like Parisians;
  • How Peter’s reforms planted the seed for more liberal Enlightenment reforms;
  • How Catherine the Great introduced the idea and principle of freedom of speech into Russia’s deeply traditional culture;
  • How Catherine modeled her “Great Instruction” on the ideas of Montesquieu and Beccaria and corresponded with thinkers like Voltaire, Diderot, and d’Alembert;
  • How Catherine reversed her course and tightened censorship;
  • How the French Revolution caused Catherine to crack down on radical Russian writers like Alexander Radishchev and Nikolay Novikov; and
  • How Alexander Radishchev relied on “freedom of the press as the great bulwark of liberty” to write the most radical and robust defense of free speech in Russian history.

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