Robert K. Massie: Catherine the Great's Lessons for DespotsRoundup: Talking About History
Mr. Massie's new book is "Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman." His previous books include "Nicholas and Alexandra" and "Peter the Great," for which he won the Pulitzer Prize.
One by one, the despots are falling. Some remain: in Syria, Yemen, Iran, North Korea, Zimbabwe, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and elsewhere. The word "despot" applies to rule by a single person, wielding absolute power, and we use it as a term of condemnation.
But it is useful to remember that its connotation was not always negative. For most of the past millennium, most nations on Earth were governed by rulers who could be described as despots. Some were popular and accepted; others hated; a few overthrown. Some were even called "benevolent."
Perhaps the most remarkable member of this last (and admittedly small) class was Catherine the Great, who became Empress of Russia in 1762 and ruled for more than three decades. Like her contemporary, Thomas Jefferson, she was an avid student of the Enlightenment, the European intellectual movement whose ideas about the social contract and human rights have so strongly shaped our own notions of the legitimate role of government.
Catherine tried—sometimes she succeeded, other times she failed—to bring key elements of this liberalizing influence to her own vast empire. Today, her efforts, and even her failures, remain instructive....
comments powered by Disqus
- Now it’s the University of Louisville’s turn to remove a Confederate statue
- A fortress built by Alexander the Great after he conquered Jerusalem has been discovered
- Yale students protest decision to keep Calhoun’s name
- Six maps that will make you rethink the world
- Middle Tenn. State President Wants to Strip Confederate General’s Name From Building
- The historian and cartographer Bill Rankin has developed a new way to visualize slavery
- Paula S. Fass says young Americans need required national service
- Historians are now trying to show that the gay revolution also took place in the midwest
- The Unconference Movement Grows – And Historians Are Taking the Lead
- New appeal to "Bring Back Military History"