Robert K. Massie: Catherine the Great's Lessons for Despots

Roundup: 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....

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