Catherine the Great’s Instruction Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Catherine the Great issued her Instruction, a series of progressive principles for reforming Russian law and governance. The Instruction was one of the most modern, liberal governmental decrees of the eighteenth century, but it remained a merely theoretical decree, and the reforms Catherine intended never appeared in practice.

Summary of Event

On August 10, 1767, Catherine the Great, empress of Russia, published her Nakaz, Nakaz or Instruction. This lengthy document, which took two years to prepare, reflected Catherine’s concern with the unsatisfactory conditions existing in Russia when she came to power in 1762. It also showed her familiarity with many advanced ideas of Western Westernization;Russia political philosophers. Enlightenment;Russia Dealing with almost every area of Russian life, the document was intended to be a general statement of basic philosophical principles that might affect the specific political, social, economic, and cultural life of Russia. [kw]Catherine the Great’s Instruction (Aug. 10, 1767) [kw]Instruction, Catherine the Great’s (Aug. 10, 1767) [kw]Great’s Instruction, Catherine the (Aug. 10, 1767) Instruction (Catherine the Great) Legal reform;Russia [g]Russia;Aug., 1767-May, 1799: Anglo-Mysore Wars[1850] [c]Government and politics;Aug. 10, 1767: Catherine the Great’s Instruction[1860] [c]Social issues and reform;Aug. 10, 1767: Catherine the Great’s Instruction[1860] Catherine the Great Orlov, Grigori Grigoryevich Panin, Count Nikita Ivanovich Beccaria, Cesare Montesquieu Voltaire

The document was submitted in 1767 to a legislative commission created for the purpose of transforming the Instruction into a code of laws for all Russia. Yet her advisers quickly and substantially modified the monarch’s original efforts. According to Catherine herself, more than half of her proposal was eliminated or substantially modified before it reached the legislative commission. This large and cumbersome body included more than six hundred representatives of several classes and occupations such as the nobility, merchants, free peasants, and Cossacks, Cossacks for example. The assembly labored for approximately two years on the project without producing a workable code for the nation. Thus the Instruction was a failure so far as its broad and substantial impact on Russian law and society are concerned.

Catherine’s Instruction sought to respond to the myriad problems facing eighteenth century Russia, which had only recently entered the competitive world of European power politics. Russia’s mineral and agricultural resources had to be efficiently developed, trade expanded, and revenues collected, and its army led by educated and competent officers. Its people had to be trained to serve the needs of the economy and government. Several European countries by this time had established a reasonably modern bureaucratic system staffed by members of the rising bourgeoisie Bourgeoisie and the aristocracy. Yet with most of its population imprisoned in serfdom and the remainder living provincial lives revolving about agriculture, and having little or no education, Russia scarcely had a middle class from which to recruit civil servants. The nobles were expected to serve the state, but their motivation and skills left much to be desired. The civil service Catherine inherited from her predecessors had to be made as efficient and competent as possible. Clearly, a great deal needed attention, and the German-born Catherine hoped to make substantial improvements in her adopted country.

The Instruction was intended to embody a philosophical statement of basic principles of law under which Russia could regularize the service of its nobility and develop a middle class while holding its own politically, economically, and militarily with the more advanced Western countries. Catherine’s Instruction consisted of more than 650 sections dealing with social, political, economic, and cultural matters. It borrowed extensively from the ideas of the French philosopher Montesquieu and the Italian prison reformer Cesare Beccaria.

Before its publication in mid-1767, Catherine had submitted the Nakaz for comment and revision to several trusted advisers, notably Count Nikita Ivanovich Panin and Grigori Grigoryevich Orlov. Her close associates strongly suggested the elimination or severe qualification of many of the more liberal positions taken by the empress, and the final draft was a much revised version of the original. For instance, Catherine had sharply condemned the personal servitude of the peasant Peasantry;Russia to the lord, while supporting the view that the peasant should economically support the lord so that he would be free to carry out his duties to the state; the final version said practically nothing about serfdom, although it did point to landlord greed and excessive exploitation of the peasant as a primary cause of Russia’s backwardness, and it suggested that private ownership of land by the peasant would stimulate production. While noting that Russia was primarily an agricultural country, Catherine’s Instruction also emphasized the need for industrial Industrial Revolution;Russia and commercial growth.

The Instruction noted that Russia’s greatest single need was for a prosperous, industrious middle class. Middle class;Russian Catherine saw this group as the basis of the prosperity and strength of the Western European countries, and she believed that Russia, itself becoming a “European” country, also needed such a class. While encouraging the growth of private industry and offering state subsidies and tariffs to aid its growth, Catherine did not favor the development of large factories. She saw these as ugly, unhealthy prisons that should not be encouraged. The desired increase in productivity could be accomplished through the expansion of cottage industry. Cottage industry Catherine strongly advocated the expansion of foreign commerce. The Instruction pointed out that, given the enormous size of Russia, an increase in population was vitally needed to exploit the country’s natural wealth. Yet her views and intentions on the matter of population growth remained vague. The extension of Russia’s frontiers in succeeding decades added substantial numbers to the empire, as one source of population growth.

Catherine believed that an economically progressive population could not exist within the existing and often capricious arbitrarily autocratic political system of Russia, however, and in the Instruction she laid down general principles for the transformation of Russia into a state which, though autocratic, would be governed by law. Catherine held the view that, because of its great size and vulnerability to attack, Russia must remain an autocracy, but one tempered with the principle of civilized government.

According to Catherine, there must be some division of authority, because of the many tasks of government, but the monarch still reigned supreme. Everyone, without exception, had to be subject to the same laws. Laws had to be applied uniformly to all social classes throughout the empire, and were not to be unevenly interpreted by judges. There must be exact descriptions of the circumstances under which a citizen could be arrested. Partial religious toleration should be introduced to remove some of the disabilities imposed on the non-Orthodox population. Within specific limits, freedom of the press should be introduced, and the general principle would hold that citizens could be punished for deeds alone and not for thoughts or intentions. Special reference was made to the notorious practice of the use of torture in legal cases, and the Nakaz called for its abolition. Catherine also called for substantial reductions in the use of capital punishment.


The Instruction embodied Catherine’s basic desire that the Russians should be citizens, not “subjects,” and, as citizens, subject to the rule of law. It corresponded with her idea of the duty of both sovereign and citizens to act for mutual good under the auspices of objective laws and fundamental principles. Western intellectuals such as Voltaire praised the Russian monarch for her progressive and enlightened views. If this liberal political program had been put into effect, the history of Russia might have evolved differently. Yet operating in the realm of theory did not bring about reform to Russia, and the Instruction remained little more than a theoretical statement. Consequently, Catherine’s widespread reputation as an Enlightened despotism enlightened monarch, or despot, is properly called into question.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Alexander, John T. Catherine the Great: Life and Legend. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. Chapter 4 provides a very solid account of the Instruction and legislative commission, as well as Catherine’s views of reform.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Beik, William. The Modernisation of Russia, 1676-1825. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. An analytical account of Russia’s efforts to implement reforms and become a more modern and Westernized nation. Includes information about Catherine’s Nakaz and her work with the legislative commission.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">DeMadariaga, Isabel. Catherine the Great: A Short History. 2d ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2002. Not a conventional biography but an examination of how Catherine governed her country. Includes information about her involvement with the legislative commission.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dukes, Paul. Catherine the Great and the Russian Nobility: A Study Based on the Materials of the Legislative Commission of 1767. London: Cambridge University Press, 1967. Detailed assessment of the assembly and the problems it faced in attempting to write a new legal code.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The Making of Russian Absolutism, 1613-1801. 2d ed. New York: Longman, 1990. This analysis interprets Catherine in the broader context of Russian autocracy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______, ed. Catherine the Great’s Instruction (Nakaz) to the Legislative Commission, 1767. Vol. 2 in Russia Under Catherine the Great. Newtonville, Mass.: Oriental Research Partners, 1977. Provides the full text and related materials.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thomson, G. Scott. Catherine the Great and the Expansion of Russia. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985. Reprint of a brief informative biography of Catherine that, despite its title, covers both domestic and foreign subjects.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Troyat, Henri. Catherine the Great: A Biography. New York: Meridian, 1994. A comprehensive account, by a prolific French author of several biographies of famous Russians.

Ottoman Wars with Russia

Pugachev’s Revolt

Joseph II’s Reforms

Russo-Swedish Wars

Catherine the Great’s Art Collection Is Installed at the Hermitage

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Eighteenth Century</i>

Catherine the Great; Aleksey Grigoryevich Orlov; Grigori Grigoryevich Orlov; Peter the Great; Peter III. Instruction (Catherine the Great) Legal reform;Russia

Categories: History