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Catherine the Great and Denis Diderot

In 1773, writes A. Lentin, the radical philosophe paid a difficult visit to his patroness in St Petersburg.

A. Lentin | Published in History Today

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Voltaire once noted the usefulness of keeping a few crowned heads up one’s sleeve; for her part, Catherine of Russia found profit in having at her disposal an assortment of philosophes.

Within weeks of her accession in 1762, she took steps to win over the luminaries of France with an irresistible combination of flattery and spectacular generosity.

For all their love of reason, the philosophes succumbed quickly to her blandishments, thinking so much the more of the Empress of Russia - so unlike the French authorities - who acknowledged their merit with such handsome marks of esteem.

‘Well, illustrious philosophe’ (wrote Voltaire to Diderot) ‘what do you say of the Empress of Russia? What times we live in! France persecutes the philosophes, and the Scythians show them favour!’

Of all the philosophes, Diderot had more than his share of tribulations in France: arrest, prison, his works denounced by church and state, his manuscripts seized. The Encyclopedié, over which he toiled unstintingly for nearly thirty years, was alternately banned and mutilated by the censors.

Despite efforts by his friends, the Académie Française was adamant in barring him from membership. In addition, his finances were precarious: almost alone among the philosophes, he tried to live by his pen alone, a hand-to-mouth existence.

Few contrasts could be stronger than those between official attitudes in France and Russia. Within a month of her accession, Catherine offered to publish the Encyclopedié at Riga - in full and at her own expense. In 1765 came an act of generosity still more splendid.

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