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


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!’

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