Византия Екатерины Великой
Catherine II inspired many Russian projects in historical science. She herself was an active, if amateur, historian. The Empress eagerly used history to promote her own political ideas, but she was also an avid reader of history, both Russian and Ancient. But what about Byzantine history? One would think she would have been interested in it as well, since between the late 1770s and the early 1790s Catherine was enraptured by a plan to dismember the Ottoman Empire and recreate Byzantium. This “Greek Project”, broadly regarded to have been the main thrust of Russian foreign policy for fifteen years, had very solid cultural “wrappings” such as architectural phantasies, poetry, drama, paintings, medals, etc. Here I will examine whether this campaign was accompanied by a deeper interest in, and knowledge of the history of the Byzantium that she wanted to revive.
I conclude that the Empress did not bother to learn anything about this great civilization. Byzantine history, apart from Russo-Byzantine relations, did not become a subject of scholarly research during her reign. Catherine herself began reading Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire then popular in Europe, but dropped it at the 8th volume of its French translation, thus going no further than the 5th century when Byzantium proper was just emerging. In her play Oleg’s Early Rule, she demonstrated complete ignorance of Byzantine history, culture, court ceremonies, etc. Finally, numerous and blatant errors in the “Byzantine” parts of her Sketches on Russian History suggest that Catherine had no interest in nor “a big picture” of Byzantine history.
Only once in this extensive book, and even then only in a footnote, do we suddenly come across a very precise, thoughtful, and detailed description of Byzantine realia, namely, of the Varangian guards at the imperial court of Constantinople. This suggests that when Catherine deemed a subject important, she was able to find exhaustive information on any “Byzantine” question. Yet, of all things Byzantine, Catherine showed interest in only one issue, and that was because it concerned the “Norman question”, a highly sensitive topic of the Old Russian history in her time and ever since. Otherwise, the Empress remained completely indifferent to Byzantium.
It can be surmised that Catherine never saw the “Greek Project” as a practical task of recreating a real state with its distinct laws, officials, territorial division and, last but not least, the role of the church.