The Symbolism of Astraea and the Russian Throne: Politics and Poetry in Eighteenth-Century Russia

Vera Proskurina, Cornell University

One of the main sources of any European Imperial myth was Vergil’s Fourth Eclogue which proclaimed the return of the Golden Age on Earth and connected it with the descent of the Virgin Astraea and birth of her sacred baby boy. The Asrtaea myth (displayed in paintings, decorations of royal processions, in panegyric odes and sculptural ornaments) became a part of the Imperial court ceremony. Astraea had been for generations of European poets a figure of the sacred empire. In Russia the appearance of the Astraean paradigm served as a signature of an adaptation of European Imperial tradition.

In eighteenth-century Russia, with a series of women as rulers and juvenile heirs, metaphors of the Fourth Eclogue became very popular in poetry from Mixail Lomonosov and Aleksandr Sumarokov to Nikolaj Karamzin. The problem of a succession of the throne turned to be a focus of the myth in its Russian version. The Russian authority in the eighteenth century regularly faced a political situation that involved some recurrent gender distribution: a strong woman on throne and a juvenile, incapable to rule, but more legitimate male heir apparent.

Catherine II’s coming to the throne provoked a tremendous rising of Vergil’s metaphors. Thus, for example, Sumarokov immediately linked Catherine with Astraea in his Ode to Her Highness Empress Catherine the Second on the Occasion of Her Accession, on June 28, 1762. The concept of Sumarokov’s ode not only corresponded with Vergil’s Fourth Eclogue (as well as with Christian symbolism), but clearly expressed the position of political circles that Sumarokov entirely shared. It was the program of the so-called “Nikita Panin group” which was supposed to limit Catherine’s mission to a brave “salvation” of her “baby boy,” Pavel Petrovich, a legal heir to the throne after Peter III. Influenced by Panin, the most talented circle of poets leaded by Sumarokov (Mixail Xeraskov, Vasilij Majkov, Ivan Bogdanovič) and their allies politically interpreted the metaphysics of Astraea by developing a program of Catherine’s regency (while Pavel was young) and Panin’s real leadership.

The concept of “the savior of the son,” the future Emperor, played its role during the revolt of 1762 and first years after that. Meanwhile, the concept became inappropriate for the triumphant Empress Catherine II. Catherine adroitly, by political means, turned to advantage and then cautiously put away the “Panin opposition” oriented to raise the role of Pavel, her son. At the same time, directed more by ideological than esthetic purposes, she refused the image of Astraea that Sumarokov’s odes persistently attached to her.

The stress on the contents of Vergil’s Fourth Eclogue in Russian context acquired connotations unpleasant for the Empress. The Virgin Astraea, an allegory of Justice and Prosperity, could not abolish legal rights of the baby boy (Pavel Petrovič) who symbolized the coming of the Golden Age.

Catherine’s imperial policy resulted in perverted relationships between her as a mother and her son. In order to guard and strengthen her status Catherine had to cease to be a mother. Many memoirists and historians have written about very difficult relations between her and Pavel as well as about Pavel’s hatred toward his mother who usurped the throne. Vergil’s “baby boy” must be overlooked forever.

Astraea’s mythology turned out to be irrelevant or even perilous for the Russian Empress. Roman classics must be cleansed, according to her bidding, from any mystic and Messianic connotations. Instead of dangerous foreboding she looked for a cold and rational pragmatism slightly flavored with an ancient aroma. The “scenarios of power” overturned, perverted and refuted the “scenarios of gender”.