The Russia of Catherine the Great: A View From Outside

Pedro L. Talavera-Ibarra, State University of New York, Fredonia

This year marks, as we all know, the 300th anniversary of the foundation of St. Petersburg. It is undeniable that one of the key figures in creating the image of the city—its architectonic, cultural, and historical legacy, is Catherine the Great, second in importance only to the founder of the city, Peter the Great. To the scholar, Catherine the Great is one of the most appealing characters in the history of Russia, an enlightened spirit representative of the Age of Reason in her first years, and a despot, by some accounts, that turned her back to progress in her late years. The Russians themselves have provided us with numerous descriptions of this particular period, but there are also testimonies that have been largely ignored. One of them is the biographical account given by Francisco de Miranda, “a Spaniard from America”—as he was often called in his travel journals.

Francisco de Miranda’s life itself has become a hyperbolically romanticized story. He was born in Caracas, in the Captaincy General of Venezuela, territory of the Vice-Royalty of New Spain, on March 28, 1750, and in the history of Latin America, Miranda is mainly remembered as one of the early promoters of independence from Spain. But there is a lot more to his life than this simple statement. Among the well-established facts in the biography of Miranda that are beyond fiction, we can mention that he is probably the only person who fought in the American war of independence, the French Revolution, and the independence of the Spanish American colonies. Here is a man who had dinner with George Washington and was received in the White House by Thomas Jefferson. He became acquainted with and was disliked by both Napoleon Bonaparte and the Marquis de Lafayette. He shared the same defense lawyer with Marie Antoinette, but, unlike her, he was able to survive prison and Robespierre’s Terror Period. A less known episode in his life is his visit to Imperial Russia in the years 1786 and 1787, where he met the conqueror of the Crimean Peninsula, Grigorij Aleksandrovič Potemkin, and became allegedly, one of Catherine the Great’s lovers. Miranda’s impressions from this trip to Russia will be the focus of my presentation.