IN THE LATE 1980s, I attended my first annual convention of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies, the national body for thousands of scholars devoted to the study of every aspect of the vast Eurasian landmass from Central Europe to the Russian Far East. As a second-year graduate student, I found the experience in equal parts exciting and overwhelming. I now recall nothing of the numerous panels I attended except for one round-table presentation featuring the eminent elder statesmen of the profession — and they were indeed all men — opining on various questions of Russian history before a large audience.

They took on all the grand topics. The role of Orthodox religion, the importance of geography, the legacy of the Tatar-Mongol Yoke, the nature of Muscovite political culture, the significance of Westernization, the applicability of Marx to a peasant society, the inevitably of the Revolution, the future of the USSR.

At one point the discussion turned to the subject of the Enlightenment. Various ideas were put forward, theories proposed, until one historian declared with great authority that the Enlightenment had had no impact on Russia. As proof, he pointed to the fact that the Russian nobility had not been moved by the ideas of the philosophes to free their serfs. Neither, for that matter, he added, had the Empress Catherine the Great, admirer of Voltaire, emancipated the mass of serfs belonging to the state.

Everyone in the hall nodded in silent agreement. Case closed.

But something just didn’t seem right. True, Russia’s encounter with the Enlightenment hadn’t meant the end of serfdom, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was more complicated than that. It was only as we were all filing out of the hall that it hit me: if the persistence of serfdom proved the absence of the Enlightenment in Russia, then surely the persistence of American slavery must prove the same about the United States. Yet who in their right mind would try to claim that the Enlightenment had not shaped the thinking of our Founding Fathers, many of whom had held slaves?

This view, however, was common among historians at the time, especially with regard to Catherine the Great. Peter Gay dubbed Catherine “wily” in her dealings with the philosophes and a hypocrite who “disguised her ruthless procedures behind humanitarian rhetoric.” Gay was not saying anything new, but simply repeating the great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin’s notorious description of the late empress as “Tartuffe in a skirt and crown” from a century and a half earlier.

It is perhaps not surprising that it was thanks largely to the scholarship of a woman that a more subtle and accurate understanding of Catherine’s relationship to the intellectual currents of the 18th century has emerged in recent decades. In her pioneering Russia in the Age of Catherine the Great, first published in 1981, and a number of influential articles, the late British scholar Isabel de Madariaga was among the first to take seriously Catherine’s sustained and deep engagement with the ideas of the Enlightenment. The empress’s immersion in the writings of Voltaire, Montesquieu, Beccaria, d’Alembert, and others sprang from a true passion for ideas, not some shallow, “female” vanity, as her (chiefly male) detractors so long asserted. Catherine possessed a curious, active, and roving intellect, a fact that even her critics now acknowledge.

It is a sign of the shift in historians’ understanding that Robert Zaretsky feels no need to justify an entire book on the story of Catherine’s relationship with one of the leading philosophes, Denis Diderot, best known as the driving force behind the Encyclopédie. With Catherine & Diderot, Zaretsky has written a scintillating, sophisticated, and nuanced book that not only recounts the remarkable story of the Russian ruler and the French thinker, but also explores the complicated dance between power and ideas in the Age of Reason.

Not content to read the works of the philosophes, Catherine wished to meet the authors as well. She invited d’Alembert, co-editor with Diderot of the early volumes of the Encyclopédie, to come to St. Petersburg and serve as tutor to her son Paul; she also tried to entice Voltaire, whom she had idolized since her teenage years. Neither, however, could be swayed to come. Voltaire, by then old and infirm, begged off, insisting the difficult journey would do him in. Catherine didn’t press the matter. “All Europe would never forgive me,” she admitted.

Diderot, too, was less than excited about making the journey. Zaretsky calls him “the most reluctant of travelers,” and that he was. While his mind roamed freely, his body rarely left Paris and its environs after he arrived in the French capital as a young man. This did not, however, stop Diderot from offering his views with great authority on things he had never seen and knew absolutely nothing about. He could praise the realistic quality of Claude-Joseph Vernet’s seascape paintings, despite the fact that he had never actually seen a sea, an ocean, or any body of water larger than the Seine River as it passed through Paris.

Diderot was famous for his powers of imagination. “He is an upright man,” Madame Geoffrin, the Parisian salon hostess, wrote, “but he is wrongheaded. And he is so wrongly constituted that he neither sees nor hears anything as it really is. He is always like a man in a dream, and who believes everything that he has dreamed.”

The dreamer arrived in St. Petersburg on a snowy afternoon in October 1773 after a miserable trek of not quite two months. He had come for two reasons. First, he felt a true sense of gratitude toward Catherine. Always generous, even toward those persons who had done her wrong — a fact of which Zaretsky quite rightly reminds his readers throughout the book — Catherine had purchased Diderot’s library at an inflated price to help him come up with a dowry for his beloved daughter, Angélique. And if that wasn’t enough, she insisted he keep the library until his death and accept an annual salary from her of one thousand livres.

But it wasn’t just gratitude that had brought him to Petersburg. Diderot, like many other intellectuals of the day, looked to Catherine as the last best hope for enlightened reform and the establishment of a more just society. Diderot came not just to thank the empress, but to teach her.

Catherine both recognized and encouraged this aspect of their unique relationship. As Zaretsky notes:

It was, in part, Catherine’s desire to apply her humane impulses by transforming them into law and institutions that led her to reach out to French philosophes like Diderot. […] Who better, Catherine believed, to discuss the lamentable state of her country’s legal and civil codes than, as she repeatedly called him, this “extraordinary” man?

And so over the course of several months Diderot visited Catherine in the Winter Palace between the hours of 3:00 and 5:00 in the afternoon to instruct his august pupil in all matters philosophical, social, legal, and political.

Catherine was immediately taken with him. “Diderot’s imagination, I find, is inexhaustible, I place him among the most extraordinary men who have ever lived,” she gushed in a letter to Voltaire. Diderot’s hopes for the empress, and her admiration for him, did not last long, however. By the time he departed the capital in March 1774, Diderot had lost hope in Catherine’s commitment to enlightened ideals. His lectures on the primacy of law, on the evils of serfdom, on the sovereignty of the nation seemed to have gone nowhere.

For her part, Catherine couldn’t help but acknowledge Diderot’s basic ignorance of the realities that impinged on every aspect of her rule. His ideas sounded good, but were often wildly impractical or ignorant. He was ready to give advice on how to reform Russia even though he hardly knew the first thing about the place. He tried to convince Catherine of the need to move the capital back to Moscow, for example, since according to the map it was much further south and thus must be in a far more hospitable climate. Catherine, however, knew both cities well, and that Moscow was hardly much warmer. “Diderot,” Zaretsky states, “confused cartography with reality.”

Diderot could dwell in the world of ideas, in the realm of his great imagination, as both Catherine and Madame Geoffrin had noted. Catherine, as the empress, dwelt in a different world, a much more stubborn one filled with courtiers, noble factions, clergymen, generals, and serfs that she could not simply do with as she pleased. “Monsieur Diderot,” she is claimed to have said, “you work on paper, which accepts everything. It is smooth, supple and offers no opposition to either your imagination or pen. But I, a poor empress, work on human skin, which is rather irritable and sensitive.”

Once back in Paris, Diderot repaid Catherine’s kindness by portraying her in one of his books as a modern-day Nero. For her part, Catherine remained generous up until the end. When, in 1784, Diderot became too ill to climb stairs, she arranged a large ground-floor apartment for him in a fashionable section of the city. After a lifetime of hovels, the grand old philosophe spent his last days in what Angélique called “a palace.”

Had Diderot lived to see the Terror of the French Revolution, Zaretsky concludes, he most likely would have shared the revulsion it provoked in Catherine and would have seen more clearly how much he and the empress shared intellectually. “Both were inevitably flawed and fallible,” he writes, “but what is […] perhaps more important is that they both remained fully attached to the party of humanity.” If only the same could be said for many of today’s leaders.

¤

Robert Zaretsky is a former History Editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

¤

Douglas Smith is the author of Former People and Rasputin. His new book, The Russian Job: The Forgotten Story of How the United States Saved Russia from Ruin, will be published this autumn.