May 01, 2013

Catherine's Manifesto of Silence

Catherine's Manifesto of Silence
Portrait of Catherine the Great in 1763, by Fyodor Rokotov.

There was probably a lot of head scratching and puzzlement in St. Petersburg on June 4, 1763. On that day, to the beating of drums, a manifesto was read out in all the city’s major squares and public places: the Manifesto of Silence, also known as the «Указ о неболтании лишнего», which might be translated as “The Decree on Tongue Wagging” or “The Anti-Prattle Decree.” The manifesto was basically a stern warning by Catherine II to people of “corrupt morals and thoughts,” whom she proclaimed were making judgments on matters “not pertaining to them” and infecting “other weak-minded people” without regard for “the condemnation and dangers to which such indecent ruminations are subject.” In other words, watch what you say or you might find yourself in hotter water than you realize.

The manifesto probably caused quite a few Petersburgers to delve into their memories and ask themselves whether something they said might have brought on this expression of royal wrath. Meanwhile, the true targets of Catherine’s displeasure knew exactly who they were. Among these “corrupt blabbermouths” were some who, just one year before, in June 1762, had helped Catherine ascend to the throne by overthrowing her despised husband, Peter III. Some of them may even have had a hand in Peter’s mysterious death, which supposedly came about inadvertently, in the course of a quarrel with one of his jailers. (“And all of a sudden, there he was, dead!”)

The members of the nobility who had helped “mother empress” attain the throne knew their futures were secure, as Catherine had always been well-disposed toward the aristocracy in general and those most devoted to her in particular. However, some who participated in the conspiracy that toppled Peter were doing better than others. The Orlov brothers, young officers of undistinguished lineage, were not only rewarded with vast estates and the peasants that went with them, but after a few months were elevated to the title of count.

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