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Vasilyeva E.N. The Spirit of Laws and the Debate about Russian Despotism. Studia Litterarum, 2017, vol. 2, no 4, pp. 64–81. (In French) DOI:10.22455/2500-4247-2017-2-4-64-81

Author: Ekaterina N. Vasilyeva
Information about the author:

Ekaterina N. Vasilyeva, PhD in Philology, Lecturer, Philology Department, Saint-Petersburg State University, 11 Universitetskaya Emb., 199034 Saint-Petersburg, Russia.

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Received: August 12, 2017.
Published: December 25, 2017
Issue: 2017 Vol. 2, №4
Department: World Literature
Pages: 64-81

UDK: 82-991.1
BBK: 83.3(2Рос=Рус)51 + 83.3(4Фра)5
Keywords: Montesquieu, Russia, despotism, slavery, polemic, Strube de Piermont, Catherine II, Shcherbatov.


The fate of The Spirit of Laws by Ch.-L. Montesquieu in Russia in the second half of the 18 th century is an example of ambiguous reception that the French enlightener and his ideas received at that time prompting both imitation and polemics. The origin of these controversies is in the unfavorable image of Russia that Montesquieu represented as a country of despotism and slavery. The ideas developed in the treatise incited various Russian authors to nourish their own thinking about the country, especially concerning such problems as liberty and equality. The article attempts to trace the emergence of this debate in political literature, including the works by F.-H. Strube de Piermont, Catherine II, and Prince M.M. Shcherbatov. Since the examined texts are interdependent, it allows me to speak of the literary polemics of a kind. It is argued that each author develops her own writing strategy in accordance with her specific position in society and intention. A comparative analysis shows the following tendencies. (1) The book by Strube de Piermont is a typical literary refutation intended to rehabilitate Russia’s reputation compromised by the author of The Spirit of Laws. (2) Prince Shcherbatov uses Montesquieu’s statements about Russia as a reference point for his own deep and original study of the phenomena and processes that existed in Russia. (3) The ambiguous position of Catherine II as both a private person and a monarch is the most vulnerable of the three and forces her to adapt her ideas to this peculiar role.


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