A while ago, Cinderella Bloggerfeller quoted approvingly a certain French author, Guy Sorman (Professor at Paris University, Institute of Political Sciences, teaching Economics and Political Philosophy, since 1970; founder, chief editor of L’Esprit libre, a libertarian monthly magazine, from 1995 to 1997):
The official literature and the Franco-Russian speeches which accompany the celebrations remind us of a common destiny which might be symbolically illustrated by the friendship between Diderot and Catherine the Great. Let’s admit that the philosophe’s journey to Saint Petersburg and the empress’ acquisition of his library are in fact emblematic. But this emblem is reminiscent of some of Russia, France and the Franco-Russian relationship’s least glorious hours.
Diderot’s journey is in fact the precursor of a certain fascination French intellectuals have for despots; Diderot at least was aware he had been duped by a sovereign who was more despotic than enlightened. Just as Voltaire was to be duped by Frederick II of Prussia. Two pioneers of the political tourism which in the twentieth century would lead our contemporary philosophes to Stalin in Moscow, Mao in Peking, Khomeini in Tehran and Castro in Havana. Catherine II’s purchase of Diderot’s library at a price far higher than its real value is equally symbolic: certain philosophes are in need of cash and their devotion to power pays. Should we celebrate that? It would be right, at least, to remember it.
Catherine the Great, that shrewd German princess, was sufficiently enlightened to realize that “despotism”, as Dr. Sorman pleases to call it, was the only feasible form of government for the Russia of her time. She did not hide that conviction in her correspondence with Messrs. Voltaire and Diderot.
Dr. Sorman appears to suffer from that form of (amateur) historians’ plague which leads them to believe that comparing the incomparable is a legitimate logical move. Since he is a political scientist and a libertarian, we shall forgive his comparison of Catherine II to Stalin, Mao, Khomeini, and Castro. However, “the least inglorious” times in the Franco-Russian relationship were certainly not those of Enlightenment; we might be going through the deepest trough right now, with Russophobic strains resonating (reportedly) in the French press. Russians tend to view Catherine’s rule as a golden age in a sense, of which her flirtation with the Enlighteners is an illustration. It is also a good Russian tradition to hold an amicable view of France and all things French — an attitude that can retroactively turn even the 1812 French occupation of Moscow into a gallant adventure. It has been soured lately, but only a wee bit, as Russians working for French firms are discovering their employers’ unsurpassed, mean-spirited tight-pocketedness.