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The title page of the Nakaz.

Nakaz, or Instruction, of Catherine the Great (Russian: Наказ комиссии о составлении проекта нового уложения) was a statement of legal principles authored by Catherine II of Russia, and permeated with the ideas of the French Enlightenment. It was compiled as a guide for the All-Russian Legislative Commission convened in 1767 for the purpose of replacing the mid-17th-century Muscovite code of laws with a modern law code. Catherine believed that to strengthen law and institutions was above all else to strengthen the monarchy.[1]

The Instruction proclaimed the equality of all men before the law and disapproved of death penalty and torture, thus anticipating some of the issues raised by the later United States Constitution and the Polish Constitution. Although the ideas of absolutism were emphatically upheld, the stance towards serfdom is more blurry: the chapter about peasants was retouched a number of times, as Catherine's views on the subject evolved.

Catherine worked on the Instruction for two years. In 1766, she showed the manuscript to her closest advisors, Nikita Panin and Grigory Orlov, asking them to make changes as they thought necessary. In its final version, the Instruction consists of 22 chapters and 655 articles, which embrace various spheres of state, criminal, and civil law and procedure. More than 400 articles are copied verbatim from the works of Montesquieu, Beccaria, and other contemporary thinkers.

In 1767, Catherine sent the German edition to Frederick II of Prussia and the French one to Voltaire. She wrote to one of her correspondents that "for the benefit of my Empire I pillaged President Montesquieu, without naming him in the text. I hope that if he had seen me at work, he would have forgiven this literary theft if only for the good of 20 million people which it may bring about. He loved the humanity too much to be offended; his book was my breviary".

The extant manuscript of the Instruction was written by Catherine in French. There is also a Russian translation by herself. On 10 August 1767 the Russian and German editions were printed in Moscow. The Latin and French editions followed in 1770. It should be noted that in 1769 Duc de Choiseul had the Instruction officially prohibited in France as a "libertarian book".

The Instruction generated much discussion among Russian intellectuals and exerted considerable influence on the course of the Russian Enlightenment. It was in this document that the basic tenets of the French Enlightenment were articulated in Russian for the first time. Catherine's work had little practical value however: the Legislative Commission failed to outline the new code of laws and the Instruction never circulated in Russia outside Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Denis Diderot, who visited Russia in 1774, penned an extensive critique of the Nakaz — Observations sur le Nakaz — which opens with a famous contention: "There is no true sovereign except the nation; there can be no true legislator except the people".

Notes

  1. ^ Geoffrey Hosking, Russia: People and Empire(Harvard, 1997) p.98

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