Catherine also invited the Encyclopediste Denis Diderot to St Petersburg. Their daily talks became so animated that the Empress was forced to place a table between them to stop the Frenchman from grabbing her knees in his enthusiasm. In 1765 she had bought the impoverished Diderot’s library and made him its salaried librarian for life. Like her correspondence with Voltaire, the purchase was partly driven by private intellectual curiosity and partly by a calculated public display of cultural diplomacy. The acquisition of the library was Catherine’s grand reproach to a French society which had failed to support his genius. ‘Would you ever have suspected fifty years ago that one day the Scythians would so nobly recompense in Paris the virtue, science, and philosophy that are treated so shamefully among us?’ wrote Voltaire.
In 1779 Catherine caused a similar sensation when she bought the art collection amassed by former British Prime Minister Robert Walpole from his spendthrift grandson. Its 204 pieces included works by Rembrandt, Rubens, Van Dyck, Hals and Guido Reni, and was probably the greatest single art purchase of the eighteenth century. It formed the basis of a new public museum attached to the Winter Palace that Catherine called the Hermitage. The English public was indignant, and the export of the Walpole collection became a national scandal. ‘How sad it is to see passing into the hands of Scythians things that are so precious that ten people at most will admire them in Russia,’ wrote the French collector and art dealer Jean-Henri Eberts of an earlier purchase of Catherine’s in September 1769. It was not the last time that Russian money would buy great British institutions, to the titillated disapproval of London’s chattering classes.
‘You forget that we are in different positions – you work with paper which forgives all while I, the poor Empress, must work with human hide,’ Catherine had written to Diderot after his departure from St Petersburg in 1774. That human hide had proved, by the late 1780s, less tractable than she had once imagined.
13 October 2015
Catherine, Diderot, and Walpole in St. Petersburg
From Glorious Misadventures: Nikolai Rezanov and the Dream of a Russian America, by Owen Matthews (Bloomsbury, 2013), Kindle Loc. 900-916: