Universal Translator

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Russia’s and Empress Catherine II’s Reaction to the American Declaration of Independence

This post is a further exploration about how other countries (and their leaders) reacted to the American Declaration of Independence.

Late 18th century English cartoon on Catherine the Great's territorial ambitions in Turkey. (The Granger Collection, New York)

       Nikolai N. Bolkhovitinov, director of the Center for North American Studies of the Institute of World History and academician of the Russian Academy of Sciences, wrote*:   “The news of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, was first reported in a Russian document on August 13. This was a brief notation in a dispatch from the Russian chargĂ© d'affaires at London, Vasilii Grigor'evich Lizakevich, to the first minister of the College of Foreign Affairs, Count Nikita Ivanovich Panin. A detailed account of the content and significance of the declaration was given by the Russian diplomat a week later: ‘In the Declaration of Independence promulgated by the general Congress on July 4,’ wrote Lizakevich, are repeated all the colonies' previous grievances concerning the redress of which they had in vain addressed themselves to the King, to Parliament, and to the British nation. No longer seeing any hope of correcting the abuses which they have suffered, they have found themselves compelled to issue this solemn declaration, which proclaims the United Colonies a free and independent state, thereby severing all their previous ties with Great Britain. In consequence of their independence, the United Colonies have the right and the power to declare war, to conclude peace, to contract alliances, to establish trade, and so forth, pledging themselves to sacrifice their lives, their honor, and all their possessions in order to preserve all the aforementioned privileges.
Although the Russian diplomat in his dispatch to the tsarist court was prudent not to mention high principles and the natural rights of man, it is to his credit that he evaluated the declaration and the courage of its creators very positively. ‘The publication of this document,’ Lizakevich concludes, ‘as well as the proclamation of a formal declaration of war against Great Britain offer evidence of the courage of the leadership there.’
The Russian diplomat clearly emphasized that the document was a declaration of war on Britain. The reports of Russian diplomats from London, in particular the dispatch of Lizakevich, served as an important source of information for the head of the College of Foreign Affairs, Panin, and Catherine II (Catherine the Great) herself on the situation in America and contributed to the formation, within the tsarist government, of an opinion critical of Britain's policy toward her former colonies. It is significant that the empress repeatedly observed that separation of the American colonies from Britain was practically unavoidable and that Panin and his close colleagues found the reasons for the rebellion in North America in the "personal fault" of the British cabinet and believed that the separation of the colonies from their mother country did not conflict with the interests of Russia and might even be advantageous to her.

       The American revolutionary government sent Francis Dana as the official representative to the Court of St. Petersburg.  During his time in Russia, Empress Catherine the Great refused to meet with him or to officially recognize the United States.  However, the Empress did institute The First League of Armed Neutrality.  This union consisted of Russia, France, and Spain against Great Britain.  Members of the League all agreed to protect the right of neutral powers to trade with warring powers, meaning they could continue to trade with the United States without concern for British blockades or attacks.  Americans continued to receive vital supplies from Europe throughout the war, allowing them to defeat Great Britain.  Catherine wasn’t exactly on the side of the Americans; it was more of a case of disliking the British and King George III.  She had already refused British use of the Russian army and navy.  She had thought that King George had allowed the rebellion to occur and that he should be taught a lesson.  The Russian reaction was more about the Empress gaining power over King George than American independence. (see http://www.quora.com/What-was-Russias-reaction-when-America-declared-its-independence)

For a Russian translation of the American Declaration of Independence and further reading: http://chnm.gmu.edu/declaration/russian.html