Totally by coincidence, I am reading the wonderful biography by Robert K. Massie, “Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman,” and happened upon her very strong opinion of torture.
Catherine was one of the most intelligent monarchs in history – a minor Prussian princess imported to Russia as a wife for the insipid heir. She read and spoke French fluently and educated herself from lovers and advisors; she communicated with Voltaire and Diderot and other philosophes. And she soon took over the crown from her dangerously helpless husband, Peter III, who quickly died at some remove from her.
In 1765, as empress, Catherine wrote series of “guiding principles” (Massie’s words), a Nakaz, which suggested changes in Russian laws. Even an empress had to run them past ministers and parliament, and she saw her thoughts whittled down considerably, but on July 30, 1767, she issued: “Instruction of Her Imperial Majesty Catherine the Second for the Commission Charges with Preparing a Project of a New Code of Laws.”
One of the strongest passages was about torture. Massie, writing about the 18th Century, makes no link to the 21st Century, but he does note her words:
What right can give anyone authority to inflict torture upon a citizen when it is still unknown whether he is innocent or guilty? By law, every person is innocent until his crime is proved…The accused party on the rack, while in the agonies of torture, is not master enough of himself to be able to declare the truth…The sensation of pain may rise to such a height, that it will leave him no longer the liberty of producing any proper act of will except what at that very instant he believes may release him from that pain. In such an extremity, even an innocent person will cry out, “Guilty!” provided they cease to torture him…Then the judges will be uncertain whether they have an innocent or guilty person before them. The rack, therefore, is a sure method of condemning an innocent person whose constitution is weak, and of acquitting the guilty who depends upon his bodily strength.
Massie adds: “Catherine also condemned torture on purely humanitarian grounds: ‘All punishments by which the human body might be maimed are barbarism,’ she wrote.”
I note from the Internet that several people have noted the link between her Nakaz and current events. (Catherine also condemned many facets of serfdom, or slavery.) She continued to rule with dependence on force and undoubtedly things went on (like the mysterious death of her husband) that were not unlike what took place in the dungeons of the KGB – or the interrogation pits of the American government. Nearly 250 years later. Catherine’s common sense and ideals still ring true
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see:
George Vecsey is Hofstra University's Alumnus of the Month! Read a Q&A with George here.