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Tempering an Enlightened Educator: Frédéric-César de La Harpe at the Russian Imperial Court (1783–1795)

Andrei Yu. Andreev, Danièle Tosato-Rigo


Among all the educators who cared for him from his early childhood, Alexander I gave a particular honor to only one, the Swiss teacher Frédéric-César de La Harpe (1754–1838), who, invited to teach the French language, was further his instructor in geography, history, arithmetic, and geometry, as well as the foundations of philosophy. This Swiss teacher has been regarded in historical studies as the fortunate “chosen one” by Catherine II, who summoned him to direct Alexander’s education and who rewarded him accordingly afterwards. The present article peers into the backstage of the long educational process (1783–1795) in which he was engaged, revealing the less idyllic facts. Based on unpublished documents in Russian and Swiss archives, this study presents a picture of the place of an educator on the main stage of his activity, the Russian Imperial court, and thus the interplay of the history of practice and of ideas and their representations. Did La Harpe himself choose to work as an educator? Did Catherine II really search and find the Swiss teacher for his abilities? Did his teaching indeed represent a concretization of Catherine’s thoughts on this matter? And finally, how did La Harpe himself estimate his situation at the court, which was transformed into a “success story” only after 1814? This article, offering some answers to these questions, adds to the analysis the different circumstances of La Harpe’s appearance and later life at the court; the difficulties he faced in spite of the support of Catherine II, which was, regrettably, withdrawn unexpectedly; and, finally, the permanent discrepancies between his pedagogical ideals and the everyday studies in which he engaged.


education; Russia; Switzerland; Enlightenment; Alexander I; Catherine II; La Harpe

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