In her 34-year tenure as Russia’s sovereign, Catherine the Great expanded the country’s borders south and west, codified national law, squelched a spate of uprisings, and propagated Enlightenment ideals, even striking up a friendship with the French philosopher Voltaire. No less significantly, she also led a mass vaccination campaign against smallpox that laid the groundwork for over two million Russians to be inoculated against the deadly disease by 1800.
A 1787 letter from Catherine the Great advocating for smallpox vaccination — a sustained effort that commenced when she became the first person in Russia to receive the vaccine, in 1768 — is bound for the auction block at MacDougall’s in London, where it will be a highlight of the December 1 “Important Russian Art” sale. The letter is being sold as a bundle with a half-length portrait of the Empress by Ukrainian Russian painter Dmitry Levitsky, for an estimate of up to $1.6 million.
Levitsky, who was the darling of Russia’s court in the 1770s and 1780s, made about 20 images of Catherine in his lifetime, along with depictions of other 18th-century Russian aristocracy. Here, he portrays Catherine with a crown, honorary ribbons, and a half-smile, the picture of an Enlightened ruler. A text from MacDougall’s points out that while Catherine gave Levitsky an allowance, it is unlikely that she ever sat for him; rather, the artist would have used existing iconographic templates to compose his paintings.
A more contemporary portrayal of Catherine, for which she certainly did not sit, has led to a surge of popular interest in the empress: the Hulu comedy-drama The Great, which stars Elle Fanning and is loosely based on Catherine’s life, just premiered its second season.
The letter on offer, which Catherine sent to Field Marshal Count Pyotr Rumyantsev, is dated to April 20, 1787. In it, the ruler instructs: “Among the other duties of the Welfare Boards in the Provinces entrusted to you, one of the most important should be the introduction of inoculation against smallpox, which, as we know, causes great harm, especially among the ordinary people.”
“Such inoculation should be common everywhere,” she continues. Catherine proceeds to advise the count to create vaccination centers in convents and monasteries in present-day Ukraine, borrowing money from town revenues to fund the effort and pay the doctors. “We remain, by the way, favorably disposed toward you,” she adds, signing the letter with a flourish.
Today, smallpox holds the distinction of being one of two infectious diseases that the World Health Organization has declared eradicated. In the 1700s, however, it was a leading cause of death, killing an estimated 60 million people in Europe that century. In Catherine’s day, Edward Jenner had not yet invented the less-lethal cowpox-based vaccine against smallpox. Instead, pioneering doctors used a “variolation” method in which they introduced the contents of an infected person’s smallpox pustule into the body of healthy person, often through incisions in the arm. The mortality rate for people vaccinated through this method was 2%, an appealing prospect relative to the typical smallpox mortality rate of around 40% at the time.
Catherine became the first person in Russia to be vaccinated against smallpox in October of 1768. The procedure was performed by British doctor Thomas Dimsdale, who culled material from the pustule of the six-year-old son of a Sergeant-Major. The vaccination took place in secret, with horses at the ready in case the procedure went awry and Dimsdale needed to flee. Fortunately, after a convalescence period in the countryside, Catherine was fine. A public celebration followed, with the empress receiving a gold medal inscribed “She has set an example.” Catherine had her own son vaccinated, and nobles began lining up for inoculation.
“There is no noble house in which there are not several vaccinated persons,” Catherine wrote in a letter to Count Ivan Grigorievuch Chernyshev in the wake of her successful procedure. “Many regret that they had smallpox naturally and so cannot be fashionable.”
While Catherine stopped short of making a sweeping requirement for vaccination, she promoted the vaccine on several fronts, disseminating printed material encouraging vaccination and even commissioning a pro-vaccination pantomime ballet, Prejudice Defeated, in which science defeated superstition. However, mass vaccination against smallpox in Russia continued to face serious hurdles, as her 1787 letter strategizing to the count underscores.
Today, Russia is again struggling with a vaccine rollout; despite Vladimir Putin’s encouragement, only about 43% of Russians are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, with a current death toll of 269,000 individuals.