The Diplomatic Ceremonial at the Court of Catherine II




Catherine II; European diplomacy; Russo-British relations; diplomatic ceremonial; Russian court; kissing hands in European history


Referring to relevant approaches to the study of diplomatic culture and the semiotics of gestures, this article examines the significance of kissing the sovereign’s hands in diplomatic ceremonies in western Europe, and, more particularly, in Britain and Russia. Confusion and disagreement over the meaning of this gesture could become a major stumbling block in the evolution of Anglo-Russian relations at the very moment when there was a willingness to become closer owing to the expanding sphere of mutual political interests. With the arrival of the British ambassador Charles Cathcart and his wife in Russia in 1768, the ceremony of the first audience of the ambassador and (especially) the ambassadress with the sovereign was the subject of intense negotiations in the highest echelons of power. The discussion focused on the act of kissing the sovereign’s hands. A gesture that in Russia had long been considered a sign of the monarch’s mercy towards the ambassador of another Christian state might seem an acknowledgement of subordination or submission to the Scottish Lord Cathcart. The tradition had no parallel in the diplomatic ceremonies of other European courts. Why did the Russian government, which sought to match diplomatic ceremonies at the court with Western European protocols, not compromise when it came to this formality? How did the key persons of the story – Cathcart and Count Nikita Panin – evaluate the possible consequences of not carrying out the required ceremonial protocols? What concessions and violations were the two sides prepared for in these disputes over ceremony in the name of “high politics”? Referring to archival materials from the National Archives of the United Kingdom, the personal papers of the Cathcart family kept in the National Library of Scotland, and several published dispatches of British representatives in Russia, the author studies the reflections of Lord and Lady Cathcart on their introduction to Empress Catherine II. The analysis leads the author to conclude that Catherine II perceived the kissing of the sovereign’s hands as an indispensable prerequisite for starting any diplomatic mission and as a historically established gesture that demonstrated the grandeur of the crown. Negotiations over the act of hand-kissing in 1768 showed that this ceremonial detail was not a mere formality but could become the key factor in the success of an ambassador’s mission.

Author Biography

Elena Smilyanskaya

Dr. Hab. (History), Professor, National Research University Higher School of Economics; Chief Researcher, Institute of World History of the Russian Academy of Sciences; Ural Federal University named after the first President of Russia B. N. Yeltsin.

20, Myasnitskaya Str., 101000, Moscow, Russia.

32a, Leninsky Ave., 119334, Moscow, Russia.

19, Mira Str., 620002, Yekaterinburg, Russia.

ORCID 0000-0002-4120-6158


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How to Cite

Smilyanskaya, E. (2020). The Diplomatic Ceremonial at the Court of Catherine II. Quaestio Rossica, 8(4), 1255–1273.



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