The Scottish Enlightenment - and the University of Glasgow - in the Russian Empire, 18 November 2015

Published: 29 October 2015

The Scottish Enlightenment - and the University of Glasgow - in the Russian Empire. Professor Bill Bowring, Birkbeck College, University of London

The ASRF and the Centre for Russian & Central and East European Studies (CRCEES) are delighted to welcome Professor Bowring, academic and human rights barrister, to give a lecture on the influence of the Scottish Enlightenment in the Russian Enlightenment, with a particular focus on Adam Smith and Semyon Yefimovich Desnitsky (1740-1789), both of whom taught at the University of Glasgow.

The lecture will take place on 18 November, 4.30-6.00pm, in The Fore Hall, Room 256, Gilbert Scott (Main) Building. Please reserve a place via Eventbrite.



The Russian Enlightenment flowered under Catherine the Great (1729-1796). For 15 years, until 1778, when he died, she corresponded with Voltaire; and from 1773 to 1775 she invited Denis Diderot, the great French materialist and determinist, to her court in St Petersburg.

She was also responsible for the foundation of law as an academic discipline in Russia.

The subject matter of this talk is the influence of the Scottish Enlightenment in the Russian Enlightenment, in particular that of the University of Glasgow and of Adam Smith. My focus is on the first Professor of Law in Russia, Semyon Yefimovich Desnitsky (1740-1789).

Desnitsky studied at the University of Glasgow from 1761 to 1767. In 1767 he successfully defended his PhD thesis and became a Doctor of Civil and Church Law. He studied Roman Law, and took the course on moral philosophy under Adam Smith (1723-1790). He and his fellow student I. A. Tretyakov were the first foreigners to be awarded a PhD by the University of Glasgow.

Catherine came to the throne in 1762. On Desnitsky’s return in 1767, the Curator of the University refused to recognise the validity of the Glasgow PhD, and insisted that Desnitsky sit an examination to give him the right to lecture. The results of the examination attracted the attention of Catherine. It was clear that Desnitsky understood more about Roman Law than his examiners.

Having passed the examination, Desnitsky was given the right to teach a course on Roman law in relation to Russian law. At that time these lectures were given in Latin, which was especially convenient for foreign professors who could not lecture in Russian. Desnitsky asked to be permitted to lecture in Russian, but this was opposed by the University. The issue was resolved by Catherine herself, who decreed that it would be more proper to teach in Russian, especially for jurisprudence. This was a decisive moment for Russian higher education.


About the Speaker

Bill Bowring is Professor of Law at Birkbeck College, University of London, where he teaches human rights, public international law and minority rights. He is also a practising barrister specialising in human rights, since 2000 representing applicants against Russia and other post-Soviet states at the European Court of Human Rights. He has been working regularly in Russia since 1983 and speaks Russian. He has taught at many Russian universities from Moscow and St Petersburg, to Kaliningrad and Khabarovsk. His work as an expert for DFID, the EU, Council of Europe, and, twice, with the OSCE's High Commissioner on National Minorities has given him opportunities to meet Russians at all levels of society and to visit many of the 83 subjects of the Russian Federation. He has many publications both in English and Russian and his first monograph, The degradation of the International Legal Order? The Rehabilitation of Law and the possibility of Politics , was published by Routledge in 2008.

His book 'Law, Rights and Ideology in Russia: Landmarks in the Destiny of a Great Power' was published in 2014 by Routledge.

First published: 29 October 2015