Catherine the Great
By a casual count, there are at least 19 items in the TPL catalogue with the title “Catherine the Great.” Why revisit this subject so often? She’s fascinating, is why. Catherine and her reign sit at the nexus of East and West, of profoundly religious and Enlightenment thinking, of rule by both the power accorded to an absolute monarch and by way of the information collected from a diverse populace. One could easily argue that gender is another frame by which to think about the way she came to power and chose to rule.
Catherine II began life as a somewhat obscure German princess. She was intelligent and ambitious, but her natural social sensitivity seems to have made her the extraordinary empire builder that she was.
Empress Elizabeth, the reigning queen when Catherine was brought to Russia at age 15 as a prospective wife and child-bearer to Peter III, thought she would make a suitable match – sufficiently impecunious to welcome the opportunity, sufficiently aristocratic to satisfy expectations of the court. This was the key opportunity for Catherine’s personal ambitions, and she built herself all of the tools to make her way. She learned Russian, she ingratiated herself with her future husband despite Peter’s personal failings, she learned everything she could about disarming detractors, she converted to Russian Orthodoxy from Lutheranism and generally made herself amenable to Elizabeth.
This was all preliminary to her real ambitions though, which were as deep and wide as the vast empire that she wrested from her inadequate husband. Among her accomplishments over a 34-year reign were a revision of the legal code that focused on the prevention of crime, an attempt to make social reforms that jibed with European Enlightenment thinking, a campaign to vaccinate her people against smallpox, cultivation of arts and sciences in Russia, and an territorial expansion of the empire to include windows to the west and south, by way of the Black Sea. By anyone’s measure she was an extraordinary force in modern history.
We will be talking about Robert Massie’s biography of Catherine on Friday, March 6 (2-3:30 pm, Discussion Room, 3rd Floor, TRL) at the monthly meeting of the Biography Book Club. Here are up-coming dates if you’d like to join us (provide yourself with a copy of the book):
Friday, May 8: The Lost City of Z: a Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon -by David Grann
Friday, June 5: Jane Austen - by Carol Shields