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Catherine the Great: Love, Sex, and Power

Book review by Edna Boardman, Bismarck, North Dakota

Rounding, Virginia.Catherine the Great: Love, Sex, and Power. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2006.


Eight years before her death, Catherine the Great wrote her own epitaph. She had already told her frequent correspondent Friedrich Melchior von Grimm she did not like the label “great,” which a few had already slapped on her. She said of herself, writing in the third person, “Arrived on the throne of Russia, she desired its good and sought to procure for her subjects happiness, liberty and propriety. She forgave easily and hated no one; indulgent, easy to live with, naturally cheerful, with a republican soul and a good heart, she had friends: she found work easy, she liked good society and the arts.” Virginia Rounding, commenting on this statement, said it is accurate to the way she viewed herself with the possible exception of the “republican soul,” especially late in her reign.

This 500-plus page biography is the tenth full-length biography of Catherine the Great I have read, so you might guess I am probably obsessive about her. What did I get out of it that wasn’t a repeat of the others? Rounding, I found, was an especially careful scholar, always probing and questioning to come up with details the others had skipped over. Sometimes, she seems to have felt, other authors repeated generally-accepted interpretations, and she was not content to do this. Rounding lists persons present, as at teenaged Catherine’s reception at Riga on her way to Russia, and several times describes important ceremonies in detail. All biographies, for example, say she clearly recited from memory the Creed in Russian when she was taken into the Orthodox Church. I shook my head in wonder at their patience when Rounding notes it was preceded by her reading the confession of faith, which was 50 quarto pages in length. Of course, everyone was standing during all of this. Details like this, no doubt, only a Catherine the Great aficionado could love.

The picture that emerges of Catherine’s relationship with Peter, her fiancé then husband, is a little different from his image in the other books, whose authors seemed to take entries from Catherine’s diaries and run with them. Rounding sees Peter bonded with his mistress Elizaveta Vorontsova, as the others do, but he and Catherine were together and communicated a great deal as Empress Elizabeth dragged them interminably from palace to palace. Catherine interacted with her son Paul far more often than the other authors envision, even during his childhood. Later, grandsons Alexander and Constantine are around her a lot but are not cut off from their parents as much as most authors envision. Later, when Catherine becomes Empress, we see her sitting solicitously with her daughters in law during the labors that brought forth her large brood of grandchildren. (Paul’s first wife died, as did two infant grandchildren. Michael, Catherine’s ninth living grandchild, was born after Catherine’s death.) This was an act she surely wished some caring person had done for her.

I enjoyed the depictions of Catherine’s lovers. Rounding puts them into the context of her life as they came and went. Catherine insisted she could not live without love. Her relationship with Grigory Potemkin does not come through as vividly as it does in the book /Potemkin: Catherine the Great's Imperial Partner/ by Simon Sebag Montefiore, but she sees him more clearly than do the other biographers.

What a pressure cooker Catherine lived in! Her ambitious mother was focused on her sickly brother, leaving Catherine to be educated by Babet Cardel, a French woman who introduced her to the liberal ideas of the Enlightenment. Once in Russia, she found herself watched and evaluated constantly. She attracted the attention of the power players of her world--diplomats from foreign countries, capable officials in the Russian government who saw in her intelligence and talent far above Peter’s, and the practical military talents of the Orlov brothers of the palace guards units. When she was bored, she read, first novels, then history and theory and philosophy, getting her books through diplomatic channels, which is what passed for the interlibrary loan of the day.

Once Empress, Catherine attacked Russia’s problems with energy unusual in the country’s leaders. No matter what else was going on in her personal life or her realm, Catherine worked every day. She continued to read and she wrote to a multitude of correspondents. Her output included thoughtful position papers, laws, plays, undercover essays, and diaries. (I enjoyed /The Memoirs of Catherine the Great, a New Translation/ by Mark Cruse and Hilde Hoogenboom.) We know so much about her thinking because of all this writing. Rounding is very aware of Catherine’s territorial ambitions and military conquests and her art collecting and building projects. She had herself and Paul vaccinated against smallpox when it was a chancy, dangerous undertaking. All the while, Catherine knew there were groups set to gain her favor in whatever way possible, steer the country’s direction in a different way, gang up on her and overthrow her, and even kill her if they could manage it. Few ever loved her unconditionally.

So, should you read this book? Not if you’re looking for material about the Germans from Russia. This is what the book says: “She gave her favourite [Grigory Orlov] his first administrative role, as president of the new Chancery of Guardianship for Foreigners whose responsibility was to oversee the immigration of people, mainly German, to settle the Empire’s southern territories.” In the description of Catherine’s voyage to Crimea and Ukraine, Rounding does not have a vision of the area’s agricultural capabilities, something Catherine surely had because other sources say she took along German farmers. It’s best not to read it if you’ve never read something about Catherine before because of the length and detail. The best first book, I think, is /Great Catherine: The Life of Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia/ by Carolly Erickson. Henri Troyat’s/ Catherine the Great/ may be at your public library, but I felt Troyat didn’t like Catherine very much. I read this book slowly and found it lots of fun, full of careful scholarship; Rounding had a desire to see Catherine II and her times as clearly as possible.

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