Catherine the Great

A Guide to Biographies of Catherine the Great

Prepared by Edna Boardman, Bismarck, North Dakota

Edna Boardman is a retired school librarian and is a member of the Board of Directors of the Germans from Russia Heritage Society, Bismarck, North Dakota. She reviews books and media materials for library journals. Our appreciation is extended to Edna Boardman for this valuable guide to biographical books about Catherine the Great.

Catherine the Great, (1729-1796, reigned 34 years, 1762-1796) was one of the most interesting persons that figured in the story of the Germans from Russia. If you would like to read one or more of her biographies, you will find quite an array of them on the library shelf or available through interlibrary loan. This is a quick guide to help you choose among them. The biographies reviewed here are representative. Your library may have others. First, a few general words about them.

The writer setting out to write a biography of Catherine the Great in English has a big job ahead. First of all, it helps if he or she can read French and German as well as Russian. Catherine herself was German, but she was taught French and greatly admired things French, but she lived most of her life in Russia and functioned capably in the Russian language.

There are a lot of sources, and biographers use varying parts of them and interpret what they read in various ways.

Catherine herself wrote at least 7 autobiographies and extensive memoirs. Her autobiographies differ in detail, so small wonder if the biographies written by others aren¹t all the same. Her pen was always busy. Every morning, she would get up at 7:00, have a cup of black coffee, and sit down to write for a couple of hours. She wrote thousands of letters. She wrote to her family back in Germany and later to her grandsons, to lovers (One carefully kept all 21 of the notes she sent to him.), to ladies at court, to generals in the field, to government officials, to French philosophers Diderot and Voltaire,... Nobody, it seemed, threw away letters they received from the Empress, and biographers make good use of them to determine what was on her mind at various times. Unfortunately, she burned many she received, so the correspondence is one sided. She especially analyzed her feelings and thoughts in letters to a man named Baron Melchior von Grimm, and almost everyone quotes from them. Then there were thousands of laws and manifestoes. She would write the text of a decree, have aides check it for spelling, grammar, and legal language, and sign it Ekaterina. Voila! A law. Catherine also had fun with her writing. She wrote educational materials for her grandsons and composed plays (one biographer says they were all bad), which sometimes contained biting social commentary, for the theater that thrived at court.

Quite a number of people around Catherine wrote accounts of what happened during her reign. One biographer points out that these were often self-serving and can¹t necessarily be trusted. There exist detailed descriptions of the day Catherine¹s husband Czar Peter III was murdered, but historians wonder if these are true or not. Two ambassadors, one an Austrian and one French, kept diaries of events and observations during Catherine¹s trip to the Crimea. Each had his point of view. Diplomats such as the English ambassador to Russia posted reports to their governments back home. Newspapers in Europe had a lot to say about what was going on with Catherine, but again not all biographers find their stories reliable.

All of this means the reader of Catherine¹s biographies should not become too taken with a single version of events. For example, one of the biographies says that the Russian court twice sent emissaries to Anhalt-Zerbst, Catherine¹s home country, to get portraits of her. Another mentions the two portraits but says Catherine¹s parents sent one and a relative, the king of another German state, sent the other. One mentions a single portrait and says it was Catherine¹s parents who sent it, but that they also sent a portrait of Elizabeth¹s dead sister. Yet another suggests that three portraits of Catherine found their way to the Russian court, one sent by her parents, the other two obtained by visitors to the Anhalt-Zerbst palace. After awhile, it was fun to focus on the portrait story and see how each writer got it.

In another example, biographers agree that a pension provided to the ex-Khan of Crimea in exchange for his abdication was diverted. One says that Alexander Ermolov, one of Catherine¹s lovers, discovered that Gregory Potemkin, who may have been secretly married to Catherine and who was the governor of developing areas of Russia, misused the money, and there followed an embarrassing public confrontation with Potemkin about it. Another says that Catherine and Potemkin agreed to use the money for purposes other than paying the pension. Yet another says that Catherine instructed Potemkin to use the money elsewhere. Was the pension 60,000 or 100,000 rubles? Who knows? Heck, who cares? Dates of events mentioned in the biographies are sometimes different. Catherine left for the Crimea early or in the middle of January or in the middle of February of 1787. Europe and Russia used different calendars, so that may account for the difference, but if the sources are not uniform in details, small wonder that biographers are tempted to go with an educated guess as to what really happened and when.

If the biographies mention that Catherine brought German (or just foreign) farmers to Russia, they note it only briefly. One says that Potemkin, apparently on his own initiative, settled them on land in the Ukraine. Another even pronounces his bringing in settlers a failure. Perhaps, during biographers' researches, this event, so momentous to the persons involved, gets lost among the many laws that set up schools, reshaped regional governments, instructed government units to build roads and hospitals, and so many others. Only groups and individuals interested in the Germans from Russia will mention the manifestoes that drew them to Russia. Farmers apparently didn¹t count for much except to the farmers themselves.

If you look up Catherine the Great on the internet, you will find thousands of sites that mention her. Some focus on her personal life and list all her lovers. Others will detail the wars that expanded Russian territory. There¹s quite a bit of buzz about a made-for-television movie starring Catherine Zeta-Jones. (Pretty thin stuff, I thought, but pleasant to watch.) On the internet, there¹s at least one essay about Catherine written by an elementary school student, and that is certainly not a source to quote.

Reading a biography or even a series of short biographical sketches of Catherine the Great will give a German Russian a feeling for what was going on at court at the time of the migration from Germany to Russia. Each one tells or explains something the others do not. The biographies are as accurate as the writers could make them, and after awhile they get into your blood. Happy reading!

Erickson, Carolly. Great Catherine: The Life of Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia. NY, Crown. 1994.

This is the very best of the biographies IMHO (internet talk for In My Humble Opinion). Erickson was very thorough in learning her sources and skillfully selects significant and entertaining detail. She has a good feeling for the characters and personalities of people and the dynamics of what was going on. She draws more from the diplomatic dispatches of foreign representatives, especially the English, than do the others. Politics is a backdrop for the story; she depicts it with a light touch. The tone is that of the novelist telling a good story. "Great Catherine" is now available in audiobook form and members of the Audiofile listserv who have listened to it speak highly of their listening experience.

Cronin, Vincent. Catherine Empress of all the Russias. NY, Morrow. 1978.

This is my #2 choice. It is subtitled on the cover as "An Intimate Biography," so I expected it to belabor Catherine¹s love life, but that was not the case. It reads like a series of essays, each a sparkling vignette of some aspect of Catherine¹s life and reign. Readers learn what she did and also the details of her surroundings, her manner and taste. The chapter "Portrait of an Empress" could stand alone as an especially fine sketch of her. The book is highly readable and entertaining, focusing on Catherine herself.

Alexander, John T. Catherine the Great: Life and Legend. NY, Oxford University Press. 1989.

Alexander has a more formal writing style than the others and includes quite a bit of political and military detail. Yet, he never loses sight of Catherine as a person--he tells what she does and how she feels. It is somewhat surprising to see how much thought and energy she put into such matters as plots, family fights, protests, gossip, war, the health of herself and others, international relationships, assassination threats, drains on the public purse, matchmaking and marriages. The author notes that she feared "the French infection," the growth of democracy which challenged monarchies such as hers. Death was a constant companion in her time, even at court which presumably had the best medical care available. The problem of who should succeed her was never far from her thoughts. The Volga Germans are mentioned. A final chapter, the ³legend² part of the title, will set you back on your heels, though of itself it is not offensive. Alexander says that, after Catherine¹s death, a whole web of material--books, plays, pamphlets--of a salacious, even pornographic nature appeared, and have even been quoted as authentic sources about her. They fed the public appetite for sensation, but all ethical biographers dismiss them.

Grey, Ian. Catherine the Great: Autocrat and Empress of All Russia. XLV. J. B. Lippincott. 1962.

Grey was more the old-fashioned scholar than most of the others, though the book is not difficult reading. He includes the complexities of power maneuvering and relationships between kings and countries. Through the adroit selection of detail, he explains things others assume are obvious and fills chinks of information left blank by the others. Example: everyone mentions the palace guards that helped Catherine and others to the throne but Grey adds a brief note telling who they were and how they came to have such power. He says that on October 14, 1762, Catherine invited colonists to come in families and groups to settle in Siberia and on the Volga. She set up a special chancellery with Grigori Orlov as first president. He appears not to have noticed the reissue of the manifesto in July of the following year.

Haslip, Joan. Catherine the Great. NY, Putnam. 1977.

Haslip's writing style is more formal than Erickson's but she doesn¹t include as much political detail as Alexander. She uses a lot of specialized vocabulary, which she could easily have defined in context, and drops far too many untranslated French phrases. The author says that, during Catherine's trip to the Crimea, she saw nothing of the provinces and their inhabitants. Others mention numerous contacts with the inhabitants and letters to her grandsons telling of the countryside, so I question her accuracy there. This is the best title for someone who wants to know of Catherine's relationships with her lovers. She notes their maneuvers and power plays, Catherine's dependence on them, and what influence they had on her reign. Haslip makes no effort to titillate; the lovers (and Potemkin, the man who may have been second husband) had real effects on Catherine's reign, and Haslip details what those effects were.

Kaus, Gina. Catherine: The Portrait of An Empress. Trans from German by June Head. NY, Viking Press. 1935.

Physically, this is a thick, somewhat tattered book with pencil underlining and old sticky stuff between the pages. Just the kind of book that for me used to spell days of absorbing reading. It was published about 140 years after Catherine's death, but the date is not a problem. Kaus opens with a bit of gossip that Catherine herself was fathered by a man higher than her father in the royal pecking order of the day. Her writing moves slowly through the events of Catherine's life, with tantalizing speculation and philosophical asides, allowing the reader to savor the moments. Kaus goes light on the political and military detail, but does not avoid it entirely. The bulk of the book covers the period before her accession. It includes rich bio sketches of Ivan VI, the young man who probably should have been on the throne in place of Elizabeth, Catherine's son Paul, fathered by Saltykov but who resembled dead Peter III more and more as he grew up, and Gregory Potemkin, Catherine¹s probable second husband, who went to outrageous lengths to show his love for her. The book ends with an evaluation of her ruling philosophy and a rather unfashionable dwelling on the vagaries of Catherine's old age.

Troyat, Henri. Catherine the Great. Trans. Joan Pinkham. NY, E. P. Dutton. 1980.

Troyat's name shows up as the author of encyclopedia bios of Catherine, and he has also written a biography of Catherine¹s grandson Alexander I, the czar who invited the Black Sea Germans to Russia. He's a very thorough historian who has read Catherine's memoirs and is aware of what was going on both personally and politically during her reign. He is more analytical than most. For example, he knows how several different observers interpreted Catherine's behavior at court the evening of the day Peter was killed. It contains more detail than Cronin and Erickson biographies but is sensitive and readable.

Oldenbourg, Zoe. Catherine the great. NY, Pantheon Books. 1965.

This is the book you will most probably find on your library shelves, and it reads quite well. The author, as Kaus did, focuses the major portion of the book on Catherine's early life. When she accedes to the throne at 33, there is just a skinny portion of the book remaining. It's too bad that this is the only biography that so many people will read. Oldenbourg's writing is heavy with interpretation. She tells you what happened, then explains what it appears to have meant. There is a good interpretive concluding essay that explores her relationship with Peter in depth, mulls her character as a person, and evaluates her place in history. What of the settlers in South Russia? One line, "She colonize desert provinces,..." It was originally published in 8 volumes and you can get a first edition for a modest price on the internet.

de Madariaga, Isabel. Russia in the Age of Catherine the Great. New Haven. Yale University Press. 1981.

If you're up for some dense political and social detail about government, wars, and Russian culture during the time of Catherine, this is your book. It starts where several of the others leave off, with her accession. Nobody ignores her long reign entirely, of course, but nobody else provides so much information. The book is 698 pages long. There is an especially interesting part about the settling of Russia's vast unfarmed area. It seems far more than Germans and a few other Europeans were brought to Russia. Russian officials moved peasants around, accepted criminals and runaway serfs (who sometimes laundered themselves by going first to Poland), and approached England about bringing in convicts (Might Russia have wound up with a little Australia?). Dates seem a bit fuzzy, but then historians other than the German Russians themselves may not be as concerned with that.

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