Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Great Catherine: The Life of Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia

1994, first edition, from Crown
Carolyn Erickson
Great Catherine: The Life of Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia
Original price unknown, purchase price $6.40
Hardcover in good condition with worn dustjacket

The best aspect of this book is the description of eighteenth-century Russia, before and during Catherine's reign.  (The empress grew up as a minor German princess named Sophia, but spent the next fifty years or so in Russia.)  In some ways, it helped me better understand the world of Tolstoy, particularly War and Peace, in the same way that understanding the Georgian period in England throws light on Victorian fiction.  For instance, wife-beating was as normalized as it was in the Middle Ages, and yet there was an acceptance of female rulers, so that Catherine could rise to the throne with no claim of blood.  (She wasn't even the mother of the emperor's son, since she and her husband Peter never had sex, and she had to take a lover in order to have a child.)

I thought Erickson did all right exploring Catherine's character, but she didn't resolve the inconsistencies, like Catherine's "tender heart" with her often ruthless politics, from approving Peter's murder, to not insisting on freeing the serfs, to invading Poland.  She does address the empress's promiscuous reputation (including the "horse" story), making it clear that while Catherine was far from Queen Victoria (or Elizabeth I), she probably had fewer partners than, for instance, Henry VIII. And she shows how hard-working and self-educated Catherine was, as well as surprisingly down to earth.  (She liked to make animal noises to amuse the court!)

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