Mother Rus­sia

A new book fo­cuses on the per­sonal life of the mag­nif­i­cent 18th-cen­tury em­press.

The Washington Post Sunday - - Book World - Re­viewed by Amanda Vaill

Let’s get one thing straight right away: Catherine the Great did not die hav­ing sex with a horse. She died of a stroke — con­firmed by au­topsy — at the age of 67. And while she ad­mit­ted that she “pas­sion­ately loved rid­ing,” her 34 years on the Rus­sian throne were marked by more than eques­trian prow­ess: She over­hauled her coun­try’s an­ti­quated le­gal sys­tem, ex­tended its borders into ter­ri­tory for­merly held by Poland and the Ot­toman Em­pire, es­tab­lished the great art col­lec­tion now housed in the palace she had built for it, the Her­mitage, in­tro­duced in­oc­u­la­tion against small­pox, and man­aged to dis­pose of — by as­sas­si­na­tion, ex­e­cu­tion or ne­glect — her only com­peti­tors for the po­si­tion of Em­press of All the Rus­sias. The “horse story,” says her most re­cent bi­og­ra­pher, Vir­ginia Round­ing, is a “scur­rilous piece of fab­ri­ca­tion,” most likely put about by French Repub­li­cans who were en­raged by this oth­er­wise en­light­ened monarch’s op­po­si­tion to the French Revo­lu­tion.

In Round­ing’s view, the fact that Catherine was a sin­gle, sex­ual and supremely pow­er­ful wo­man made her an ap­peal­ing tar­get for scan­dalous den­i­gra­tion. Born Princess So­phie Fred­er­ica Au­guste of the tiny prin­ci­pal­ity of An­halt-Zerbst in what is now Ger­many, Catherine was mar­ried at the age of 16 to her 17-year-old sec­ond cousin Peter, the or­phaned duke of Hol­stein-Got­torp, whom Rus­sia’s Em­press El­iz­a­beth I had des­ig­nated as her heir. (Thank­fully, Round­ing has in­cluded a fam­ily tree, as well as a lengthy drama­tis per­sonae di­vided into sec­tions such as “Catherine’s fam­ily” and “Catherine’s lovers and favourites,” or the reader might drown un­der the sea of patronymics and ti­tles.) Un­for­tu­nately, the young bride­groom was not only im­po­tent but hope­lessly im­ma­ture. As Catherine wrote in her mem­oirs, his idea of fool­ing around was to play with a set of “dolls and other child­ish play­things” that he hid un­der the nup­tial bed un­til night time.

By the time Em­press El­iz­a­beth died and Peter in­her­ited the crown, Catherine had re­al­ized that “she would have to cre­ate her own des­tiny in Rus­sia.” And not just a per­sonal des­tiny: This young wo­man — who pulled all-nighters mas­ter­ing the Rus­sian lan­guage, de­voured the works of Diderot and Voltaire and wrote (in one of many notes to her­self), “Power with­out the trust of the na­tion is noth­ing” — was ready to as­sume power her­self. With the help of her lover Grig­ory Orlov, the third in a line of a dozen “of­fi­cial” con­sorts, she pulled off a coup that put her on the throne and Peter un­der house ar­rest. Barely a month later, Peter was dead un­der sus­pi­cious cir­cum­stances — Round­ing is vague on whether Catherine was di­rectly in­volved — and Catherine had em­barked on her long and fruit­ful reign.

At the out­set, Round­ing pro­claims her­self un­in­ter­ested in writ­ing “a de­fin­i­tive once-and-for-all bi­og­ra­phy, con­tain­ing ev­ery­thing that is known about Catherine.” She has avoided de­tailed dis­cus­sion of Catherine’s in­volve­ment in for­eign and diplo­matic af­fairs, which is a shame, given the skill with which the prag­matic tsa­rina ne­go­ti­ated Europe’s po­lit­i­cal chess­board. And al­though Round­ing speaks of Catherine’s pref­er­ence for en­light­ened, Euro­peanized St. Petersburg over “Asi­atic” Moscow, she

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