Monday, 29 July 2013

No ordinary Empress

Catherine the Great – Portrait of a Woman 1729-1796. by Robert K. Massie. Random House, NY, 1911. Read on Kindle.

This review was written on August 10th 2012

Elizabeth, Empress of Russia, was the eldest surviving daughter of
Peter the Great
Peter I (Peter the Great), Emperor of Russia. Whilst emperor, Peter undertook extensive reforms in overcoming the opposition of the aristocracy, in creating a navy on the Baltic and reorganising the army. He secularised the schools and administered greater control over the Orthodox Church. He introduced new administrative and territorial divisions of the country.  Amongst many other reforms he modernised the Russian alphabet, introduced the Julian calendar and established the first Russian newspaper. Although, clearly a forward thinker, he could be cruel and harsh in dealing with his 
subjects. He died in 1725 without nominating an heir.

Elizabeth, Empress of Russia
Peter’s daughter Elizabeth’s claim to the throne was disputed (her parents were unmarried when she was born) so it took almost twenty years for her to become the supreme ruler of Russia. She was elected Empress in 1743, after deposing the infant Emperor Ivan the Fourth and his mother Anna Leopoldov who was acting as Regent. Elizabeth never married nor had any children so in order to secure the throne she invited Ekaterina Alekseyevn from the German State of Holstein (who had close family ties), and her cousin Peter to Petrograd where they married as young as 14 or 15 as Grand Duke and Duchess of Russia.
Peter III

Elizabeth died in 1762 and was immediately replaced by Peter, who became Peter 111 but he was unstable and immature, and totally unsuited to any form of leadership. His tenure was brief. In 1763 it was brought to an abrupt end by his wife’s collaborators. He died under unexplained circumstances while under their supervision. Ekaterina adopted the title Catherine 11 when she became Empress and remained Empress until her death in 1796.

Catherine the Great
Catherine was noted for her liberal outlook, her interest in self-education and her warm and informal personality. She added fluent Russian and French to her native German. From the early years of her reign she kept in close touch with Voltaire, Diderot, Grimm and other European authors connected with the 18th century Enlightenment.

During Catherine’s early years as Empress she showed a liberal approach to her subjects by abolishing torture and by reducing the number of executions to a very low level. In her second year she founded a College School of Medicine. She soon established hospitals in every province and medical facilities in every county including an institution for unwanted babies. She was the first to accept vaccination for smallpox from a doctor she invited from Scotland and encouraged its widespread use among her subjects.

Her very liberal approach was exemplified in the publication of the Nakaz which she wrote embodying her liberal approach
 towards government and towards the people.  But after the unexpected and serious rebellion by Pugachev, the Cossacks and southern Russians ten years after her elevation, which threatened the stability of government, she adopted a less liberal approach, stating that this would be necessary until the population became more educated. At no time was she able to overcome the resistance of the nobility and big landowners in an effort to improve the lot of the 10 million serfs in the country.

The Empress was averse to war in Europe although she managed to carve up Poland, sharing it with Austria and with Fredric of Prussia. Poland was to wait 120 more years to the first great war of 1914-1918 before she became a separate nation again. She also had two successful wars against the Turks. Grigory Potemkin was the leading administrator Catherine had during her later years as Empress. He was her most trusted representative and the real power in the southern part of the country. He was responsible for the success of the two Turkish wars and for the extension of the Russian state in the south at the cost of the Turks, and the opening up of the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. Potemkin was ambitious, powerful, very efficient and fervent in his loyalty to the Empress. Apart from ruling southern Russia for many years on her behalf, he also played a major role in reforming the army, expanding and modernising the country’s naval resources and in taking control of Russia’s foreign affairs.

One of the remarkable things about the Empress was her personal history. She had a number of lovers, twelve in all. Her marriage to Peter, her cousin and Grand Duke, was unsuccessful. They did sleep in the same bed during Empress Elizabeth’s reign but the marriage was never consummated, almost certainly because of his inability or lack of inclination. She had three children by three other men. She was quite open in her sexual life and was always unhappy when she did not have a sexual partner. The older she was the younger the lovers appeared to be. She was clearly devoted to sex and to frequent sexual activity. Her lovers tended to have a limited duration and when a relationship came to an end it was generally amicable and the lover was invariably treated with every consideration of honours and wealth. However, her lovers were not infrequently jealous of her and often resented when she became tired of them.

Primogeniture had been suspended in Russia sometime before Catherine the Great but after much uncertainty she nominated her first illegitimate son Paul as the next Emperor.  This was in accordance with primogeniture and this existed as part of the Romanoff family right up to 1917 when the revolution occurred.  Paul was accepted by the Russians as the son of Catherine’s husband Peter III but he was in fact the son of one of her early lovers. 

This book on Catherine the Great extends to about 740 pages. The same history could have been undertaken and much of her achievements could have been described in a shorter biography if a lot of her own personal details and the many details of her lovers had been reduced in extent or had been excluded. Many of her relationships with lovers, foreign ambassadors, family and friends she describes in very great detail.  She does not speak about her actual sexual life with her lovers but it was clearly obvious to her household and extensive staff and acquaintances that her lovers were intimate friends of hers, frequently attended her in her bedroom and no effort was made to conceal the relationship between them. 

Catherine the Great
The foundation of the superb collection of art in St Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum was laid by Catherine within a year of her reaching the throne.  Afterwards the Prince Dmitri Golitsyn became the Russian ambassador in Paris and he was responsible for purchasing many other artefacts on her behalf, including Diderot’s library in 1765. The latter, who was an outstanding and well informed expert on paintings, continued to add to Catherine’s collection. He bought several important collections including that of Augustus the 2nd King of Poland.  She paid 180,000.00 roubles to acquire his collection which added four more Rembrandts, a Caravaggio and five works by Rubens. After Diderot, Grimm became her agent in Paris and continued to supply her with more pictures. Amongst other collections she bought the celebrated English collection of Lord Walpole, sold by his grandson to pay for his gambling debts! Her purchases were not because of her love of art, she admitted on one occasion. She simply stated “I am a glutton’’. She became the greatest collector of art in the history of Europe and by the time of her death she had collected four thousand paintings provided by the most famous European painters. Many of these are still held in the museums and galleries of St. Petersburg.
The bronze Horseman (Peter the Great), St. Petersburg
This book gives a detailed account of Catherine’s reign and establishes her as one of the great leaders of Russia and one who greatly advanced its history. It would be impossible to have a complete insight into the last five hundred years of Europe without a detailed knowledge of the Russian Emperors and in particular Peter the Great and Catherine. They were the two outstanding leaders who brought Russia into the European orbit and who played such a successful part in the long-term power and influence of Russia within the European community. 

The book includes a wealth of material about the social and personal side of the Empress and her household and her continuing dependence on sex right up to her old age. The fragility of marriage at that time amongst the Russian community was clearly evident as was the liberal approach to sexuality.

In her time Russia had become an important part of greater Europe. My reading of the end of the Romanovs in 1917 and the subsequent brutal and paranoid figure of Stalin leaves a jolt in my mind about the latter-day role of Russia in Europe as did the very much shorter Nazi period from 1933 to 1945

No comments:

Post a Comment