Reviewed by: Janet Hartley
Author: Simon Dixon
Publisher: Profile Books
Price (RRP): £25
Why does Catherine the Great continue to fascinate? In part it stems from the tales of her alleged sexual appetite, and not least in the lewd ‘Catherine and the horse’ stories. Catherine did have lovers (some 12 in all). Her relationship, however, with Grigorii Potemkin – passionate, but deeply affectionate and mutually supportive long after sexual relations had ended – is one of the great historical romantic stories.
But the fascination is far more than a matter of Catherine’s personal life: it is the compelling tale of an obscure German princess who rose to power as the sole ruler of the Russian empire; who oversaw the rise of Russia to truly great-power status with the acquisition of key territories in the south and west; who made a significant contribution to Russia’s cultural, artistic, educational, legal and institutional developments; whose personal writings helped shape the debate about law, serfdom and Russia’s ‘European’ credentials; and whose legacy (as the final chapter demonstrates) has been rich and ambivalent both within and outside Russia.
What more can be added to the story? Her personal writings and letters are well known, and English-language, as well as Russian, scholarship on her reign has flourished. Catherine as the ruler, the strategist, the thinker, the ‘enlightener’, the writer, the woman has been the subject of much study, both popular and scholarly. The author of this book, Professor Simon Dixon, produced an excellent, short, analysis of the major themes of her reign in his book in the series ‘Profiles in Power’, in 2001, which is a great asset to students (and to their teachers).
This new book aims to “bridge the gap between formidable historical scholarship and the popular accounts that risk trivialising a woman whose life requires no embellishment”. It certainly does that: it is well-written, summarises the main developments in the reign deftly; has balanced judgements on domestic and foreign policies; shows impressive familiarity with recent scholarship and a wide array of primary sources; in short, it tells a good story well.
But what it also brings that is new, and refreshing, is an immensely rich and lively account of the environment in which Catherine lived, worked and played. The first chapter, which is an account of Catherine’s coronation, replete with descriptions of her clothes, the procession, the displays, give the reader a sense of both the sounds and the colour of the occasion.
This sets the tone for further fascinating accounts of court spectacles, festivities and travels, which tell us as much about the ruler, and the breadth of her interests, as about the people and country over which she ruled. At the very beginning of her reign, for example, she travelled down the Volga river – meeting dignitaries (including Tatars in Kazan), assiduously attending church services, being entertained both officially and privately, but also, at her personal insistence, visiting factories, familiarising herself with the geography of the region and reading, and translating, a political novel.
There was no sex, no scandalous behaviour – but this is a telling insight into the mind of a serious, intellectual and ‘enlightened’ ruler. It is that depth and that complexity which make Catherine, as Dixon rightly states, “the most famous woman in Europe”.