Great Catherine's Many Dimensions

February 28, 2012 Topics: History Regions: Russia

Great Catherine's Many Dimensions

Mini Teaser: With his usual literary lilt, Robert K. Massie captures Catherine the Great's stirring story. But by focusing on her personal life, he slights her role as absolute monarch obsessed with the enlightenment and power of her adopted Russia.

by Author(s): Richard S. Wortman

Her coup was very much in the spirit of Peter the Great; she subordinated hereditary right to the welfare of the realm and consecrated her rule by a show of heroic and violent conquest. Paintings executed to her order show her girded with sword, astride a white horse, departing Peterhof with the Guards behind her and receiving their oath on the steps of the Kazan Cathedral. Her accession manifesto of July 6, 1762, presented the seizure of power in the rhetoric of rebirth by conquest that legitimized her coup and painted Peter III’s reign in the darkest colors. Though Petersburg remained tense and quiet in the aftermath of the coup, official rhetoric described the joyous acclaim of the people.

THUS, CATHERINE brought down the curtain on the reign of her predecessor. Like Peter the Great, she cast the immediate past into oblivion. For the historian, the question remains: How much of her memoirs and those of her contemporaries are to be believed? Massie’s smooth account avoids the kind of doubts that frequently assail the professional historian. Where does he find sparkling descriptions of the figures when he describes their appearance, manners, charms and shortcomings? We feel we know Catherine, but how much of the portrait is the product only of expert and cunning artifice? Footnotes attribute quotations, but the narrative is not annotated and seems to be drawn principally from the same works as the quotations: a legion of popular biographies of Catherine, none of which are annotated. Footnotes are irksome and often distracting in scholarly history, but they do indicate a certain tribute to veracity. They show that the author is not engaging in invention and perhaps leaving truth at the mercy of a well-meaning imagination.

Massie does draw upon a few scholarly works and primary sources, including the memoirs and letters of Catherine and her contemporaries, but they cannot be readily taken as innocent reproductions of the truth. After Catherine’s accession, she saw to the destruction of nearly all the documents remaining from Peter III’s six-month reign. The only memoirs of her earlier years to appear after her accession were works of those loyal to her. “Catherine’s suppression of the publication of anything positive about Peter III contributed to the remarkable conformity of the literary record with the official point of view,” writes historian Carol S. Leonard in her book Reform and Regicide: The Reign of Peter III of Russia. She adduces reforms later developed by Catherine that originated in the reign of her presumably addled spouse: the emancipation of the nobility from service, the confiscation of church lands and the liberalization of commercial regulation to encourage grain trade. Peter III and his officials even began to reevaluate the Petrine legal system on the basis of Enlightenment principles. Could Catherine have wreaked revenge for her bedroom suffering not only by humiliating and eliminating her husband but also by purging him from the historical record?

Nevertheless, Massie’s account seems a fair, if not flawless, approximation of historical reality, and his narrative charm may seem worth suspending judgment and enjoying the story. In addition, it introduces a welcome note of approval of Catherine, in this respect sharing the positive valuation of her reign elaborated by Isabel de Madariaga and other recent historians. My principal discomfort arises not from the inevitable methodological transgressions of popular biography but from the author’s initial premise of a sharp distinction between the woman and the empress, which I find anachronistic and questionable. The personal ties so important to our contemporary post-Freudian sensibility—the affective bonds with parents, husband, lovers and son—were hardly Catherine’s chief preoccupation. Massie acknowledges as much. He writes that Catherine “could not remain simply a loving mistress. She was empress of Russia.” She rose early in the morning and worked fifteen hours a day, leaving at best an hour before she fell asleep. “This was all the time she could spare to be a man’s plaything.”

Catherine was hardly her lovers’ plaything. Rather, they played central roles in her exercise of power. Massie describes the stiff regimen they took on—accompanying her when she wished and appearing at her side at court. The designation brought with it untold emoluments, estates, gifts and high standing, at least for the duration of the romance. But missing is the larger symbolic and political context of absolute monarchy in eighteenth-century Russia and Catherine’s effort to enhance monarchical power by pursuing a grand design of transforming Russia into an enlightened European state. Her lovers were agents of this design. Her displays of romantic conquest emulated those of the exemplar of absolute monarchy, Louis XIV, who rode about Versailles with his various mistresses, whose names were mentioned slyly in publications such as La Gazette de France and Le Mercure. Like his, her shows of amorous prowess present her as a semblance of a pagan deity wielding power over mere mortals and unbridled by biblical prescription. Louis designed Versailles to instruct the French nobility in the manners and tastes of high culture. Catherine too played the role of teacher. Massie alludes to such didactic intentions in regard to her lovers as if they were mere excuses for her romantic adventures. But however much they satisfied her physical needs, Catherine presented her paramours as paragons of civilized conduct who were at her side as she rode in her carriage in her outings at Tsarskoye Selo and elsewhere.

Catherine’s allure and intelligence were at the service of her political self. She was a ruler of implacable will, determined to transform the Russian nobility and state after the Western model in order to claim the cultural and political heritage of the empires of antiquity. The two sides of her personality were captured in the famous “mirror” portrait by the Danish artist Virgilius Eriksen, painted in the first years of Catherine’s reign. Catherine faces us before a mirror, the imperial crown on a table before it. The frontal view is of an elegant, sympathetic countenance with rosy cheeks. She is comely and inviting. The mirror image, in profile, shows a strong jaw, a face looking beyond the picture with determination and intelligence.

Indeed, Catherine commissioned her own portraits, which showed how she expected to be seen. The paintings made known the diverse representations of her protean self. After the coup, she appears as a conquering monarch on horseback. Baroque allegories present her as Minerva, the Roman goddess of war, hovering over the generals of her southern campaign, and as the lawgiver in the company of Minerva, holding a copy of her Nakaz, or “Instruction,” to the codification commission. She appears also as a sympathetic matron with a lap dog, and a modest traveler in her voyage to New Russia in the South. The constrictions of selfhood did not limit the absolute monarch inspired by the boundless perspectives of enlightened rule.

These perspectives are sketched only vaguely in Massie’s portrait, which seems to capture just one of her many selves. His brief chapter on the Enlightenment consists of accounts of her correspondence and interaction with the philosophes Voltaire, Diderot and Grimm. But it gives no notion of her intense engagement with the eighteenth-century ethos of rationalist absolute rule, introduced by Peter the Great, or of the vast scope of her activity as enlightener. Massie’s close-up portrait doesn’t capture the paternalist conviction that absolute monarchy was a means of advancing the state for the welfare of the population. Catherine, a usurper, had no other claim to rule than that of agent of the welfare of the Russian state. She inhabited a world of lofty visions of Russia that she was determined to realize through the devices of reason and enlightenment. She strove to transform Russian noblemen into educated and cultivated participants in her governmental projects. As “the philosophe on the throne,” she instructed the nobility in conduct, morals and taste but most of all in virtue. She wrote in many genres: history, journal articles, plays, operas and children’s books as well as memoirs, but Massie’s book gives no indication of the extent or variety of her literary work. Her collected works fill twelve volumes. Her intellectual efforts engendered the first rudimentary public sphere in Russia. Literary journals in the country had appeared in Empress Elizabeth’s reign, but Catherine went further, composing and publishing such journals herself as a way to address educated noblemen and school them in virtue.

For Catherine, virtue meant civic virtue: she strove to make noblemen genteel and active citizens—to show them how to conduct themselves like educated Europeans and to devote themselves, as she did, to the common weal. Education of the nobility was the goal of the journal she founded in 1769, All Sorts of Things (Vsiakaia Vsiachina), which engaged in the eighteenth-century ridicule of vices with didactic intent. Like many contemporary European journals, it followed the example of two English publications, Joseph Addison’s Spectator and Samuel Johnson’s Idler. All Sorts of Things showed the nobility how to act—not to stuff their rooms with too much furniture, not to speak in too loud a voice, not to drink too much coffee. Through it, Catherine told them how to manage their estates and instructed them to treat their peasants humanely. She satirized ladies of the salon for their superficiality and freethinkers for their cynicism and disrespect as well as their bigotry and intolerance. She encouraged what she called her journal’s “children,” and within a year after the first issue, six new journals printing the same type of satirical banter had appeared. She introduced the principle of intellectual tolerance to the practice of Russian monarchy, and though she and her successors often observed it more in its omission, it remained an ideal for the intellectual elite.

Pullquote: Catherine’s rise from the neglected daughter of a minor German prince to the throne of the Russian Empire is indeed an amazing one, combining the pathos of a Cinderella tale with an epic narrative of triumph.Image: Essay Types: Book Review