In Empress of All Russia, Noble develops and integrates two major themes. The first is the personal tragedy of the young Catherine. As a teenager, she is dragged from the comforting home of her youth to a foreign, forbidding environment in which she is constantly judged and criticized. Harsh demands are imposed upon her. The joys and freedom of her youth are stolen, and she becomes a victim of power politics. To survive, Catherine must learn to hide her feelings, to lie, and to flatter others. She gives up girlish dreams of romantic love and substitutes power as her goal. She learns to manipulate men, and though not very pretty, she realizes that she can use her position and her favors to gain powerful allies. Although she is ultimately successful in achieving her goal of becoming empress, she has lost the ability to trust, love, and care truly for others.
According to Noble, Catherine’s personal tragedy also becomes a great political tragedy precisely because she succeeds in attaining her new goal of power, and power alone. As empress of Russia, every decision that she makes affects millions of her subjects. Catherine is an extremely intelligent young woman. She sees the need to impress the powerful people around her, so she tries to ingratiate herself with them by learning everything that she can about the history, language, and customs of their country. At first, she simply acknowledges that Russia’s social and economic system gives all the power and wealth to the few and mistreats everyone else, but in her reading she also encounters the works of the famous French writer Voltaire. Voltaire’s writings attack the injustice of this system and awaken...
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Empress of All Russia has stood the test of time as a classic biography for younger readers for two reasons. First, in style and method, the book is specifically directed toward a younger audience. Noble’s extensive use of dialogue, her imaginative projections of the thoughts and emotions of Catherine and other historical characters, and her emphasis on Catherine’s youth encourage a teenage reader to identify with the future empress. Although few readers are likely ever to have been in an environment such as Catherine’s, most can identify with the feeling of being trapped in a situation over which they have little control. Catherine’s perseverance provides a good example, although the goal of her efforts might not.
Second, in Empress of All Russia, Noble succeeds in challenging readers to think about questions of wealth, power, and justice in society without adopting a preachy tone. The historical background material necessary to understanding the context of such questions is so skillfully integrated into the portrait of Catherine that it becomes a natural part of the drama of her rise to power. What Catherine did with her power, however, suggests that the title “the Great” may have several different meanings, and Noble offers, through her interpretation of the views of Voltaire, one alternative. Readers are thus encouraged to consider whether the fates of Catherine and Russia could have been different.