Catherine the Great

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

The long and eventful reign of Catherine II (1762-1796) set the tone for the expansion and development of imperial Russia. On the international stage, Russia’s status was enhanced by the consolidation of its position as a great power, indeed the leading state in Eastern Europe. The organs of central government and provincial administration were subjected to reform; legal norms were reviewed in the effort to answer outwardly the criteria for justice as understood by Enlightenment Europe. Advances were also achieved with systematic groundwork on the educational system. In each of these areas scholarly writers have considered the major issues in the development of politics and society, and researchers have been afforded significant perspectives on the vital issues in the growth of the Russian state. On another level, moreover, the age of Catherine the Great was one of the more colorful and distinctive periods of Russian court life. Love affairs, jealousies, and rivalries animated Catherine’s personal life and aroused comment in her own country and in much of Europe. Many of her more important ministers, and at least one head of state, figured among her lovers. Liaisons of this sort, replete with pathos and intrigue, have furnished material for numerous biographers and popular writers and indeed it is in this sense that much of the general public is familiar with Catherine’s reign.

Henri Troyat’s work is notable as one of the more sophisticated, and one of the more extensively researched examples of this genre, although it is in passing that issues of state and questions of public policy are sketched in background against the life and times of Catherine. In composing his study of Catherine, Troyat has drawn on much of the Russian literature, as well as many of the contemporary publications of European observers. On some issues the archives of the French foreign ministry have also been summoned as evidence. Where useful, he has drawn upon Catherine’s own memoirs. His story is told within the frame of reference, in accordance with the recorded thoughts and feelings of the leading figures of the day, of the little girl from Northeastern Germany who became Empress of Russia.

Catherine was born in Stettin, the princess of Anhalt-Zerbst; an enterprising, ambitious girl, she had been married at a youthful age to Peter-Ulrich of Holstein-Gottorp, whose family enjoyed close relations with the court of St. Petersburg. Adaptation to her new homeland was difficult: behind the luxurious façades of the capital, the squalor and misery of much of Russia was oppressive. Domestic disenchantment set in almost from the outset of the marriage; her husband could not satisfy her, ignored her, and preoccupied himself with wooden soldiers, while Catherine went off to seek other lovers. In a sense, her early days in Russia sounded recurrent themes that were to echo through the years of Catherine’s reign as Empress.

While she had kept occupied with amorous encounters, Catherine had become the more withdrawn from Peter, whose childish martial fantasies disquieted her. Troyat depicts her liaisons in some detail and with a sympathetic eye. She was drawn toward the Polish nobleman, the refined and charming, although strangely bashful, Stanislas Augustus Poniatowski, and later toward Count Gregory Orlov, the impetuous infantry commander whose brusque, manly ardor captivated her. Upon Peter’s accession to the throne (1762), his estrangement from Catherine rendered her position the more uneasy; many Russian officials were aghast at the new ruler’s pathetic military pretensions and his hopeless admiration for Frederick the Great, who was then commanding Prussian forces against Russia in the Seven Years’ War. In a confused atmosphere of conspiracy and intrigue, Catherine, with the assistance of her lover and favorites, carried out the dethronement of Peter. Here, Troyat portrays Catherine as acting with composure and presence of mind, while Aleksei Orlov, a hardened military man, became unnerved by political pressures and took the further impromptu step of murdering the deposed Czar.

Although Catherine had come to the throne under the shadow of foul play, she grasped the reins of power readily enough, without hesitation, and within the government, most felt that she was preferable to the erratic Peter. Troyat’s discussion of her exercise of power, while more concerned with style than substance, does convey something of her methods and ideas. She started work quite early in the morning and remained active through most of the day, exhausting her secretaries and keeping her officials at work longer than had been their custom. She drafted statutes to promote commerce and education, and she encouraged skilled foreigners to...

(The entire section is 1937 words.)