Catherine the Great

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

The life of Catherine II of Russia is fascinating enough to command a regular and secure place in the book trade, and every four or five years a new popular biography appears. Joan Haslip’s volume is the latest offering, and it meets all the requirements of the popular genre. Haslip faithfully recounts Catherine’s string of romances and sexual encounters, her correspondence with great literary and royal personages, and her major foreign policy triumphs. However, the author builds the story on the often repeated and long outdated secondary accounts of Brückner, Soloveytchik, and Walezewski, plus some gossipy diplomatic dispatches. As a result, we get no new information or interpretation.

It is unfortunate that Haslip took this easy route, when, with a little extra effort, she could have produced something fresh and valuable. In the past fifteen years American, British, and French scholars have published a number of original monographs and shorter studies opening whole new lines of inquiry and discovery, and they have substantially modified the previously accepted knowledge about Catherine’s reign. Haslip gives us none of this. The professional historian will certainly be dismayed to find how little of hardwon scholarly research gets translated into popular history. To her credit, Haslip writes with flair, and readers with no previous knowledge of the topic or period will profit from this entertaining introduction. They may, however, miss entirely the true reasons for Catherine’s greatness.

The focus throughout this book remains on Catherine the woman of insatiable sexual appetite, Catherine the witty correspondent of philosophers and kings, Catherine the imperial conqueror of Turks and Poles. To judge from this account, about the only serious work she did on her own was identifying and buying major collections of Western art. This treatment trivializes Catherine both as a person and a ruler. One can scarcely come away from this book without feeling that Catherine was a nymphomaniac. Time and again we hear of lovers staggering out of her bedroom in complete exhaustion, pumping themselves up on aphrodisiacs, and seeking escape from her constant need for genital stimulation (we are at least spared the story of the horse). In reality, Catherine’s love life was prosaic. She worked hard at the job of reigning and ruling, often twelve to fourteen hours a day, and sex was merely her way to relax and let off tension. But a woman ruler who scorned the expected prudish standards and who was clever and powerful enough to thwart the designs of foreign representatives and their masters could scarcely avoid being a target of slander. The stories of Catherine’s sex life were largely the fantasies of frustrated men. Such tales were naturally picked up and peddled by popular book sellers. They sold well then, and apparently there is still a market for them today.

Haslip writes history in the grand manner. In her pages the “great person” theory is alive and well with an almost made-for-television baldness. Nothing of importance happens without the personal intervention of a heroic character. A typical case is the description of the 1771 bubonic plague epidemic in Moscow. The favorite Gregory Orlov was sent to deal with it, and, according to Haslip, his “boldness and decisiveness . . . cleared the city of the pestilence.” As simple as that. Of course, no one then knew anything about the etiology and treatment of plague; its abatement was a function of changes in the weather and the rat-flea vector. Orlov just happened to arrive at the right time to take credit for it.

The book assigns too much power and influence to the Orlov brothers generally. They provided the muscle for Catherine’s coup d’état in 1762, and in the early years she was indebted to them and dependent enough not to want to alienate them. But there were three loci of power in eighteenth century Russia: the imperial guards (where the Orlov strength lay), the Senate (seat of the leading families), and the court parties. Haslip gives the impression that Catherine did not believe she could rule without the support of the Orlovs, which falsely diminishes her stature. While no ruler could act effectively without the cooperation of these three institutions (as Peter III learned too late), Catherine was an astute politician who well understood how to manipulate this...

(The entire section is 1789 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Best Sellers. XXXVII, May, 1977, p. 50.

Booklist. LXXIII, April 1, 1977, p. 1138.

Economist. CCLXIII, April 23, 1977, p. 130.

New Statesman. XCIII, March 18, 1977, p. 361.

New York Times Book Review. March 27, 1977, p. 4.

Observer. March 13, 1977, p. 28.