Empress of All Russia Analysis
by Iris Noble

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Empress of All Russia Analysis

(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

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 her conscience. Catherine is persuaded by Voltaire’s belief that the use of reason could create a just society, and, in her own misery, she sympathizes with those who are treated so cruelly by their masters.

The problem, however, is that Catherine, inspired by Voltaire and her own desires to lift the downtrodden serfs of Russia from their poverty and ignorance, must deal also with the realities of Russian life. If she is to become empress and to keep her power and position—which she comes to believe is the only way that she will survive—then she must have the support of the nobility. The nobility gain their wealth by forcing the serfs to work for them and by seizing nearly everything that the serfs produce. Thus, Noble reasons, Catherine ultimately chooses to ignore the plight of the poor and downtrodden. Instead, once she has attained the throne, her ambition for personal power is transformed into a drive to make her kingdom ever greater. The political skills that she learned at court are...

(The entire section is 685 words.)