Henri Troyat

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Aileen Kelly

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In the energy with which she pursued the two imperatives of modernization and absolute power, Catherine was by far the most distinguished [successor to Peter the Great of Russia]. (p. 30)

Most of Catherine's biographers have been equally dazzled, but none has been so naively eager in the celebration of her will as M. Troyat [in Catherine the Great]. The silliness of his fatuously admiring book can be illustrated by a single sentence: "there was nothing … involuntary or unconscious in [Catherine's] daily behavior." The other qualities of this "solid rock of will," as he calls her, are hardly more credible. Her fanatical belief in reason and her worship of clarity enabled her, we are told, to become "fully acquainted … at once" with any situation in internal or external politics, while as an intermediary in European affairs she was the sole possessor of clear insight among the "bewildered monarchs" of Europe. Like M. Troyat's claim that Catherine's mind was "trained" by her reading of Enlightenment thinkers, these assertions are suspiciously close to statements which Catherine, always eager to advertise her virtues, made about herself; nowhere in the book are they supported by evidence or analysis. Historical background is sacrificed to a desire for raciness. Catherine's collection of lovers is described in titillating and cliché-laden detail, while domestic intrigue, foreign affairs, and human character are treated with all the gossipy triviality of a courtier's-eye view…. M. Troyat's is material for a low-budget B-movie where all actors apart from the heroine are interchangeable…. M. Troyat does not qualify his conclusion that in the course of her reign, whether by toughness, patience, or maneuvering, Catherine obtained "everything that she desired."

Undoubtedly Catherine succeeded in her aim of making Russia culturally a part of Europe while remaining firmly in the traditional seat of power. But the real substance of that power was rapidly diminished in the course of her reign by the tenacity with which she pursued the dream of uniting the best of two contradictory worlds….

Her genius lay not, as M. Troyat would have us believe, in her control over the processes of change in Russia, but in the way she disguised her lack of control, pioneering the methods whereby Russian autocrats and their Soviet successors have concealed the failure of the Russian experiment. (p. 31)

Aileen Kelly, "The Evolution of a Despotism," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1980 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 183, No. 26, December 27, 1980, pp. 26-33.∗

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