Catherine the Great: Love, Sex and Power, by
15 April 2006
The heart and stomach of a king
Catherine the Great: Love, Sex
Reviewed by Charlotte Hobson
When Princess Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst arrived at the Russian court in 1744, one of the many daughters of minor German royal houses who came to St Petersburg in the hope of an advantageous marriage, she was just 15 and ‘as ugly as a scarecrow’ after a severe illness. Her future husband, the heir to the throne, Grand Duke Peter, was a bizarre character whose main interests were his toy soldiers and ‘romping’ with his valets. No one, unsurprisingly, recognised in her the future Catherine II, one of Russia’s greatest rulers, who was to preside over a vast expansion of Russian territory, the flourishing of St Petersburg, the huge collection of European art and sculpture that formed the basis of the Hermitage, the reform of local government, law and education, not to mention a procession of ever younger and more delectable lovers. How did she do it? In this entertaining new biography, Virginia Rounding explores ‘Catherine as a woman’, the character and passions that sustained this extraordinary life.
Sophie, who took the name Catherine on being baptised into the Orthodox Church, was first of all patient. Eighteen years passed before she came to the throne, years of which she later wrote, ‘After the dogs, I was the most miserable creature in the world.’ After seven years of marriage, her ‘child-husband’ had still not got round to the business of consummation. Finally an attendant arranged that Catherine take her first lover, bloodlines being less important than healthy little heirs. A son duly appeared.
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Discreet, determined, and with all the innate understanding of politics that her husband lacked, Catherine made it her business to charm everyone. A year after the ascendancy of her husband, Peter III, she was already plotting to overthrow him. In June 1762, she was woken in the middle of the night by the news that one of her conspirators had been arrested and the coup must take place at once. She left the palace in such a hurry that only a lucky meeting with her French hairdresser, who jumped into her carriage and arranged her hair as they sped towards the Ismailovsky regiment, avoided the scene of Catherine, Empress of All the Russias, receiving the oath of allegiance in her lace nightcap.
Peter did not resist. Arrested in his palace of Peterhof, it was said of him later that he ‘allowed himself to be dethroned like a child being sent to bed’. A week later Peter was dead, strangled by his guards. It looked fishy, whether Catherine was complicit in the murder or not. All her efforts to bring Russia into the Age of Enlightenment could never quite rid her of the stain of regicide.
Catherine took to power with alacrity. Clever, diligent and well-read from her years of preparation, she was an empress who astonished her Senate by actually joining in their sessions. She, in turn, was horrified to discover the senators’ ignorance of the country they were governing. One of her first instructions to them was to obtain a map of Russia from the Academy of Sciences.
She soon established a strict timetable of work: starting at six in the morning, she worked for many years on a new Codification of the Laws, which had not been overhauled for a century, met her ministers and other petitioners, read, and kept up with her vast correspondence with Voltaire and Diderot, among others. Her letters reveal a witty, cheerful, sensible woman, who did not stand on ceremony — or not all the time. Writing to the sculptor, Falconet, who has asked for her opinion of one of his works, she says disarmingly, ‘I cannot even draw; [yours] will be perhaps the first good statue which I will have seen in my life; how can you content yourself with such a slender judgment?’
Essential to her happiness was a current ‘favourite’, of whom she had, I think, ten during the course of her 30-year reign. ‘The trouble is that my heart is loth to remain even one hour without love,’ she wrote. She was not as capricious as this makes her sound; most of her lovers were seen off by court intrigues. Her practice of loading each one with not only rank and wealth but political power made this almost inevitable. Only Potemkin, whom she may have secretly married (although Rounding thinks not), retained his position after their first passion had waned. Catherine relied on him as a member of her government, and in a brilliantly pragmatic move he provided her with young, handsome officers, thus solving the matter of her heart and preserving his status in one move.
As Catherine grew older, her letters suggest some English country lady, kind, bossy and brisk, with a passion for her grand- children and her dogs. Her lovers, by this time a good 30 years her junior, are described in the same nannyish tones as her grandchildren: ‘We are beneficent, cheerful, honest and very sweet.’ The ‘horse story’ — that she was squashed beneath a stallion — was a malicious rumour, as this book is at pains to point out. In fact Catherine the Great died of a stroke on the lavatory, like Elvis.
By John Lloyd
Published: March 31 2006 15:20 | Last updated: March 31 2006 15:20
Catherine the Great: Love Sex and Power
by Virginia Rounding
Hutchinson £20, 592 pages
When Catherine the Great died in November 1796, her son Paul decreed that the remains of her husband, Peter III, whom she had probably had murdered 34 years before, be disinterred and reburied with her corpse. On their tomb at the Cathedral of St Peter and St Paul in St Petersburg, their dates of birth and the date of burial are recorded - but not the dates of their death, thus making it appear that they ruled together.
Her son Paul I - whose own short and undistinguished rule ended with his assassination, a common feature for successors of Catherine - was, comments Virginia Rounding, “by no means the last among the rulers of Russia to attempt to rewrite history”.
The Russians’ love of constructing displays, masks and subterfuges is one of the themes of Rounding’s close-focus biography Catherine the Great. Her subject was a supreme mistress of the art of artifice, and, though a German princess, she absorbed Russia’s customs and culture as fully as its difficult language. Catherine was also a model of the ruler as symbol. Naturally authoritative, schooled by her stern Lutheran father and self-taught in discipline and public restraint, she dominated Russian life for three decades.
She brought great territorial gains, victory against the encroachments of the Turkish and Swedish empires, a much wider view of the world and of intellectual achievement, especially that of France. And all the while she steadily thwarted the growing, if still sporadic, pressures from the few radicals for the liberty of the wretched serfs and some representation for the small but growing middle class. In a mock epitaph for herself, she wrote that she was a “Republican”; if so, it was only in the mind, and in correspondence with intellectuals such as Voltaire and Diderot, whom she read with avidity and whose admiration she sought and won.
In her preface, Rounding says she won’t go into “lengthy detail about Russian foreign and diplomatic policy in the 18th century”. Indeed, she hardly goes into any detail, so that the vast changes and conflicts within and outside Russia are all off stage. For that, best go to a general history such as Geoffrey Hosking’s wonderful Russia: People and Empire, 1552-1917. But for a sense of Catherine’s intimate life, sexual appetites, preoccupations, ruthlessness, intellectual scope, sentimentality and dedication, this is a great piece of work.
Her biography was in part inspired by indignation, Rounding writes. She had heard, while a student, the apparently widely believed story that Catherine died when a contraption constructed to allow her to have intercourse with a stallion collapsed. I had heard that story, too, from a Russian friend. Rounding says the origin of this salacious rubbish (Catherine died of a stroke) lay in the inability of the male ruling classes to cope with a successful woman empress - as well as the ribaldry that surrounded the tales of her, certainly active, sex life. Catherine needed lovers. When she had one - such as Potemkin, for much of her adult life - she wanted and took others from her court. Potemkin came to accept and even help her choose them and these menages a trois lasted until her sixties, although Rounding doubts if sex played much of a part in latter years.
To these lovers, and to many others, she gave vast gifts - gold and diamonds, hundreds and thousands of serfs (which meant land, reckoned by the “souls” tethered to it), palaces and titles. Everything belonged to the empress, including the lands of aristocrats; on death, the estates often were given to a new favourite. The court was thus a seething den of intrigue, courtiers jostling for preferment and indulging in stultifying ceremony. Catherine did not like the latter, but saw in it a necessary stage for the display of herself to her subjects, aristocratic and peasant alike - a utilitarian spirit that she also applied to religious observance. Early on in her sojourn in Russia, she wrote to her father, Prince Christian August of Anhalt-Zerbst, that the orthodox Christianity to which she converted from Lutheranism was one of high priestly ceremony and abasement of the faithful because of “the brutality of the people”. By this, she meant the Russians were so brutish that only vivid ceremonials and strict hierarchy could impress them into devotion. She helped make them - at least the aristocrats and scholars among them - much less so.
Her observation might say much about the development of the Russian character even now, but Rounding’s biography doesn’t go in for such speculation. Instead, it’s a treasure house of detail: long and frequent quotation from Catherine, from the foreign ambassadors’ despatches and from letters to her from foreign intellectuals and Russian favourites. It is hugely well informed on the intimacies of the grand, freezing and sometimes vermin-infested palaces of St Petersburg, still under construction during her reign. It is replete with insights into the cruelties and calculations brought to bear on life and power in an age where life, even for the aristocracy, could be short and dangerous, and thus where the active felt impelled to pursue their plans and desires with the greater force.
Rounding has great sympathy with her subject. When she justifies Catherine’s title of “the Great”, you may regret the lack of the diplomatic and military perspective that underpins that soubriquet - but you are in no doubt as to the strength of will and character that made her deserve it.
home with the empress
Virginia Rounding avoids much politics or culture in her intimate history of Catherine the Great, says Catriona Kelly
Saturday April 1, 2006
Catherine the Great: Love, Sex and Power, by Virginia Rounding (592pp, Hutchinson, £20)
On August 8 1768, William Richardson, tutor to the family of the newly arrived British ambassador, attended the laying of the foundation stone of St Isaac's Cathedral in St Petersburg. Here he observed from a distance the Empress Catherine, who, as he approvingly recorded, was "taller than the middle sized, gracefully formed, but inclined to corpulence". Something about her was teasingly unclassifiable: "Indeed, with regard to her appearance altogether, it would be doing her injustice to say she was masculine, yet it would not be doing her justice to say it was entirely feminine." Catherine herself was to note in her memoirs her own "masculine" cast of mind; as an exceptionally effective ruler in a country where women had traditionally exercised authority in private, she outraged conservatives, such as Prince Mikhail Shcherbatov, who saw her as the most egregious illustration of the monstrous regiment of women that had engineered the "ruination of the morals of Russia".
The quintessential enlightened despot, Catherine had a capacity for flamboyant theatricality, which also extended to strategic demonstrations of simplicity. Famously abstemious with regard to most personal pleasures, she took part with gusto in the transvestite masquerades at the court of Empress Elizabeth, and dressed up as a colonel of the Preobrazhensky Guards to lead troops from St Petersburg to Peterhof in pursuit of her husband, Peter III, to consolidate the coup d'etat of June 28 1762. As Virginia Rounding notes, "she was deliberately creating symbols on this day, conscious of every nuance of appearance", and she was equally self-conscious at every other moment of her life. It was common for foreign visitors to record the empress's easy manners, "like a charming lady on her country estate", one migrant Frenchman exclaimed. They were of course supposed to note exactly this; Catherine was enacting what Ronald Hingley, writing of Pasternak, once termed a "choreography of self-effacement", a show of modesty to political and diplomatic ends.
In this perspective, Rounding's subtitle, "Love, Sex and Power", would seem to have got things in the wrong order. Certainly, Catherine wrote to Potemkin in her "Sincere Confession of 21 February 1774", "My heart is loath to remain even one hour without love", but "love" - particularly in her last years - involved a strong impulse to manage those selected as recipients of emotion by her, whether this meant nudging her lover Alexander Lanskoy into cultivated pursuits, or minutely regulating the upbringing of another Alexander, her grandson and second in line to the throne. None of Catherine's voluminous writings was spontaneous; letters could always be intercepted, diaries might be read, and Catherine's memoirs were an effort to set the record straight for her own times as well as posterity, written in different versions for different readers and allies.
Rounding's introduction recognises some of the problems of historical interpretation that Catherine's life presents, her "constant awareness of herself as a public figure". But in the body of the book, she narrates in the heedless manner of biographie romancée (not for nothing is Nancy Mitford named as an inspiration in her foreword). This is very much an intimate, "feminine" study of Catherine's life, without a deep command of the politics, culture and symbolic reality of the Russia in which she lived. An uninitiated reader would never guess that the country witnessed a huge upsurge of activity in arts, sciences, industry and technology, not to speak of a major push forward in terms of territorial expansion. Rounding dutifully records some of the key events of the reign - battles against the Turks, the suppression of the Pugachev rebellion, the exile of the dissident writer Alexander Radishchev - but her heart does not lie here, and she appears to assume that Catherine's did not either.
Confected for the most part from Catherine's own writings and the comments of foreign travellers, this is a rose-pink bavaroise of a book, enjoyable if not sustaining. In factual terms it is sometimes a little wobbly: the Russian word for "perlustration" is wrongly spelt, laboriously explained, and stated with misplaced optimism to be obsolete; we are told that Empress Elizabeth's chancellor "would have preferred a girl from an Austrian or English royal family" as a bride for Peter. The empress herself, who had a schoolmistressy regard for accuracy and a strong sense of personal dignity, might, one suspects, have met this latest version of her life with beady eyes, and perhaps also the expression traditionally used in her home country to snub know-all gossips: "So, were you holding the lamp or what?"
Nevertheless, Rounding sketches from her limited perspective quite effectively: she is strong on the details of court protocol, diet and above all costume. One can learn exactly what the voluminous silk domino donned by Catherine for a particular court occasion looked like, and what colour it was.
Rounding also suggests how distinct Catherine's world was from ours, describing how, when young, she underwent treatment for curvature of the spine by means of rubbing every day "with the saliva of a servant girl, who was under strict instructions not to eat anything beforehand". She conveys some constants in the empress's psychology, above all her capacity to erase unpleasant events - the village from which rebel Pugachev came was summarily demolished and rebuilt in order to make it seem that the traitor had never existed. While I am not sure that the book adds significantly to knowledge of 18th-century Russia, it does tell part of the story of perhaps the most important Enlightenment ruler with some verve and a degree of conviction.
Catriona Kelly's A Very Short Introduction to Russian Literature is published by OUP.
HUTCHINSON £20 (566pp) £18 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897
The most striking thing about the Empress Catherine II, who ruled Russia for 34 years after overthrowing her husband in a coup, is that she lived like a man. After her unsatisfactory first marriage she took a series of lovers, starting with men of her own age and abilities but moving on to a string of what would now be called toyboys. The last, Platon Zubov, was only 22 when 60-year-old Catherine chose him; he was approved by Prince Grigory Potemkin, a former lover who sometimes took on the responsibility of finding new candidates for the Empress's affections.
There seems little doubt that Catherine enjoyed sex and her behaviour, if she had been a male monarch, would hardly have been remarkable in the 18th century. But it scandalised her court, prompting censorious gossip and disapproving reports from ambassadors. When she dumped an earlier favourite, Semyon Zorich, for Ivan Rimsky-Korsakov (ancestor of the composer), the British ambassador Sir James Harris reported to his masters that the switch "gives rise to many unpleasant reflections, and sinks in the eyes of foreigners the reputation of the Empress".
There may have been an element of jealousy in such reactions for Catherine showered her lovers with honours and some enjoyed extraordinary influence at court. But her frank sexual appetite gave rise to the most notorious anecdote associated with her name: the bizarre canard that she died having sex with a stallion in a specially-constructed frame. A German visitor to Russia had published the calumny that Russians had a tendency to commit sodomy with horses, and Catherine was an enthusiastic rider in youth. Even so, it's hard to imagine a slander which could more strongly express the misogyny and sexual disgust that motivated the Empress's detractors.
There are plenty of charges that could legitimately be made against Catherine. This most rational and scientific of monarchs - she championed inoculation against smallpox, inviting its English pioneer Thomas Dimsdale to Russia in 1768 to try it on herself and her son - achieved power through a coup against her husband, Peter III. She did nothing to prevent his murder, even if she did not actually order it. Her reforms of local government and education were enlightened but, despite her correspondence with philosophers such as Voltaire and Diderot, she wielded absolute power in a court frequently torn apart by whims and intrigues.
Towards the end of her reign, this self-described "republican soul" was horrified by the French revolution, ordering six weeks' mourning for the death of Louis XVI, "cruelly murdered by his rebellious subjects". Indeed Catherine's latest biographer, Virginia Rounding, points out that the first two years of the reign of an Empress who "set so much store by reason and enlightened principles" were marked by assassinations - of Peter and the previously-deposed Ivan VI - and an execution.
The child-emperor Ivan had been overthrown by Peter's aunt, the Empress Elizabeth, who unintentionally set in train her nephew's downfall when she married him off in 1745 to an obscure princess, Sophie Frederica Auguste of Anhalt-Zerbst - one of 300 principalities that then made up Germany.
Sophie took the name Catherine when she converted to the Orthodox church. She was summoned to the Russian court as a prospective bride in 1744, aged 14, travelling to the old capital, Moscow, with her mother, Princess Johanna Elizabeth. Sophie's father was excluded from the invitation, which brought about their parting, while her mother was a self-centred and hypochondriac companion.
Rounding records their journey in minute detail, quoting original sources at a length which may seem protracted to the general reader. If she had been more selective, especially about who took part in the court's interminable ceremonies, it might have been a livelier read; it would also have made sense, especially in view of the subtitle, to have more analysis of Catherine's inner life and character.
This is fruitful territory for speculation. Catherine soon discovered that her husband-to-be was painfully immature, spending most of his time in his room playing soldiers. Not long before the wedding, the groom contracted smallpox, which he survived with his appearance much changed; his face was swollen and badly scarred, to a point where Catherine recorded that she found him "frightful to look at".
It was not an auspicious start to married life and, after her mother was packed off home, the couple had little to do with each other. She later wrote that "after the dogs I was the most miserable creature in the world". The marriage was not consummated for years, to the consternation of Empress Elizabeth, who expected an heir. After earnest discussions of what might be wrong, a young widow was recruited to initiate the Grand-Duke into the mysteries of sex. By this time Catherine was passionately in love with someone herself, the dashing chamberlain Sergei Saltykov.
Rounding speculates that her own initiation occurred with both men at roughly the same time in 1752. Two years later she gave birth to a son - the Grand-Duke Paul, later Tsar Paul I - whose paternity has never been established with certainty. Rounding inclines to the view that he was her husband's child.
The baby was immediately removed by Elizabeth, who took over his care and education, and it was made clear to Catherine that she was of no account now she had done her duty; instead of learning from her own distress at this time, she would one day impose a very similar regime on her daughter-in-law. The lesson she derived, according to Rounding, was that "she would have to create her own destiny in Russia".
That she did so after enduring such a lengthy catalogue of separation, loss and despair in her youth explains much about her reign, not least her habit of cauterising herself against painful emotions, her own and other people's. This is a familiar strategy, more common in men than women, and it is not surprising that it produced a ruler who was Great in the male sense: intellectually gifted, mildly reformist but distracted by transient passions.
Joan Smith's 'Moralities' is published by Penguin
than a monumental libido
Frances Wilson reviews Catherine the Great: Love, Sex and Power by Virginia Rounding.
First, to set the record straight: there was no horse. Catherine the Great died of a stroke suffered while she was on the lavatory. The rumour, which established itself immediately as historical fact, that she was fatally squashed beneath her stallion during a romantic tryst, appears to be the result of combining her two great enthusiasms: men and riding.
The empress was famously hot to trot - a joke circulated in St Petersburg that the canal which had cost the most money was Catherine's Canal - but not, it seems, keen on stable relationships. After forcing her feckless husband to abdicate (Frederick the Great said that Peter III was dethroned by his wife like a child being sent to bed), she turned a blind eye when he was murdered by her lover and his brothers. In Catherine the Great, Virginia Rounding details Catherine's relationships with 11 other lovers; gossips whispered that there were at least 289 more than that.
The wonder is that Catherine had time for any loving while being caught up in the business of washing the blood off her hands, securing her own survival, and dragging Russia into the 18th century. "What a picture!" reported the French attaché after the coup. "The grandson of Peter I dethroned and put to death… while a Princess of Anhalt-Zerbst usurps the crown, beginning her reign with a regicide." Not a good start for a woman who set so much store by reason and Enlightenment principles.
The princess, being German, was an unlikely choice as a future empress. She was selected for the job in 1744 by the redoubtable Empress Elizabeth, aunt to Peter III, who clearly saw in the 14-year-old some of her own sterling qualities. The situation then arose that a German who was devoted to the good of Russia married a Russian who was devoted to the good of Prussia: Peter III's downfall came shortly after he succeeded in halting, at the moment of victory, Russia's war against Frederick the Great. He then, to add insult to the already injured and infuriated army, remodelled it in the Prussian style.
Peter was no better at pleasing his wife than he had been his people: it took him seven years to work out how to consummate their marriage, by which point Catherine had taken up with her first lover, thus making it unclear whether her "child-husband", as she called him, was in any way related to her son.
Catherine threw herself into sorting out the Russian empire like an administrator brought in to save a dying business. There was nothing she didn't seem adept at doing: she made an attempt to sort out the law, which had not been codified for 100 years, during which time many new laws had appeared that contradicted the old ones and were unknown even to the courts. Her list of 500 maxims on how the law should operate in Russia, "The Great Instruction", was considered by Voltaire to be "the most beautiful monument of the century".
She introduced smallpox vaccinations, volunteering herself as the first to be inoculated, studied gardening, brought into Russia magnificent European paintings, and supervised the building of St Petersburg so that it could equal in splendour London or Paris. But while her rule saw the empire flourish politically and culturally, the lives of the millions of serfs on whose labour Russia survived changed not one jot. Those at the top and bottom of the scale had little idea of the other's existence.
Catherine the Great is a great thumping triumph of a book, packed with details about a world in which detail - of dress, manners, rank - was everything. The empress's often laborious life was lived almost entirely in the form of rigid public spectacle ("When I enter a room," she bemoaned, "anyone would think I was the Medusa's head. Everyone is petrified"), but Rounding is able to picture for us, through dozens of letters from Catherine to her various male correspondents, the richness of her private life and the roundness of her character. The woman who strides through these pages is a contradictory colossus with a determination to drink life to the lees.
By turns adoring, greedy, humorous, demanding, canny and disingenuous, she is always hungry for knowledge and stimulation, reading voraciously and summoning Diderot - whose private library she had bought to save him from poverty - for nightly conversations. Her serial relationships, Rounding argues, were the result of an endless search for honesty. "Catherine received no more assistance in assessing the true measure of her intellectual and literary abilities than did her late husband in understanding the limits of his musical talent. This is part of the loneliness of absolute power."
April 16, 2006
CATHERINE THE GREAT Love, Sex and Power
by Virginia Rounding
Hutchinson £20 pp566
In August 1785, Catherine II, Empress of all the Russias, did something most extraordinary. She called a carriage and had herself driven from her summer home at Tsarskoye Selo to St Petersburg. Just like that. Everyone, Catherine herself included, was amazed. “I passed by like a tomcat, without anyone noticing,” she wrote gleefully. Her court, she went on, was consequently in turmoil, all the “hollow dreamers and politicians” struggling to find an explanation for her astonishing behaviour.
To help the reader appreciate how bizarre that impulsive journey seemed, here are a few details of some of Catherine’s other removes. When, as a 15-year-old Princess of Anhalt-Zerbst, she arrived in Russia to be sized up as the possible consort for the heir to the imperial throne, her escort was itemised by her mother in a list which, as Virginia Rounding remarks, reads like “The Twelve Days of Christmas”. It includes: item 1: a detachment of cuirassiers; item 2: the chamberlain Prince Naryshkin; item 9: a man to make the coffee; item 10: eight footmen; item 13: “I don’t know how many sleighs and stable hands”. As empress, Catherine travelled around her realm with a suite of 2,000 people. When she visited the newly annexed Crimea, 560 horses were in readiness at each staging post to drag her entourage’s coaches and sleighs. At each stop she was housed in a newly purpose-built palace in which she hosted a ball, and her most important companions were each provided with a mansion complete with staff, porcelain, silver and wine cellar. This was, as Rounding puts it, “a life of processions”.
It was a life of many other things besides. Catherine was Voltaire’s correspondent and Diderot’s patron; she was, in large part, the builder of St Petersburg; she was the collector whose purchases fill the Hermitage. She presided over the overhaul of the Russian legal system and was an ambitious politician who deposed her husband and condoned his murder. She greatly expanded her empire and her unrealised “Greek project” would have seen Byzantium revived under Russian rule. “A few more years of Catherine,” wrote a French diplomat in 1786, with a mixture of anxiety and admiration, “and Europe will be transformed.”
Such a life is too big for any one book, declares Rounding. In this enjoyable biography she has limited herself to writing about “Catherine the woman”. This still leaves plenty of material. Catherine’s peers were awed by her capacity for work, but she believed that time must be made for leisure, and make it she did. She wrote light comedies that she and her inner court performed, she spent three hours a day with her grandsons when they were small, she indulged in bouts of “plantomania” during which she planned the gardens of her palaces. And, notoriously, she made love. “The trouble is,” she wrote, “My heart is loath to remain even one hour without love.” It hardly ever did. Three of her lovers were men of considerable distinction. Others were simply fortunate that their looks (Catherine was particularly susceptible to a well-arched eyebrow) were striking enough to win them a stint as her ami followed by an arranged marriage and a generous pension.
What she did when alone with these young men we will never know. Rounding plausibly suggests that sex may not have been as important to Catherine as her contemporaries imagined. During the war with Sweden in 1790, Catherine (aged 61) and Platon Zubov (aged 23) were disturbed by a cannonade clearly audible from her private apartments, but the activity interrupted by the noise was irreproachable: the couple were busy translating Plutarch into Russian.
Catherine was a woman of the Enlightenment who ruled a realm organised on medieval lines. Most of her life was passed in surroundings of fabulous grandeur and yet she endured hardships, too: after the birth of her first baby she was left alone for hours, lying on bloody sheets on the floor of her icy-cold room because nobody dared help her into bed without express orders. She could be haughty, but she adored Grigory Potemkin because he made her “laugh fit to burst”. She snubbed the Prince de Ligne when he recited some risqué verses, but she admitted that her first meeting with the Holy Roman Emperor brought her out in a sweat. She was a prolific and entertaining letter writer, a character bound to dominate any book about her as easily as she dominated her court full of watchful ministers and wayward nobles.
Rounding vividly evokes the transitional world — at once exotically archaic and bracingly modern — through which her subject moved. There is little here about the partition of Poland or the condition of the serfs: this is a biography, not a history book. But Catherine was not only the holder of great power, she was a person of immense ambition and appetite, and this book is written with vigour and intelligence enough to do justice to its prodigious subject.
Simon Sebag Montefiore reviews Catherine the Great by Virginia Rounding.
Catherine the Great had no claim to the Russian throne whatsoever; she was not even Russian. To seize the imperial crown, she overthrew her own husband, the Emperor Peter III, and was responsible, to greater and lesser degrees, for his murder (and that of another earlier emperor, Ivan VI, imprisoned since childhood).
Catherine may have been vain, ruthless, ambitious and duplicitous but she was also tolerant, generous, well-intentioned, cultured, superbly intelligent - and a political genius. Russia had not enjoyed such a great, humanitarian leader before or since (and that includes tsars, general-secretaries and presidents).
Born Sophia, daughter of a German princeling in 1729, she was summoned in her teens by the Empress Elisabeth, Peter the Great's formidable, blonde daughter, to marry Peter of Holstein, the heir to the Russian Empire. Her husband was a scared, obnoxious bungler, but Catherine (as she became) quickly proved a skilled politician. When Peter did not father an heir, the Empress arranged for another lover to do so. The big romance of her early period was her second lover, Stanislas Poniatowsky, a handsome Pole whom she later made King of Poland.
When her husband became Tsar Peter III in 1761 he alienated everyone with his heavy-handedness, and compromised his wife's safety. Catherine cultivated the Guards and made plans to seize power but her resolve was greatly strengthened and made more urgent by Peter's threat to divorce her and imprison her in a nunnery - or worse. When her plotting was uncovered, she was forced to seize the throne. Her then lover, the bluff, angelically handsome Guards officer, Grigory Orlov, provided the military muscle. Afterwards, the Orlov brothers murdered Peter: in her new biography, Virginia Rounding suggests that Catherine did not directly order the killing - but knew it had to be done.
Orlov was benignly harmless but Catherine needed a partner in power and found one in the extraordinary, gifted Prince Potemkin, whose passionate, wild, larger-than-life eccentricity and creative political imagination complemented her orderly Germanic common sense. But both relished power and were equally talented in using it.
Hers was a long, fascinating reign marked by astounding successes in administrative reforms (although she never fulfilled her enlightened dream of abolishing serfdom), foreign policy (the conquest of the Black Sea, the Crimea, south Ukraine, Poland, Georgia), culture (the acquisition of huge new collections of art, including Sir Robert Walpole's), and public relations (her self-promotion to Voltaire and Diderot). Yet she is remembered for the succession of young lovers who followed Potemkin when he became her political partner instead of her domestic companion.
Few of these successors mattered much: Potemkin remained policy-maker and confidant while the youngsters took care of her need for sex and affection but wielded minimal power.
Virginia Rounding sensibly (and probably rightly) wonders whether it was more affection than sex that drove Catherine: she herself said 'I cannot be without love for an hour.' Her new biography sensitively describes the importance of the romantic and political partnership of Catherine and Potemkin in a way that puts Antony and Cleopatra in the shade while leaving open the question of whether they really married or not.
Catherine is a competent, enjoyable and perceptive study of an outstanding Empress. Virginia Rounding has read widely, and writes punctilious, professional history with a no-nonsense style and a respectful relish for the details that make the past come alive. The opening of the Russian archives, however, means that there is new material, some published recently, some unpublished, which throws fresh light on Catherine's personal life that the author does not appear to have used. Instead she depends on 19th-century sources, especially those often untrustworthy Western ambassadors and tourists whom she sometimes quotes for pages at a time.
Catherine's marriage, love affairs and art-collecting have been covered in so many biographies using the same sources that it would have been nice to have something new here. Nevertheless, this is a good story, well told, and Virginia Rounding portrays Catherine with the dignity she deserves.
In her Conclusion, however, she confides: 'I was first told the story of how Catherine died [having sex with a horse] when I was an undergraduate.' Having righteously declared she wants to 'put paid to salacious rumours which have sullied [Catherine's] reputation so unjustly', she then sullies it all over again, not only in the Foreword and a great chunk of her Conclusion but also in the very first sentence of her press release where it is charmingly described as 'death by stallion!' I find the sex-lives of historical titans fascinating - but the horse story is a puerile, irrelevant slander, postdating Catherine's death, surely a sniggering footnote at best.
The TLS n.º 5385, June 2, 2006
Douglas C. Smith
Catherine the Great
Love, sex and power
592 pp. Hutchinson, £ 20
0 09 179992 9
Catherine the Great has never wanted for biographers. The first accounts of her 1ife appeared around the time of her death in 1796 and others have been issuing forth in a steady flow ever since. Since 1975, eight biographies have been published in English alone, from the scholarly to the popular, to hybrids of the two. Virginia Rounding is the latest lo give us a Life of Catherine, and she knows that some justification is in order. Declaring an unabashed lack of interest in Catherine’s foreign relations and, one might add, political reforms, wars and economic programmes, Rounding writes that her hook makes no claims to being “a definite once-and-for-all biography, containing everything that is known about Catherine”. Instead, she has chosen lo concentrate on what interests her, namely, “Catherine the woman, the multi-faceted, very eighteenth-century woman”. For this she makes no apologies; nor need she, given the wonderful results.
It is one of the strengths of Catherine the Great: Love, sex and power that it relies heavily on Catherine’s own writings. No other Russian ruler wrote as much or as well as Catherine, and there is no better source for understanding her life and reign than her memoirs, letters, notes, memoranda. and the other scribblings she left behind, which would he enough lo fill dozens of volumes were they ever to be published in their entirety. Rounding is careful not always to take at her word someone as deservedly famous for the careful crafting of her public persona as was Catherine, and she is well aware of the thorny interpretative issues involved. The same could he said of the reports of the various European ambassadors to Catherine’s court with which her book abounds. Reacting to earlier historians’ often uncritical approaches to them, scholars have more recently been wary of making too much out of these communications partially because so much of what showed up in them amounted to little more than rumour and unwarranted speculation. But Rounding has mined them, together with the letters of other important figures around Catherine, to wonderful effect, showing how gossip, innuendo and lies were the lifeblood of the court.
The result is a book as irrepressibly verbal as its subject, imbued with an engaging immediacy and directness. Rounding is excellent on the endless round of balls, masquerades, processions and ceremonies that constituted court life, and her account overflows with all manner of obscure yet intriguing details on clothes (Countess Shuvalova’s underskirts “were lined with leather at the back because the Countess had been incontinent since the birth of her first child”), medicine (the popular sedative known as “Besluzhvev’s drops” was “a solution of ferric chloride, ether and alcohol”), furnishings (Grand Duchess Maria Fyodorovna’s private bedroom had “blue glass columns, white damask wall coverings with a pink dado and bed to match”) and diet (Catherine’s favourite meal was “boiled beef with pickled cucumbers”). These bits and pieces of information do what all good history writing should: they make Catherine’s world unremarkably familiar and utterly strange at the same time.
Rounding does not attempt to provide this level of detail on Catherine’s sex life. In fact, the racy subtitle notwithstanding, she is rather reticent on the subject: a wise choice, considering how little we really know. That she has felt it necessary to devote a few paragraphs to the story of her union with a horse is less an indictment of her book than of the sorry state of general historical knowledge.
About love, Rounding has a good deal more to say. She chronicles Catherine’s many affairs of the heart with a light touch. Only on a few occasions does she give way to myth: when, for instance, she repeats as fact the story that Catherine first met Potemkin on the day of her coup, when he boldly rode up to offer her his sword-knot for her sabre. And Rounding fudges her response to the question of whether they married; first she presents the marriage as unlikely, later she thinks it “probable”.
Catherine wanted Potemkin lo love her, but more importantly she wanted him to tell her the truth in all things. This was a common refrain in her dealings with her ministers. Catherine guarded her power jealously and could sniff out the slightest hint of sedition, yet she never wanted to be surrounded by yes-men. She knew she needed the help of the men in her administration were she to govern effectively, and she proved adept at getting her will in a way that did not make enemies. Rounding’s biography provides plenty of evidence of the Empress’s remarkable “people skills”. This fits with Simon Dixon’s argument, elaborated in Catherine the Great (2001) - the most insightful book on the Empress in several decades - that Catherine ruled more by consensus than coercion, a rarity in Russian political culture.
Any biography of Catherine that places her political and military triumphs, and failures, in the background leaves itself open to the criticism that it has missed the point of her life. Why would we care about Catherine were it not for the achievements that made her “the Great”? Virginia Rounding seems to be suggesting that much of her success was due to her qualities as a woman. And although Catherine the Great does not have anything strikingly new to say about this, it does offer one of the most complete, finely rendered portraits of the Empress’ s intimate life.
Sunday, April 22, 2007; BW08
A new book focuses on the personal life of the magnificent 18th-century empress.
Reviewed by Amanda Vaill
CATHERINE THE GREAT
Love, Sex,and Power
by Virginia Rounding
St. Martin's. 566 pp. $29.95
Let's get one thing straight right away: Catherine the Great did not die having sex with a horse. She died of a stroke -- confirmed by autopsy -- at the age of 67. And while she admitted that she "passionately loved riding," her 34 years on the Russian throne were marked by more than equestrian prowess: She overhauled her country's antiquated legal system, extended its borders into territory formerly held by Poland and the Ottoman Empire, established the great art collection now housed in the palace she had built for it, the Hermitage, introduced inoculation against smallpox, and managed to dispose of -- by assassination, execution or neglect -- her only competitors for the position of Empress of All the Russias. The "horse story," says her most recent biographer, Virginia Rounding, is a "scurrilous piece of fabrication," most likely put about by French Republicans who were enraged by this otherwise enlightened monarch's opposition to the French Revolution.
In Rounding's view, the fact that Catherine was a single, sexual and supremely powerful woman made her an appealing target for scandalous denigration. Born Princess Sophie Frederica Auguste of the tiny principality of Anhalt-Zerbst in what is now Germany, Catherine was married at the age of 16 to her 17-year-old second cousin Peter, the orphaned duke of Holstein-Gottorp, whom Russia's Empress Elizabeth I had designated as her heir. (Thankfully, Rounding has included a family tree, as well as a lengthy dramatis personae divided into sections such as "Catherine's family" and "Catherine's lovers and favourites," or the reader might drown under the sea of patronymics and titles.) Unfortunately, the young bridegroom was not only impotent but hopelessly immature. As Catherine wrote in her memoirs, his idea of fooling around was to play with a set of "dolls and other childish playthings" that he hid under the nuptial bed until night time.
By the time Empress Elizabeth died and Peter inherited the crown, Catherine had realized that "she would have to create her own destiny in Russia." And not just a personal destiny: This young woman -- who pulled all-nighters mastering the Russian language, devoured the works of Diderot and Voltaire and wrote (in one of many notes to herself), "Power without the trust of the nation is nothing" -- was ready to assume power herself. With the help of her lover Grigory Orlov, the third in a line of a dozen "official" consorts, she pulled off a coup that put her on the throne and Peter under house arrest. Barely a month later, Peter was dead under suspicious circumstances -- Rounding is vague on whether Catherine was directly involved -- and Catherine had embarked on her long and fruitful reign.
At the outset, Rounding proclaims herself uninterested in writing "a definitive once-and-for-all biography, containing everything that is known about Catherine." She has avoided detailed discussion of Catherine's involvement in foreign and diplomatic affairs, which is a shame, given the skill with which the pragmatic tsarina negotiated Europe's political chessboard. And although Rounding speaks of Catherine's preference for enlightened, Europeanized St. Petersburg over "Asiatic" Moscow, she doesn't address her subject's role in perpetuating the east-west identity crisis that would split Russia's psyche in the 19th century (and give Tom Stoppard the material for "The Coast of Utopia").
Instead, Rounding focuses on the pageant of Russian court ceremonies (of which, fascinating as they are, we hear too much) and on Catherine's personal and romantic life: her love for her grandchildren and her greyhounds, her testy relationship with her autocratic son, her sharp eye for a good painting, her dry wit, her appetite for ideas. Rounding makes copious use of the documentary evidence that Catherine and her courtiers left behind. The quantity of letters and memoirs she quotes from makes one wish that Rounding had dared to speak up more herself because she is a perceptive analyst of character, and a stylish one. She paints a vivid portrait of a sensual and intellectual woman. Catherine had both a desperate need to love and be loved and an awareness of how capricious that need was. "One cannot hold one's heart in one's hand," she wrote in her memoirs, "forcing it or releasing it, tightening or relaxing one's grasp at will." One wishes that some contemporary rulers, their romantic foibles revealed for the world to see, had been so candid or so self-aware. *
Amanda Vaill is the author, most recently, of "Somewhere: The Life of Jerome Robbins."