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Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman

Biographer Robert K. Massie gives us a Catherine the Great who is ever interesting and intelligent – but not necessarily admirable.

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Though “intellectually opposed” to serfdom, she sold out any kind of reform for half of Russia’s population. When the illiterate peasant Pugachev inspired a bloody uprising by the serfs in the Urals, she clamped down in a fashion that would have made dictators ever since proud: “There would be no further talk of eliminating serfdom. Landowners were encouraged to treat their serfs and peasants humanely, but the empress now was convinced that enlightenment could not be bestowed on a nation of illiterates until the people had been prepared with education.” She did not fund any education initiatives.

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She also cynically placed her second lover, Stanislaus Poniatowski, on the throne of Poland, whose territory over the next few decades she cut up like a roast chicken for Prussia, Austria, and herself. “Afterward Catherine repeated that she had annexed ‘not a single Pole,’ and that she had simply taken back ancient Russian and Lithuanian lands with Orthodox inhabitants who were ‘now reunited with the Russian motherland.’ ” So, thanks to Catherine, for the next 126 years “the people and culture of Poland did not possess a nation.” No love lost there or to the south, where her ambitions for access to the Mediterranean led to war with Turkey.

She probably secretly married the savvy and irascible Gregory Potemkin, whom she called “one of the greatest, most bizarre, and most entertaining eccentrics of the iron age.” The hot-tempered and capable Potemkin became and, even after their love affair extinguished itself, remained her right-hand man: he helped her extend Russia’s vast boundaries, which in the grand scheme of world history has benefited and gratified Russia and no one else.

Catherine was brilliant and always fascinating and may have been educationally enlightened (though her French philosopher friends Diderot and Voltaire watched sadly as during her 34-year reign she tightened her authoritarian grip and implemented stupefying censorship). She was certainly cultured (her art collection became the basis for the marvelous Hermitage Museum), but she saw fit to keep herself in power by any means possible, even at her son’s expense, not to mention at the expense of the freedom of millions of serfs. She kept Paul out of the way and sitting on his hands until she died of natural causes in 1796, at which time Paul the First asserted a new law of primogeniture that ensured there would never again be a woman on Russia’s throne.

In spite of her queenly power-plays, her selfishness, her self-justifications, her criminality, she was a major player in the 18th century and, if we have to take what we get, she at least wasn’t as bad as any of the tsars before or after her. In the absence of real democracy in 21st-century Russia, it’s probably about time for a female counterweight to Putin.

Bob Blaisdell edited "The Communist Manifesto and Other Revolutionary Documents and Selected Federalist Papers."

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