In recent months numerous books on Russia and its rulers have appeared. Isabel de Madariaga's "Russia in the Age of Catherine the Great," the first full-scale history of Catherine's reign in almost a century, is the most recent addition to this collection.
While subject matter, proximity of publication date, and sheer size invite comparison with Robert Massie's current best seller and Pulitzer winner, "Peter the Great: His Life and World," the two books differ significantly in scope and content. Whereas Massie's work is a popularized history, de Madariaga's book is , above all, a scholarly work, destined to interest a narrower audience.
While scholars and history buffs will need little encouragement to investigate this volume, the general reader with a curiosity about Russia's history should not be intimidated by the book's comprehensive and minutely detailed discussions, for de Madariaga's history is most human, and well worth the extra effort it may take.
In the 34 years of her reign, from 1762 to 1796, Catherine proved herself an energetic, innovative ruler. She believed in "the rational organization of social and economic activities in the interests of the state and hence of the people." Influenced by existing models elsewhere, she established commissions to study Russia's most pressing problems.
In her efforts to reform Russia's central political institutions, Catherine compiled her famous "Instruction," a political treatise on the "general principles on which society should be based." This "Instruction" typifies certain aspects of Catherine's character. De Madariaga portrays her as a thoughtful ruler, one preoccupied with theoretical frameworks in which to base her legislative actions.
Catherine had definite views on the relation of other spheres of activity to social and political progress. She was extremely interested in education, and believed that it could remodel human nature. Influenced by other European countries, she patronized literary activity, translations, and journalism. She wrote satirical plays on such topics as arranged marriages between young people, superstition, laziness, and ignorance.
The same independent thinking that marked Catherine's political and social thought and activity carried over into her religious and personal life. Probably agnostic, she viewed religion as a valuable tool in the presservation of public order and the maintenance of public and private morality. Her intimate life was ruled by her own whims and inclinations; one romantic relationship succeeded another throughout her life.
Virtually every aspect of her reign and character is thoroughly examined and discussed by de Madariaga.Some of the move well-known events and personages of Catherine's rule -- including Nikita Panin with his powerful influence on state affairs, the Pugachev revolt, and the Polish difficulties -- are subject to de Madariaga's objective and reasoned scrutiny.
Lengthy and amply documented discussions of Catherine's foreign policy provide the backbone for much of the book.
De Madariaga's Catherine is an accomplished, yet human, ruler. Never satisfied with her reforms, she "continued to read, ponder, and draft until almost the end of her reign," and was, according to de Madariaga, ultimately responsible for a "new, more humane approach to individual human beings."
De Madariaga finally reminds us at the conclusion of "Russia in the Age of Catherine the Great" that despite the "shadows" of Catherine's reign, the following century remembered her rule as a "time when autocracy had been 'cleansed from the stains of tyranny,' when a despotism had been turned into a monarchy, when men obeyed through honour, not through fear."