Monday, May 2, 2011

Catherine the Great by Henri Troyat

Rating: 3 & 1/2 Stars

[Translated from the French by Joan Pinkham] 

In one sense, the ongoing ballyhoo about the ‘birther controversy’ is a tribute to democracy, in that; even the legitimacy of a duly elected American President can be challenged by a discontented minority. We’ve come a long way from 1762 when an upstart German princess seized the Russian throne to become one of the most formidable powers of the 18th. Century.

Born Sophie Augusta Fredericka in Prussia in 1729, Catherine the Great became Empress of Russia, through a co-mingling of fortune, chance, and ruthless ambition. Young Sophie sensed herself predestined for greatness, despite the indifference of her mother and the scant attention of her father, who was a minor German princeling. She was a prodigiously intelligent tomboy who set her sights on marrying the crown prince of Russia whom she first met at the age of ten. Sophie’s family began to rise in prominence around the same time Elizabeth I (not to be confused with England’s Virgin Queen) ascended the throne of Russia. Elizabeth I adopted her nephew, and declared him heir apparent. Wishing to contract a suitable alliance for her heir, Grand Duke Peter, she sent a proposal of marriage for Sophie. King Frederick II of Prussia also favored this alliance, hoping it would bring a rapprochement between the two countries.

Once in Russia, Sophie ingratiated herself into the Queen’s favor. Pleasing Czarina Elizabeth could have been no easy task. The Queen was a mercurial and unpredictable woman, who swung between extremes of generosity and cruelty, piety and licentiousness, ruling her court with her tyrannical whims. But she was sufficiently impressed with Sophie, who assumed the name Catherine on converting to the Orthodox faith, before she married Peter. The eighteen-year old Grand Duke seems to have been more boy than man, his physical development having been retarded by childhood ailments. He spent his wedding night playing with his toy soldiers. 

The marriage had been unconsummated for eight years when Catherine met Serge Saltykov, a man with a taste for danger and lonely Grand Duchesses. Catherine became pregnant with his child. Despite his fondness for playing with matches, Saltykov knew all too well the dangers of setting a virgin forest on fire. He persuaded G.D. Peter to submit to a surgical procedure which corrected his little problem, and conveniently gave a probable cause for any child borne by Catherine. Catherine’s first and second pregnancies ended in miscarriages. Historians are still unsure as to the paternity of Catherine’s son, Paul Petrovich.

Once Czarina Elizabeth died in 1761, the reign of Peter III was short-lived. Catherine soon deposed him to become the absolute ruler of Russia. Nor did the aristocracy or the people mind so much. Peter III’s eccentricities – his hatred of Russia, his public clowning around at Elizabeth’s funeral, the unthinkable concessions to Prussia once he had ascended the throne - did not endear him to the general populace. That he didn’t seem to see the incongruity of the sovereign of Russia behaving like a subject of Prussia smacks of imbecility at best, or high treason at worst. Catherine, who had assiduously applied herself to learning Russian, and had ardently embraced her new country stood in favorable contrast. She said to her physicians,

“Bleed me to my last drop of German blood so that I may have only Russian blood in my veins.”

She ruled her country with an iron hand for thirty-five years.

It’s said that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The intelligent, liberal-minded young queen gave way over the years to an entrenched autocrat who realized that the landed nobility was her power base, and that they must be appeased at all costs. The ‘costs’ were the disenfranchised serfs who formed the majority of Russia. Consider that the standard pension for one of Catherine’s ex-lovers included an average of five thousand serfs, give or take a couple of thousand. However, her human rights record aside, by the end of her reign, Russia’s territories had expanded, education was promoted, women’s rights were furthered, the small-pox vaccine was introduced, and religious tolerance was enforced. That is to say, as tyrannical despots go, she was not too bad.

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