|Catherine the Great: Love,
Sex, and Power
Book review by Edna Boardman, Bismarck, North
Rounding, Virginia.Catherine the Great: Love, Sex, and Power. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2006.
Eight years before her death, Catherine the Great
wrote her own epitaph. She had already told her frequent
correspondent Friedrich Melchior von Grimm she did
not like the label “great,” which a few
had already slapped on her. She said of herself, writing
in the third person, “Arrived on the throne
of Russia, she desired its good and sought to procure
for her subjects happiness, liberty and propriety.
She forgave easily and hated no one; indulgent, easy
to live with, naturally cheerful, with a republican
soul and a good heart, she had friends: she found
work easy, she liked good society and the arts.”
Virginia Rounding, commenting on this statement, said
it is accurate to the way she viewed herself with
the possible exception of the “republican soul,”
especially late in her reign.
This 500-plus page biography is the tenth full-length
biography of Catherine the Great I have read, so you
might guess I am probably obsessive about her. What
did I get out of it that wasn’t a repeat of
the others? Rounding, I found, was an especially careful
scholar, always probing and questioning to come up
with details the others had skipped over. Sometimes,
she seems to have felt, other authors repeated generally-accepted
interpretations, and she was not content to do this.
Rounding lists persons present, as at teenaged Catherine’s
reception at Riga on her way to Russia, and several
times describes important ceremonies in detail. All
biographies, for example, say she clearly recited
from memory the Creed in Russian when she was taken
into the Orthodox Church. I shook my head in wonder
at their patience when Rounding notes it was preceded
by her reading the confession of faith, which was
50 quarto pages in length. Of course, everyone was
standing during all of this. Details like this, no
doubt, only a Catherine the Great aficionado could
The picture that emerges of Catherine’s relationship
with Peter, her fiancé then husband, is a little
different from his image in the other books, whose
authors seemed to take entries from Catherine’s
diaries and run with them. Rounding sees Peter bonded
with his mistress Elizaveta Vorontsova, as the others
do, but he and Catherine were together and communicated
a great deal as Empress Elizabeth dragged them interminably
from palace to palace. Catherine interacted with her
son Paul far more often than the other authors envision,
even during his childhood. Later, grandsons Alexander
and Constantine are around her a lot but are not cut
off from their parents as much as most authors envision.
Later, when Catherine becomes Empress, we see her
sitting solicitously with her daughters in law during
the labors that brought forth her large brood of grandchildren.
(Paul’s first wife died, as did two infant grandchildren.
Michael, Catherine’s ninth living grandchild,
was born after Catherine’s death.) This was
an act she surely wished some caring person had done
I enjoyed the depictions of Catherine’s lovers.
Rounding puts them into the context of her life as
they came and went. Catherine insisted she could not
live without love. Her relationship with Grigory Potemkin
does not come through as vividly as it does in the
book /Potemkin: Catherine the Great's Imperial Partner/
by Simon Sebag Montefiore, but she sees him more clearly
than do the other biographers.
What a pressure cooker Catherine lived in! Her ambitious
mother was focused on her sickly brother, leaving
Catherine to be educated by Babet Cardel, a French
woman who introduced her to the liberal ideas of the
Enlightenment. Once in Russia, she found herself watched
and evaluated constantly. She attracted the attention
of the power players of her world--diplomats from
foreign countries, capable officials in the Russian
government who saw in her intelligence and talent
far above Peter’s, and the practical military
talents of the Orlov brothers of the palace guards
units. When she was bored, she read, first novels,
then history and theory and philosophy, getting her
books through diplomatic channels, which is what passed
for the interlibrary loan of the day.
Once Empress, Catherine attacked Russia’s problems
with energy unusual in the country’s leaders.
No matter what else was going on in her personal life
or her realm, Catherine worked every day. She continued
to read and she wrote to a multitude of correspondents.
Her output included thoughtful position papers, laws,
plays, undercover essays, and diaries. (I enjoyed
/The Memoirs of Catherine the Great, a New Translation/
by Mark Cruse and Hilde Hoogenboom.) We know so much
about her thinking because of all this writing. Rounding
is very aware of Catherine’s territorial ambitions
and military conquests and her art collecting and
building projects. She had herself and Paul vaccinated
against smallpox when it was a chancy, dangerous undertaking.
All the while, Catherine knew there were groups set
to gain her favor in whatever way possible, steer
the country’s direction in a different way,
gang up on her and overthrow her, and even kill her
if they could manage it. Few ever loved her unconditionally.
So, should you read this book? Not if you’re
looking for material about the Germans from Russia.
This is what the book says: “She gave her favourite
[Grigory Orlov] his first administrative role, as
president of the new Chancery of Guardianship for
Foreigners whose responsibility was to oversee the
immigration of people, mainly German, to settle the
Empire’s southern territories.” In the
description of Catherine’s voyage to Crimea
and Ukraine, Rounding does not have a vision of the
area’s agricultural capabilities, something
Catherine surely had because other sources say she
took along German farmers. It’s best not to
read it if you’ve never read something about
Catherine before because of the length and detail.
The best first book, I think, is /Great Catherine:
The Life of Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia/
by Carolly Erickson. Henri Troyat’s/ Catherine
the Great/ may be at your public library, but I felt
Troyat didn’t like Catherine very much. I read
this book slowly and found it lots of fun, full of
careful scholarship; Rounding had a desire to see
Catherine II and her times as clearly as possible.