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Mother Russia
A new book focuses on the personal life of the magnificent 18th-century empress.

Reviewed by Amanda Vaill
Sunday, April 22, 2007

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."

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