Friday, March 14, 2008

Catherine the Great

When surfing the internet for facts about Empress Catherine II (1729-1796), it is almost impossible to find a biographical account which does not include the most lurid sensationalism. Some of it is so stupid and baseless that it should not be mentioned at all. Is sordid nonsense all that people want to read about? Of all the immense political and cultural accomplishments of a highly successful reign, it is the private life of Catherine the Great (especially imaginary aspects of it) that is focused upon. No, she was not a woman of high virtue. Yes, she did have a series of lovers throughout her long life. There was clearly a serious emotional and spiritual void that sought fulfillment in serial boyfriends. How very sad.

In spite of various glaring human failings, Catherine was a magnificent ruler. Born a German Lutheran of a minor princely family, she was sent to marry the heir of the Russian throne almost as a fluke. Peter was such a mess that they would not have dared try to marry him to the daughter of a major European monarch. While Catherine found Peter impossible to love, she undoubtedly fell passionately in love with Russia. She embraced the Russian language, culture, people and religion. She studied incessantly and was probably among the most highly educated women of her time. In the course of her reign, she imposed order upon the land, abolishing many cruel and inhumane customs.

With her knowledge and appreciation of French culture, she brought some finesse to the Russian court, at least as outward appearances go. In the early part of her reign, she tried to be a liberal, but after being shocked by the horrors of the French Revolution she became more reactionary. She established schools and museums as well as being responsible for many greatly needed civic improvements. She also granted asylum to the Jesuits, who had been temporarily disbanded by the Pope.

According to one article:
Catherine possessed majesty without being pompous. She was neither cold nor inhuman. Over the years she lived through hurtful criticism, rebellion, war and estrangement from her son, whom she thought incapable of ruling Russia. She was a woman alone without her own family, except her beloved grandchildren. Although she had a deep love for her adopted country, it is entirely conceivable that at times she must have felt a certain longing for the place where once her cradle stood. She suppressed it, to be sure, because of her elevated position. But we see that she often refers to her former governess Babette Cardel, whom she had loved and from whom she learned much in her sheltered childhood. We can also read how devastated she was when as Grand Duchess she had learned of the death of her beloved father. One wonders how much guilt she must have felt at that time, because she had gone against her father's wishes and changed her religion. As Empress, she showered her grandsons with much love, but one senses a void she tried to fill with the many relationships she formed with men. Perhaps we misunderstand her many attachments. We realize that she craved affection. It is lonely at the top, but Catherine loved to teach and she had much to give. We can see from her many letters to Baron von Grimm, that she took pride in the education of her young protégés. Perhaps what many biographers interpreted as promiscuous behavior, was nothing more than her filling the lonely hours by sharing her vast intellect with the young men she deemed worthy of her attention. Not all of them, only some. This seems possible especially in her later years. We read that she was hurt by the actions of some of her young friends. We also see that she supported them when she found out they had formed attachments elsewhere and when they wished to marry the lady of their choosing. Her behavior at such times is not that of a woman scorned. She had long and lasting relationships with Orlov and Potemkin, and it seems that she was capable of faithfulness. There is no doubt that Catherine's reputation suffered because of the many accounts of her affairs. Perhaps we should put these attachments into the proper context. In the overall picture, all these stories about Catherine the woman cannot diminish her many achievements as Catherine the Empress.
Among the more interesting depictions of Catherine in drama and film are George Bernard Shaw's Great Catherine, later made into a film with Peter O'Toole, and The Scarlet Empress starring Marlene Dietrich. Both are outrageously entertaining without being morbid. Among biographies of the Empress, I would recommend that of Zoe Oldenbourg. Share