Sunday, October 10, 2010

Virginia Rounding, Catherine The Great.

Virginia Rounding, Catherine The Great: Love, Sex, and Power. This was recommended by the ladies at Stuff You Missed in History Class. Don't be fooled by the titillating subtitle - this book is perhaps less shocking then any old Russian novel. Catherine did have a series of young favorites, but she and those around her were unfailingly discreet. Catherine is a fascinating figure and the biography itself was decent, and seem to get better and less awkward as it went along. Early in the book it felt as though someone comfortable with more academic prose was trying a bit too hard to be relaxed and conversational. Catherine's letters and those of her friends and visitors to her court were wonderful and the author did a great job of framing people's words; for example pointing out that certain correspondence was often intended to be intercepted and read by people other than the adressee - a sort of free advertising or propaganda. Catherine's letters to Voltaire, for example, were intended for a wider audience. Some letters were just fun to read - the long and frank correspondence between Catherine and her dear friend and art dealer Friedrich Melchior Grimm, full of details about her grandchildren, dogs, and daily life - made her absolutely come to life. Catherine lived in such a fascinating time, right at the beginning of our modern age, and how she managed to efficiently adopt an new country and religion, take it over in a neat coup, efficiently rule and expand a vast empire (based on serfdom) with the longest reign of any Tsar, while simultaneously maintaining within herself at least the ideal of an enlightened ruler modernizing and improving Russia, is incredible.

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