I’m not fully checked out on most aspects of Russian history, and I didn’t know much about Catherine the Great aside from her reputation for promiscuity and the excellent Shaw one-act. I was somewhat familiar with Henri Troyat’s work from reading his fine biography of Tolstoy and gladly jumped into the pages of Catherine the Great when a neighbor of mine lent me a copy.
You won’t find a more fascinating historical or human figure than Catherine. She’s full of the kind of powers and contradictions that make for the best and the worst among us. Imported to Russia from Germany in 1746 for one of those arranged marriages meant to cement political alliances (Frederick II was the German monarch), she found herself at fifteen married to a loutish son of reigning empress Elizabeth who expected her to start producing babies. Elizabeth knew full well that her son was incapable of heading the country and looked for Catherine to produce a suitable heir. Problem was, Peter was more interested in playing with toy soldiers than in sex. In addition to the mental and emotional conditions that blocked consummation of the marriage, he was afflicted with a condition called Phimosis. I’d never heard of it before, but it’s an apparently not uncommon inability of the foreskin to completely retract. It’s easily repaired with a quick flick of a lancet, but Peter refused the operation until years after the marriage when some buddies got him drunk and forced him to submit. The scalpel didn’t cure the other problems, however, and no babies were in evidence till Catherine took her first in a string of lovers that ended only when she died. Nine years after the wedding, Paul was born and taken from her by Elizabeth to be raised as the next emperor. None too soon. If Catherine hadn’t produced, she was headed for exile or worse, having failed at her most important function. Not her fault? So?
Eventually, of course, it’s Catherine herself who takes the throne. She’s prepared herself psychologically and intellectually by keeping informed about affairs of state, prodigious (if random and unguided) reading, immersion in Russian culture, and a steady correspondence with leading French intellectuals–Voltaire, Diderot, Montesquieu, et al. She sees herself as of masculine mind and temperament, willing and able to take command of armies, courts, kingdoms. Her very ascension to power illustrates the kind of contradictions that characterize her whole life. Shortly after her reign begins, her husband, whom she has imprisoned, is assassinated. Probably she didn’t order the murder, but she is complicit after the fact. Those who did the deed were those who put her in power and she isn’t about to betray them, sad though she might be about the event. They’re all lavishly rewarded, and she wastes little time with regrets. Intellectually she professes the republican ideals of her French correspondents. Problem is, those pesky democratic ideas just won’t work here in Russia, where the people are subject to emotional moods and mysticism that make the whole notion of turning power over to them unthinkable. What’s the difference between a contradicting aspect of character and pure hypocrisy? A hypocrite believes one way and acts another in full knowledge of his betrayal of principle. Catherine embodies and believes it all, feels fully entitled to express and act it all out. She is the Empress.
Generally she’s autocratic, but not brutally so by standards of the time. However, she doesn’t hesitate to buy and sell serfs by the thousands and to increase the power of the aristocracy to solidify the feudal conditions and her own power. The one commoners’ revolt she confronted she treated with a slaughter worthy of Tamburlane. Near the end, shaken by the French Revolution, she began to censor artists and writers as well. Partly through writing her own plays to replace theirs. Good ones, purportedly.
She can fight and negotiate on an international scale with the best in the business. Russian territory expanded enormously during her thirty-five year reign, taking in a heterogeneous population that included Christian and Islam alike, and she had the good sense not to try to convert or subvert the Islamic peoples who became her subjects–A sense lacking in a certain Putin named in the title of this piece. She instituted perhaps the most original currency system in history, printing paper money indiscriminately, its worth based only on the peoples’ faith and willingness to accept its value. No gold involved. Anywhere else, there would have been inflation and collapse. Never happened to her. It was said she could pass leather for money and get away with it. She improved hospitals and medical care in general, volunteered to be the first Russian to be vaccinated against smallpox as an example to her people of the benefits of modern preventative health care.
She was contemptuous of weakness in rulers, thought George III was a fool for letting the American colonies go and criticized Louis XVI for allowing himself to be overturned by the mob. Yet, for all her political shrewdness, she treated her lovers like little gods. She used them for her pleasure as long as she was infatuated, gave them enormous power and influence, then sent them away with riches and serfs enough for long and happy lives. One, a certain Potemkin, (a name even those of us who know nothing of Russian history will recognize even if we don’t know it’s significance), kept himself in power many years after he was banned from her bed by becoming her pimp so that she didn’t have to go to the trouble of picking her lovers herself. He would spot someone, have him tested by a lady-in-waiting, and if he was pronounced satisfactory, pass him on to Catherine.
It is to her that the world owes the splendor of St. Petersburg, which she vastly preferred to Moscow, a city she thought provincial and backward. The first art treasures of the Hermitage were hung by Catherine, and its ranking among the great museums of the world is due entirely to her.
Though Troyat doesn’t specifically mention her influence on U.S. and Canadian history, from the little I know, I think it was considerable. At one point, in an attempt to increase the industriousness of the Russian peasant, she imported Germans as examples in hopes of raising productivity. She gave them land, exemption from taxes, and other benefits to induce them to emigrate. However, those very inducements caused them to be resented by the native populace, and when later rulers not only rescinded her promises, but began to promote the persecution of the foreigners, they left stepmother Russia for the new world. Huge sections of the North American plains owe their Germanic influence to Catherine.
There’s also the story of Thomas Jefferson who, even during his ambassadorial years in Paris, dreamed of exploring the American west. He enlisted a Mr. Ledyard for the task and with him devised a plan to cross Eastern Europe, Russia, and by thus going east enter the U.S. from the west. This was in 1787, and Ledyard got a good start. However, Catherine finally caught him in mid-journey, denied him permission to cross her kingdom, and thus thwarted a trek that might have made Lewis and Clark and Sacajawea unnecessary. Personally, I’m kind of glad Ledyard didn’t make it.
Troyat organizes a huge volume of events, facts, and intrigues in telling a story that has nearly novelistic power to hold a reader’s interest. What will this woman do next and how and to whom? It’s always a wonder to find out.
Vladimir Putin, Russia’s current ruler and the man whom our president has divined as being of good heart, is obviously in the tradition of Catherine in the sense that he views his people as unfit for self-rule. Unfortunately, he appears to have none of her wit or sensuality. She may have had no more patience for democratic principles than Vladimir, but she was a lot more colorful and entertaining. That counts for a lot with me. If I have to read about you every day and put up with what you do, at least amuse me at the same time.
THE ARTICLE BELOW APPEARED IN THE WASHINGTON POST NOT LONG AFTER I WROTE THE PIECE ABOVE. DID I CALL IT, OR WHAT?
Vladimir the Great?
Putin’s Inspiration Is Much Older Than the Cold War
By Jay Winik
Sunday, September 2, 2007; Page B07
Having just grabbed a piece of the Arctic the size of Western Europe, the Russian military has announced ambitious plans to establish a permanent presence in the Mediterranean for the first time since the end of the Cold War. The guiding hand behind this Russian resurgence is undeniably Russia‘s enigmatic president, Vladimir Putin.
On the surface, enigmatic seems to be the word. Putin dons well-tailored suits even as he clamps down on domestic opposition and homemade democracy. He flashes a warm smile in the councils of international summitry even as he smashes dissent in Chechnya. He has charmed President Bush even as he stymies U.S. policy in Iraq and the rest of the Middle East. The conventional wisdom is that Putin’s background in the KGB is what ultimately drives his more notorious actions, leading foreign policy commentators to raise the specter of a renewed Cold War.
But if the West is truly going to come to grips with Putin and a resurrected Russian state, it would do well to see him not as something relatively new but as something old, drawing on historical roots stretching back to the 18th century and Catherine the Great. Indeed, it is far more likely that Putin and his allies are following not the ghosts of Stalin and Khrushchev but spiritual masters such as Empress Catherine in seeking to reestablish Russia as a great nation on the world stage.
Like Putin, Catherine II was a curiosity in her day, alternately bewitching and confusing her critics and supporters. From early on she was the liberal idol of the great Enlightenment philosophes of Europe. She corresponded with the eminent Voltaire, drew upon Montesquieu in governing Russia (nearly 20 years before the American Founders did), published Helvetius when he was being burned in effigy by Paris‘s public hangman, and subscribed to Diderot’s famed Encyclop?die when it was banned in France. “What a time we live in,” Voltaire enthused, “France persecutes the intellectuals while the Scythians protect them!”
Catherine even took the remarkable step of not only corresponding with Thomas Jefferson but helping midwife America’s independence through her League of Armed Neutrality, which diplomatically isolated Britain during our Revolutionary War. King George III first approached Catherine, not the Hessians, to request her hardened Cossacks to fight George Washington and the upstart colonials; she turned him down. American-Russian ties thus go way back.
Yet, with eerie echoes for today’s world, the once-heralded liberal empress became, within a few years, a reactionary. Though John Adams thought Russia and the United States would be natural allies, Catherine did not even deign to meet with the envoy of fledgling America, Francis Dana, who lamented that he knew “less of the empresses comings and goings” than did her groomsman. And when the French Revolution broke out, Catherine turned her back on decades of Enlightenment and unleashed modern authoritarianism.
She ruthlessly repressed intellectuals in Russia and, short of committing her armies, did everything she could to destroy the “democratic” Jacobin menace emanating from France. “What do cobblers know about ruling?” she barked, having decided that representative government was ill-suited to such a large nation as Russia. Then, in still one more about-face, she openly derided George Washington and condemned the American Revolution she had once professed to admire.
The current carnage in Iraq, along with Russia’s latest overtures to Syria and its rising belligerence toward the old Soviet territory of Georgia, bring to mind how deftly Catherine took advantage of the French-led chaos that swept Europe in 1795. She acted to wipe the ancient Kingdom of Poland off the map and carve up its lands. (Ironically, the Polish insurrection against her was bravely spearheaded by Thaddeus Kosciuszko, a hero of America’s Revolutionary War.)
Another hallmark of Catherine’s Russia with striking portents for today was domestic opinion on the West. To be sure, she took great strides to Europeanize the Russian colossus: She built the Hermitage, amassed a world-class art collection, improved schools and hospitals, and sent French-speaking Russians abroad in droves. But Catherine did little to change the attitude of the average Russian toward what was often disdainfully referred to as “the peninsula of Europe.”
Putin, despite smiling Group of Eight photo ops, is in much the same mold. He likens U.S. policies to those of the Third Reich and darkly refers to the foreign enemies who seek to undermine Russia. Even many younger Russians, who analysts once predicted would be America’s greatest friends in the post-Cold War era, openly profess their profound hostility to the United States.
Catherine was charming, brilliant, vital and complex. She frequently dominated the global arena over three decades. “If she were corresponding with God,” Prussia’s Frederick the Great once said, “she would claim at least equal rank.” And with haunting lessons for the 21st century, Catherine was a master of presenting two faces to the world — one to enlightened intellectuals everywhere and one to her own people. Whatever her flirtations with Washington, Franklin, Voltaire, Montesquieu, America or constitutionalism, in the end she cherished the glory of imperial Russia more.
At the age of 67, Catherine was determined that her legacy would live on. She handpicked her successor — her grandson Alexander — only to be foiled by her own unexpected death. Within 4 1/2 short years, however, Alexander came to power in a coup, sanctioning the murder of his father and eventually becoming the arbiter of Europe, defeating no less than Napoleon. Similarly, Putin appears to have his own dynastic designs, albeit wrapped in a thinly democratic guise. He is expected to handpick his presidential successor for 2008, while even hinting that he might run again in 2012.
So what should we conclude? It would be a great mistake to see Russia’s actions as inevitably heralding a new Cold War. But it would be an equal mistake to ignore the fact that Vladimir Putin has learned well how to play Catherine’s impostor game. Just as Catherine became a master of playing the budding democrat abroad while being a despot at home and of professing pacifism while beating the drum of bellicosity across the globe, so too has Putin. He should be viewed accordingly.
Jay Winik’s new book, “The Great Upheaval: America and the Birth of the Modern World, 1788-1800,” will be published next month. He is the author of “April 1865.”