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Tuesday, March 28, 2017

“Catherine the Great”, by Henri Troyat, translated by Joan Pinkham


395 pages, E.P. Dutton Books, ISBN-13: 978-0525078135

Like most biographies of the ever-fascinating Catherine, Catherine the Great by Henri Troyat is a bouncy-but-sloppy retelling with a cracking first half but a formless second – and, like most such biographies, it stresses the infinite variety of Catherine-the-woman while failing to provide much in the way of historical grounding. Troyat writes well of a woman who had a natural appetite for absolutism: she subjugated serfs, jailed dissidents, lost her head over younger lovers who were hired to service her lust, encouraged obscene consumption in imitation of Versailles (although she detested the French), deplored the ineluctable rise of republicanism and the concept of human rights, stole her son’s children and raised them as she saw fit, frustrated native Russian talents in preference to ill-fitting European transplants, neglected her country’s infrastructure (except for establishing some institutions of learning), and generally ruled in such a way that her death began the undoing of all she had worked for 34 years – that is to say, she did little to strengthen its non-parasitic systems or institutions; she merely enforced her will.

As always, the raw, unlikely story of the making-of-an-Empress is irresistible: minor German Princess Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg, unattractive but very bright, was promoted by her pushy mama (and by the King of Prussia) as a fiancée for Grand Duke Peter, nephew and heir of decadent Empress Elizabeth of Russia – and though Peter was an impotent half-wit (fixated on toy soldiers, dirty jokes, and Prussia), little outsider Sophie grabbed the main chance with a will, transforming herself into the most virtuously Russian Orthodox of princesses and enduring eight years of virgin marriage before taking lovers (LOTS of lovers), so that, by the time her unpredictable mentor/enemy Elizabeth finally died, cagey Grand Duchess Catherine was ready to parlay her popularity into an overthrow of loathsome, now-dangerous Peter III. Troyat tells this tale vigorously enough, with the usual reliance on Catherine’s own wry, juicy memoirs, but also with a dismayingly large doses of sloppy prose and pure clichés: “beside herself with joy”; “green with envy”; “she melted on the spot”; “method in her madness”; and so on in like fashion.

Reforms, Crimean conquests, shrewd diplomacy, suppression of rebellions…Troyat covers it all, but haphazardly, with constant resort to over-simplifications (such as Catherine’s switch from Voltaire-inspired liberalism to old-fashioned Russian repression), dubious generalizations (about “Russian irrationality”, for instance; I mean, just what is that, anyway?), and ungainly gush (“She was mad for reform. She had a passionate desire to knead the thick dough of Russia”. Blech). Typically, when the complex Polish annexation comes up, we get minimal historical background while the passions of Catherine’s Polish puppet-king/lover are paperback-pulped ad infinitum: “He wanted to come back to the woman whom he had never stopped loving, back to the taste of her lips, the sweetness of her voice, the movement of her hips”. And Troyat is ever eager to get back to the boudoir, as infatuation-prone Catherine (a healthy creature with “nothing of the hysteric or nymphomaniac about her”) goes through “fresh young bodies”, some of them procured for her by lover/adviser Potemkin, the only bedmate who also had “a strong mind that could send the ball back to her”. I mean, is this a biography or the treatment for a soap opera?

Ultimately, Catherine was a woman of her times and indisputably proved to be a most able successor to Peter the Great inasmuch as she made Russia a major player on the European stage and greatly expanded the territory under her control. The personalities involved herein make for a highly entertaining read. But, after all of that, one is not entirely sure just what made her “Great”, unless it was the military conquests ordered by her (and which are given rather hasty treatment by Troyat). Maybe other hereditary monarchs were as bad as Peter III and she merely shone by comparison. Maybe all hereditary monarch had to do in those days to be considered “Great” was not let the country go to hell in a handbasket. It must be said that, in comparison with other rulers of Russia, both past and present, she was not the worst, so I guess she’s got that going for her?

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