Virginia Rounding. Catherine the Great: Love, Sex, and Power. New York: St. Martin's/Griffin, 2008. xxv + 566 pp. $17.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-312-37863-9.
Reviewed by Alex Hunnicutt (University of Texas, Arlington)
Published on H-German (January, 2010)
Commissioned by Susan R. Boettcher
Catherine the Great for Beginners
In this book, Virginia Rounding undertakes the daunting task of writing a biography of one of the more monumental and iconic characters in human history. In the opening pages, she admits the impossibility of providing an all-encompassing, definitive work; rather, for a subject so vast in both chronology and in importance, Rounding defines the scope of her work as the aspects of Catherine the Great's life that interest her. The book's subtitle offers indications about where Rounding's interests lay. Readers seeking deep analysis of Russian politics, foreign policy, or economics during Catherine's reign are referred unapologetically to other resources. Instead, Rounding focuses on Catherine the woman, her strengths, her frailties, her intellect, and her loves. She also narrates her account almost entirely around the chronology, sacrificing continuity of subject to adherence to the timeline. In treating a subject of this scope, a writer must inevitably decide whether to pursue topics at the expense of chronology or the other way around. However, readers looking for Catherine's experiences or thoughts on specific topics will find the information spread throughout many pages and chapters.
In her preparation for this book, Rounding consulted a large number of primary sources. She made rich use of Catherine's correspondence with François-Marie Arouet Voltaire, Baron von Grimm, and other interlocutors, as well as documents created by ambassadors, artists, and others in her life. Surprisingly for a character so well documented in her own time and subsequently, the bibliography covers a mere five pages, although Rounding indicates that the works listed are only a portion of those available. Using these with depth and insight, Rounding presents young Catherine as a practical, insightful, and resourceful person who had the ability to grasp the workings of the politics of court life and the discipline to make the sacrifices necessary to succeed. Later, secure in her position as empress, Rounding's Catherine emerges as an intelligent woman who did not flinch at self-examination and one whose gift for sensitivity as well as practicality allowed her to steer a relatively smooth course through competing forces surrounding her at court and abroad.
The initial chapter takes Catherine from birth to early adolescence, when she journeyed to Russia. Rounding offers background on Catherine's parents, particularly her frustrated, ambitious mother, who sought to satisfy her ambitions by pushing her daughter to great heights, yet simultaneously exhibited jealousy over her success. Her father was a solid and respectful nonentity. The young girl's sadness at leaving him and later at learning of his death suggests that she was not a one-dimensional social climber. Catherine drew upon the unique forms of strength from both her mother and father, making her stronger than either of her parents.
In all, the book is divided into twenty-one chapters, most of which deal with one- to four-year spans. Each chapter sports a thematic title, but topics are not limited to single chapters. The theme in the title may make its initial, final, or climactic appearance. Whether because of Rounding's own selection of topics or the shape of Catherine's life, the earlier chapters lend themselves to a more compelling narrative. Even for readers familiar with the story, Rounding's dramatic account of her subject's submissive waiting during the reign of Elizabeth followed by the audacious seizure of power when her husband Peter III took the throne draws the reader in. Rounding presents Catherine as a politically aware, capable player who understood her own charisma and, more importantly, the temperament of the Russian people. Where Peter was an unabashed German, Catherine sought to assimilate to her adopted country to a degree inconceivable to her husband. Rounding suggests that this strategy was genuine, and not a mere ploy to gain approval. Thirty years later, Catherine proudly wrote a history of Russia in which she boasted of the benefits enjoyed by her subjects decades after she had any reason to pretend to seek popular approval.
The question of power appears most prominently in the early chapters, which cover the period in which Catherine was making her way to a throne to which she had no legal right. Rounding chooses to depict Catherine as a reasonable, capable person whose accession could only be beneficial, in contrast to popular portrayals of Catherine as a conniving, conspiring woman, unfaithful to her husband and untrustworthy as a ruler. While this is no hagiographical work, given the focus on power in the subtitle, the question of Catherine's role in the conspiracy to gain the throne and especially in Peter's death are dealt with hastily and lightly. Rounding apparently accepts the apologetic literature that suggested Catherine had little or no complicity in her husband's death and finds no need to elaborate upon it. Eventually the question of power shows up again in the matter of the Pugachev rebellion, and still later in Catherine's response to the French Revolution.
Based on the relative amount of attention paid to the subject, however, Rounding's real interest lies in Catherine's love life. Clearly, Catherine enjoyed both mental and physical stimulation and realized early that the men who excelled at one rarely were masters of the other. Catherine was omnivorous in her intellectual dalliances, but according to Rounding, a serial monogamist with her lovers and favorites. She presents Catherine as generous and maternal, going out of her way to overlook the ingratitude, presumptions, or other faults of her lovers and usually treating them kindly when they no longer enjoyed her full favor. To her credit, Rounding dismisses the "horse story" squarely, explaining why the legend grew and circulated, although no debunking is likely to suppress such an entertaining, if scurrilous, myth.
Aside from these notorious moments, it is in her recounting some of the less spectacular episodes of her subject's life that Rounding offers subtle insights into Catherine the person. Her interest in gardens and art reveal a cultured but matter-of-fact individual who wanted beautiful things for herself, as well as to reflect the glory of her reign and that of the Russian Empire. Catherine was no fool; she did not collect without discrimination, and she liked getting her money's worth. But she was also unpretentious. She readily admitted she had no ear for music. She reassured the nervous sculptor, immobilized by fear of failure, whom she had commissioned to create the impressive statue of Peter the Great. By denying herself a fit of imperial exasperation, Catherine salvaged the sculptor's dignity as well as the time and money already spent on the project.
As in many popular works, the notes are not indicated in the text. Unless the reader checks proactively for notes on a given passage, one misses the reference, and it is laborious to look back at the text from the source notes. Ultimately, general readers should find Rounding's work quite approachable and enjoyable. While the academic reader may need to search further, Rounding's opus can serve as a useful entrée into the live of Catherine II of Russia, with a mostly responsible treatment of the topics on which it focuses.
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