Larger than life empress
CATHERINE THE GREAT: Love, Sex and Power
by Virginia Rounding
Hardcover: 592 pages
Rec. price: AUD$65.00
One of the larger-than-life figures of the 18th-century was Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia from 1762 till her death in 1796.
It is no wonder that her life – particularly the first part, culminating in her seizing the throne from her husband, Tsar Peter III – has been the subject of more than one movie.
Born Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst, the daughter of a German prince, she travelled to Russia in 1744 at the request of the Empress Elizabeth, and was betrothed to her nephew, the future Peter III.
Seized the throne
When Peter succeeded to the throne, his policies soon alienated the nobility and Catherine realised that she had to seize the throne to save herself, which she did after her husband had reigned only a few months.
By the time she gained the throne, Catherine had already taken lovers and was to continue to do so for the remainder of her life. One of them, Grigory Potemkin, may have secretly married her.
Catherine imagined herself as an enlightened monarch. She read the works of, and corresponded with, the leading French philosophes, particularly Voltaire and Diderot, and patronised the arts and education.
She also attempted to act as a mediator in disputes involving other countries and introduced reforms that benefited the serfs.
However, during her reign, Russia engaged in wars and actions designed to extend its borders, particularly against the Turks in the south.
Similarly, in 1795, just before her death, Catherine was involved in the final partition of Poland, after which all of Poland’s former territory was divided among neighbouring Russia, Prussia and Habsburg Austria.
Despite her desire to be judged by Europe as an enlightened monarch, she was disgusted by the French revolution and predicted soon after its commencement that Louis XVI would be executed by the revolutionaries.
This biography focuses on Catherine’s personal and court life, drawing largely from her memoirs and from accounts by foreign visitors.
As a result, the historical background at various points in her life is often not developed sufficiently so as to set particular events within their historical context.