Review

Catherine the Great: Love, Sex, and Power

by Virginia Rounding



The confluence of sex and power politics goes back at least to
ancient Egypt. It is doubtful, however, that it was ever practiced
more openly or with more decisive results than during the reign of
Catherine II (Catherine the Great) over the Russian empire.


In this book Virginia Rounding has tried gamely to balance the two
forces by concentrating on Catherine herself and the small army of
friends and foes who surrounded her during her reign from 1762
until her death in 1796. It is a long and complex story, told here
in exhaustive detail. Rounding freely admits that history has yet
to reach a final consensus on Catherine. She lays out the evidence
for 500-plus pages, concluding rather tentatively in her very last
sentence that her subject does indeed deserve the honorific
"Great." But it is, as Britisher Rounding might say, a near
thing.


On the plus side, Catherine was a shrewd and resourceful ruler who
introduced badly needed reforms into her empire's governmental
structure and educational system. She fostered the arts as one of
history's great collectors of paintings. She introduced the
practice of inoculation against disease into Russian medical
practice, corresponded with Voltaire and had the French
encyclopediste philosopher Denis Diderot as one of her
conversational partners. She had an enlightened attitude on the
need to keep religion and politics separate. She was a wit, a fine
writer and a canny judge of character. Her subjects in general
loved her, and those who did not had the good sense to watch their
backs.


But behind all this there lay a compulsive sexual adventurer,
unfaithful wife and shameless player of boudoir politics. Rounding
lists a round dozen of men who served successively (and openly) as
her "favorites." She was at least aware of, if not directly
complicit in, the murder of her first husband, and she took great
pleasure in ruling arbitrarily the lives of her own family and
those in her inner circle of advisors.


Rounding's book gets off to a ponderous start. Up to the time when
Catherine becomes empress --- about one-third of the way through
the book --- it is a hard slog for the reader, choked with
exhaustive and unnecessary detail about court ceremonials, royal
pilgrimages and amusements. We learn how many footmen were involved
in every trip, what everyone wore and where they stood when in the
royal presence. Perhaps Rounding is influenced by her own country's
longstanding fascination with such details --- but here the
narrative is slowed down unnecessarily.


When the German-born princess finally does ascend the throne, the
pace quickens as affairs of state crowd onstage and the parade of
royal lovers begins to defile past.  Of the dozen "favorites,"
two seem to have had lasting influence on Catherine's policies as
well as on her sexual life. Count Grigory Orlov remained a valued
advisor and operative for many years after he left her bed; and the
best known of them all was the famous Grigory Potemkin, on whom she
depended for political advice until the day he died. And each
"favorite," upon dismissal, was handsomely rewarded with gifts of
estates, jewels and serfs by the thousands.


For the general reader, the most surprising revelation is this: The
story of Potemkin erecting false villages along the Dnieper River
to trick Catherine into believing that all was well with the
peasantry --- the exploit that gave us the still-current phrase
"Potemkin village" --- is a myth. Rounding dismisses it with a
contemptuous wave of her literary hand.


The process of choosing these "favorites" was very public. Foreign
diplomats commented on it at length in their dispatches,
speculating on what the ascendancy of one or the other might mean
for Russian policy. Rounding makes gleeful use of the comments on
such matters by a succession of British, French and other
diplomats.


The author threads her way through the vast complex corridors of
Russian Tsarist power with practiced ease and often points out
parallels to later ages --- she reports that Catherine was, among
other things, a master of "spin." 


You will learn more than you need to know about a lot of trivial
aspects of Catherine the Great's world in this book. But the story
itself and its wildly colorful cast of characters are worth
following to the end.


   




















Reviewed by Robert Finn (Robertfinn@aol.com) on December 26, 2010

Catherine the Great: Love, Sex, and Power
by Virginia Rounding

  • Publication Date: February 6, 2007
  • Genres: Biography, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 592 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • ISBN-10: 0312328877
  • ISBN-13: 9780312328870