Lively biography of a much misunderstood, most gifted ruler of Russia.
“That this most civilized of women should be known by most people only in relation to the infamous and entirely untrue ‘horse story’ is one of the greatest injustices of history,” grumbles London-based translator and writer Rounding. In fairness to that misperception, Sophia Frederica Auguste of Anhalt-Zerbst, having climbed to the top of the “feudal anthill,” was renowned for affairs with the courtiers and retainers who surrounded her; what with all the amorous hustle and bustle, it’s easy to see how a steed could steal into the narrative. Catherine, Rounding makes clear, understood that sex was an element of power. She had come to a St. Petersburg that was still mostly a metropolis of log cabins to be married off to young Peter III, who, it emerged, was a bit of a dimwit and rather easily controlled. “Instead of being able to be a wise consort to his young wife-to-be,” Rounding writes, “Peter found it was the other way round, and he did not, on the whole, welcome this.” Catherine was, after all, well-read, fluent in several languages and given to philosophy and literature, though in later life her philosophy was of a practical and even Machiavellian nature; writing that children cried either to complain or out of stubbornness, for instance, she urged that “neither sort of tears should be allowed, all crying should be forbidden.” Moscow does not believe in tears, indeed, but Catherine had shed many as Peter kept his distance from her, pushing her into the willing arms of a succession of dashing cavaliers and counselors who helped her build St. Petersburg into a mighty city and Russia into a mighty empire; in this regard, Rounding ranks the empress as equal to or greater than her predecessor Peter the Great, who was certainly more murderous than she.
A welcome study of a “multifaceted, very eighteenth-century woman.”