CATHERINE THE GREAT: A Profile by Marc -- Ed. Raeff


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The soul of Brutus in the body of Cleopatra,"" was how the French philosophe Diderot described his patroness, Catherine, the Empress of Russia. Raeff's anthology however concentrates on neither (despite mention of Catherine's 21-plus lovers) but on intellect and especially on her ambiguous relations with educated Russian society and the ""progressive thinkers"" of the Enlightenment. Voltaire she called ""mon maitre""; Montesquieu ""a breviary of rulers""; her judicial reforms were modeled on the precepts of Beccaria. She herself authored 25 plays, comic operas, and children's stories and judging by the selections here her dazzling artistic and philosophical pretensions continue to intrigue both Soviet and Western historians -- though the consensus is that Catherine disengenuously used the philosophes as her freelance P.R. men in Western Europe. Among the weak spots in the collection are two innocuously fuzzy ""liberal"" views of Catherine's reign by the venerable Miliukov (who led the Cadets in 1917), and an uncritical survey of Russian 18th century diplomacy by Soviet historian Sergei Bakhrushin which bears the impress of Stalinist nationalism and russification policies. Raeff's own temperate overview of Potemkin's imperial achievements in Southern Russia stresses the ""charismatic"" nature of political power in Russia. Most of the contributors share the editor's infatuation with Catherine's disarming personality, and the uniquely personal character of her reform-minded reign provides a connective thread. A varied and generally interesting mixture -- despite the excessive preoccupation with the cultural and pedagogical ambiance.

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 1971
Publisher: Hill & Wang