CATHERINE, EMPRESS OF ALL THE RUSSIAS: An Intimate Biography by Vincent Cronin
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Neither a tyrant nor a nymphomaniac, Czarina Catherine II was great indeed, affirms this well-paced combination of imperial balance sheet, she-said-he-said narrative, and psychological gloss. In the first half of the book Catherine is still Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst, who as the adolescent bride of the Russian heir-apparent Peter already combines Lutheran discipline and Gallic common sense; if Sophie conceives her first child adulterously, it is by order of the Empress Elizabeth, who knows that tin-soldier Peter refuses to consummate the marriage. Next, Peter is strangled by the backers of the new Catherine's coup d'État, but Cronin rather flimsily concludes that she never sanctioned the murder. At any rate her 34-year reign brought Russia peace, prosperity, religious toleration, administrative reform, and international stature as Catherine not only imported enlightenment but herself wrote didactic plays, operas, and philological studies. Based on a long hard office week, these accomplishments prove to Cronin that her total of eleven-odd lovers, whose age declined as hers rose, signifies no lustful preoccupation but simply a need for tenderness and rejuvenation; moreover, it was her only real love, Gregory Potemkin (Cronin thinks she married him secretly), who installed several young paramours as surrogates while he was off developing new settlements. This may disappoint connoisseurs of intimate biographies like Robert Coughlan's gossipy Elizabeth and Catherine (1974). At the same time, Cronin's insistence that Catherine was after all ""feminine"" because of her penchant for tears and chit-chat, and his highly partisan use of diplomatic sources and Catherine's memoirs, devalues his work by comparison with the standard biographies by K. S. Anthony and Zoe Oldenbourg. But Cronin, with his greater weight on the reign itself, conveys a convincing, engaging sense that Catherine transformed majesty into true expansiveness and strength.

Pub Date: April 20th, 1978
Publisher: Morrow