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Catherine the Great: A Short History

Catherine the Great, the famous Russian Empress, was one of those historical figures whose personality constantly draw attention of specialists researching the history of Russia and Europe as well as all those who were simply interested in life and work of really outstanding people of different epochs. No wonder that there were many books written concerning the life and work of Catherine the Great that may be viewed one of the most significant rulers of Russia after Peter the Great. Among the variety of books dedicated to the life of this woman, the book Catherine the Great: A Short History by Isabel de Madariaga is one of the most noteworthy. In fact, this book is quite controversial since, on the one hand, it provides a profound research of life and work of Catherine the great, while, on the other hand, many historians are very skeptical about the fundamentalism of this book underlying that there are substantial gaps in the narration and analysis of Catherine’s life and achievements.

Basically, the author of the book focuses on the research of Catherine’s life and work as Russian Empress. It is worthy of mention that Isabel de Madariaga tends to romanticize the image of the Empress a little bit as the main message of the entire work may be briefly described as the story of the life of the Empress that could be characterized as an enlighten despot. Such a definition actually reveals the essence of the whole book and the attitude of the author to Catherine the Great. It should be said that the author develops a concept of a basically good-natured woman who constantly strived for the power not for the power’s sake but rather for the sake of the progress of the country she ruled, even though her good nature were hidden in the depth of her soul. In fact, this is exactly the image of Catherine the Great that a reader may see on reading the book and this is why it is possible to speak about certain idealization of the Empress by Isabel de Madiagara.

At the same time, it should be said that the book basically fulfils the main goal of the writer who obviously intended to show the reign of the Empress Catherine the Great in details and reveal the main details of her reign. Obviously, the author is focused on the life and work of Catherine the Great as the Empress, while other episodes of her life remain practically unnoticed, or to put it more precisely, described superficially. For instance, it is important to say that Isabel de Madiagara pays little attention to the childhood of Catherine and her early life to the moment of her ascension to the Russian throne. In fact, this part of her life is depicted in the Prologue of the book that actually makes it quite difficult to fully understand the formation of Catherine the Great as a personality and state woman. In such a situation, it is possible to speak about the lack of information about her early life as a drawback of the book since it was unquestionably a very important period in her life but the author focuses on it quite superficially singling out only the major events, which are also selected quite subjectively.

In stark contrast to the early life the reign of Catherine the Great is depicted in details. In this respect, it is important to underline that the author is particularly attentive to the growing concentration of power in the hands of Catherine the Great. In such a way, Isabel de Madiagara probably attempts to trace how Catherine actually becomes the Great. In this respect, it is worthy of mention that the author in the precise chronological order depicts in details the enforcement of Catherine’s power in Russia. After the secret assassination of Peter II, Catherine the Great has to constantly deal with different fractions struggling for power in Russia. The author skillfully depicts as Catherine the Great practically manipulated by the most powerful people in Russia at that epoch in order to achieve her own interests and enforce her power, including her backing of the Orlovs, and giving in to Panin’s idea of council, she strengthen her power through the revival of an old idea of prestige of serving to the monarch. Isabel Madiagara underlines the importance of the assembly of 1767 which contributed to the further reinforcement of Catherine’s power in Russia.

At the same time, the author does not view this strengthening of the power of Catherine as a personal vanity or a desire to gain more power to be the absolute despot. Instead, the author regards the reinforcement of Catherine’s power as an attempt to gain the leadership in order to bring the progress to the country. Isabel de Madariaga underlines the enlightenment and progressiveness of Catherine the Great which had actually changed the attitude of the Russian monarch to her people making her closer to Russian society to the extent that she did not need anymore numerous mediators but preferred address directly to her ‘children’, though excluding certain layers of society such as serfs.

As a result, the author concludes that Catherine the Great brought progress to Russia making the country closer to Europe but, at the same time, attempting to be similar to European monarchs, she developed her own unique model of power combining the quality of an enlightened monarch with the absolute power she fully enjoyed on the Russian throne.

Obviously, the book is well and logically structured. The main events of Catherine’s life and details of her reign are chronologically presented and discussed with a clear message conveyed to readers throughout the book. At the same time, the book can hardly be named perfect or it can hardly pretend to be the full description of the life and work of Catherine the Great. The book obviously lacks the description and profound analysis of the early life of Catherine, as it has been already mentioned above. Moreover, the author basically focuses on the reign of Catherine but her analysis seems to be a bit fragmentary since she basically concentrates her attention on Catherine, her nearest surrounding and her court, while the profound analysis of the major trends in socio-economic life in terms of the entire country seems to be omitted or, at least, insufficient.

Nevertheless, it is necessary to agree that such a profound interest to the personality of Catherine the Great and her surrounding makes the book quite interesting to read but it seems as if the author risks to lose in historical analysis of Catherine’s epoch for the sake of understanding and analysis of the personality and reign of the Empress. In other words, the author tends to focus on the personality rather than on the epoch or the country. Though, it meets the main goal of the book. This is why it is hardly possible to be very critical in relation to the book and the author.

At the same time, it is important to underlie the great attention Isabel de Madariaga paid to the primary sources. The author carefully analyzes the correspondence of Catherine the Great with such outstanding people of the epoch as Voltaire. The author also analyzes the memoirs dedicated to the reign of Catherine the Great. In such a way she attempts to better characterize the Empress as an enlightened ruler using primary sources demonstrating the extent to which her innovations were progressive.

Thus, taking into account all above mentioned, it is possible to conclude that basically the book is interesting for a wide range of readers who are interested in the reign of Catherine the Great but it would be apparently insufficient for those who want to better understand the Russian Empire under her rule.

Madariaga, Isabel de. Catherine the Great: A Short History. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990.