Catherine Was Great

Catherine the Great

by Zoé Oldenbourg
Pantheon, 378 pp., $5.95

Catherine the Great
Catherine the Great; drawing by David Levine

Mme. Oldenbourg’s subject is the human drama of Catherine the woman viewed as the prelude to the political epic of Catherine the sovereign. She focuses on Catherine’s formative years, beginning in 1744 when the fourteen-year-old Princess Sophia-Augusta of Anhalt-Zerbst was summoned to Russia by Empress Elizabeth to marry the latter’s nephew and heir, Peter Ulrich of Holstein, and culminating in 1762 when, at thirty-three, she acceded to absolute power in her own right. The author’s aim is to explore the wellsprings of the character of this foreigner who had no legitimate title to rule Russia, but yet stepped to the throne over the body of her husband—murdered by the henchmen of her third lover—and who then managed to keep her son Paul from his birthright of empire during the thirty-four years of her reign. This familiar story—known partly through her own Memoirs—is rather too gaudy and obvious a subject for histoire romancée; yet Mme. Oldenbourg rises above these difficulties to give us a portrait of Catherine and her entourage that is amazingly fresh and illuminating.

She accomplishes this by a scrupulous presentation of the historical record subtly combined with novelistic techniques. The result is a wonderfully juste and sensitive psychological portrait of a young woman’s development amid the deforming pressures of Elizabeth’s court. Long before Sophia developed the dubious talents that made her Catherine the Great, she had been a sensitive, high-spirited—even high-minded—little girl who, after her mother was sent home from the Russian court in disgrace as a Prussian agent, found herself precariously alone in an alien world at the age of fifteen. She was then married to a strange, tormented, unattractive boy, who like herself was an exile from Germany but, unlike her, was too resentful of his gilded captivity to adapt himself to the country he was to rule. She lived with him for seven years in total innocence. It was a complex relationship that combined childish solidarity against the adult world of Elizabeth’s court with a growing hatred of each other as they matured. When she was twenty-three, Catherine was very likely maneuvered by Elizabeth into the arms of her first lover in order to provide that heir to the throne which the aging sovereign finally concluded her nephew could not provide. She fell sentimentally in love with him, only to be abandoned once his vanity was satisfied by the exalted conquest, and then nearly died in childbirth. The son she had produced was taken away from her by Elizabeth. Left to the world of court intrigue and high politics, she discovered with delight her gifts for these dangerous, necessary games. As Elizabeth lay dying, Catherine not only saw that she had no choice but to fight for power against her husband if she did not wish to be destroyed by him, but soon concluded that she might as well improve upon necessity by seizing the…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.