Catherine Was Great

Russia in the Age of Catherine the Great

by Isabel de Madariaga
Yale University Press, 673 pp., $40.00

Catherine theGreat
Catherine theGreat; drawing by David Levine

Some years after the empress’s death in 1796 the conservative historian Karamzin declared that “should we compare all the known epochs of Russian history, virtually all would agree that Catherine’s epoch was the happiest for Russian citizens.” Almost two centuries later, on the evidence of Isabel de Madariaga’s extensive and judicious survey of the period, we may be inclined to think the same. Happiness is notoriously the commodity in shortest supply for Russian citizens. There was a spending spree of ill-founded hopes in the spring and early summer of 1917, but for most of their history the Russian people have schooled themselves to endurance. However limited though Karamzin’s view was—he had in mind the novel freedom of the upper classes, no longer in bondage to the state, or at the mercy of arbitrary decisions by a ruler accountable only to himself—the age of Catherine still glows with some of the benign light in which Europe basked until the hurricane of the French Revolution.

Isabel de Madariaga’s book is, surprisingly, the first large-scale study of Russia during Catherine’s reign in one hundred years. It is a broadly conceived work which sees Russia in the general perspective of eighteenth-century Europe. Catherine was born three years before Washington, eight before Gibbon, and in the same year as Lessing. She is recognizably the contemporary of all three. Even though Benjamin Franklin displeased her as “an inciter to rebellion,” Catherine’s ideas were often not unlike those of the enlightened Virginians among the founding fathers of the United States. They have sometimes been dismissed as a smokescreen behind which the empress pursued the traditional aims of autocracy, and certainly she retreated from them under the shock of the French Revolution. All the same, in our time we may respect a ruler who was able almost to eliminate the use of torture in her dominions, and whose treatment of political adversaries could be positively magnanimous by the standards today of her own country and at least half the world. It was only to her lover of long before, Stanislaus Poniatowski, the unhappy king of Poland from 1764 (two years after her own accession) until its final partition in 1795, that Catherine showed extreme callousness. But her conduct toward Poland forms one of the darkest chapters in the sore history of that country’s relations with Russia.

Catherine’s most prosperous years were from 1775 to 1785—the very middle of her reign. In 1782 she unveiled Falconet’s famous equestrian statue of Peter, which bears the inscription, superb in its assurance, “To Peter the First—Catherine the Second.” This stands in the heart of the city Peter had established upon the Finnish marshes, at enormous cost in human lives. Falconet’s masterpiece, which took sixteen years to complete, had not been achieved without a similar determination in the face of difficulties. Its huge pedestal, a 1600-ton granite block, had to be hauled seven miles…


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 nybooks.com account.