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An uninitiated reader would never guess that the country witnessed a huge upsurge of activity in arts, sciences, industry and technology, not to speak of a major push forward in terms of territorial expansion. The quintessential enlightened despot, Catherine had a capacity for flamboyant theatricality, which also extended to strategic demonstrations of simplicity. They were of course supposed to note exactly this; Catherine was enacting what Ronald Hingley, writing of Pasternak, once termed a "choreography of self-effacement", a show of modesty to political and diplomatic ends. This is very much an intimate, "feminine" study of Catherine's life, without a deep command of the politics, culture and symbolic reality of the Russia in which she lived. Confected for the most part from Catherine's own writings and the comments of foreign travellers, this is a rose-pink bavaroise of a book, enjoyable if not sustaining. As Virginia Rounding notes, "she was deliberately creating symbols on this day, conscious of every nuance of appearance", and she was equally self-conscious at every other moment of her life.
While I am not sure that the book adds significantly to knowledge of 18th-century Russia, it does tell part of the story of perhaps the most important Enlightenment ruler with some verve and a degree of conviction. This is very much an intimate, "feminine" study of Catherine's life, without a deep command of the politics, culture and symbolic reality of the Russia in which she lived. It was common for foreign visitors to record the empress's easy manners, "like a charming lady on her country estate", one migrant Frenchman exclaimed. Everything belonged to the empress, including the lands of aristocrats; on death, the estates often were given to a new favourite. Potemkin came to accept and even help her choose them and these menages a trois lasted until her sixties, although Rounding doubts if sex played much of a part in latter years. Confected for the most part from Catherine's own writings and the comments of foreign travellers, this is a rose-pink bavaroise of a book, enjoyable if not sustaining. An uninitiated reader would never guess that the country witnessed a huge upsurge of activity in arts, sciences, industry and technology, not to speak of a major push forward in terms of territorial expansion. The empress herself, who had a schoolmistressy regard for accuracy and a strong sense of personal dignity, might, one suspects, have met this latest version of her life with beady eyes, and perhaps also the expression traditionally used in her home country to snub know-all gossips: Indeed, she hardly goes into any detail, so that the vast changes and conflicts within and outside Russia are all off stage. On their tomb at the Cathedral of St Peter and St Paul in St Petersburg, their dates of birth and the date of burial are recorded - but not the dates of their death, thus making it appear that they ruled together. In this perspective, Rounding's subtitle, "Love, Sex and Power", would seem to have got things in the wrong order. I had heard that story, too, from a Russian friend. Certainly, Catherine wrote to Potemkin in her "Sincere Confession of 21 February ", "My heart is loath to remain even one hour without love", but "love" - particularly in her last years - involved a strong impulse to manage those selected as recipients of emotion by her, whether this meant nudging her lover Alexander Lanskoy into cultivated pursuits, or minutely regulating the upbringing of another Alexander, her grandson and second in line to the throne. By this, she meant the Russians were so brutish that only vivid ceremonials and strict hierarchy could impress them into devotion. Her biography was in part inspired by indignation, Rounding writes. She brought great territorial gains, victory against the encroachments of the Turkish and Swedish empires, a much wider view of the world and of intellectual achievement, especially that of France. Here he observed from a distance the Empress Catherine, who, as he approvingly recorded, was "taller than the middle sized, gracefully formed, but inclined to corpulence". March 31 It is replete with insights into the cruelties and calculations brought to bear on life and power in an age where life, even for the aristocracy, could be short and dangerous, and thus where the active felt impelled to pursue their plans and desires with the greater force. Rounding also suggests how distinct Catherine's world was from ours, describing how, when young, she underwent treatment for curvature of the spine by means of rubbing every day "with the saliva of a servant girl, who was under strict instructions not to eat anything beforehand". It is hugely well informed on the intimacies of the grand, freezing and sometimes vermin-infested palaces of St Petersburg, still under construction during her reign. Famously abstemious with regard to most personal pleasures, she took part with gusto in the transvestite masquerades at the court of Empress Elizabeth, and dressed up as a colonel of the Preobrazhensky Guards to lead troops from St Petersburg to Peterhof in pursuit of her husband, Peter III, to consolidate the coup d'etat of June 28 Rounding dutifully records some of the key events of the reign - battles against the Turks, the suppression of the Pugachev rebellion, the exile of the dissident writer Alexander Radishchev - but her heart does not lie here, and she appears to assume that Catherine's did not either. They were of course supposed to note exactly this; Catherine was enacting what Ronald Hingley, writing of Pasternak, once termed a "choreography of self-effacement", a show of modesty to political and diplomatic ends. Rounding says the origin of this salacious rubbish Catherine died of a stroke lay in the inability of the male ruling classes to cope with a successful woman empress - as well as the ribaldry that surrounded the tales of her, certainly active, sex life. As Virginia Rounding notes, "she was deliberately creating symbols on this day, conscious of every nuance of appearance", and she was equally self-conscious at every other moment of her life. She had heard, while a student, the apparently widely believed story that Catherine died when a contraption constructed to allow her to have intercourse with a stallion collapsed.
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