This biography written by Vincent Cronin was one of my good finds at a used book sale last summer. I’m so glad I pulled it out a week ago. It been difficult to put down.
Cronin tells Catherine’s story from the beginning of her life as the daughter of a German prince. He weaves her public and private life in such a way that the reader can’t turn the page quickly enough to see what comes next. Private letters of her own and those of others are used as source material to give the reader an intimate look at Catherine’s sorrows, struggles and joys; her leadership and cunning; her manipulation of those around her and the implementation of her vision for a great Russia. Cronin says, “Catherine was one of the first career women, and as such she had to find a place in her life not only for her very exacting work but for the man, or men, she loved, for her home and for her family” (13).
Through steady and deliberate steps, Catherine reformed and modernized Russia. Rather than allow rule by force and punishment, she believed and implemented “rule in an enlightened and rational manner…” (163). The Orthodox Church, which she embraced upon her marriage to Tsar Peter, had the view that changelessness was a good thing. Catherine had the opposite view; believing that change was necessary to improve and expand Russia’s national and international interests. Education for girls was on her agenda. She “gave special attention to orphans, foundlings and unwanted infants” (170). Infant mortality in St. Petersburg was 18.4% versus London at 32% in 1796.
How she came to be Empress is an interesting story. Though Cronin suggests that Catherine did not have a hand in Tsar Peter’s assassination, I am hard pressed to buy into that supposition. She seemed far too cunning to not have something to do with it.
I am looking forward to the second half of this book and learning how she finishes her 30 year reign. If you get the chance, read this book. I don’t think you will be disappointed.