Guide The Memoirs of Catherine the Great (Modern Library Classics)

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Catherine saved herself, her position, and her children through an extended, brilliant appeal in a letter and two conversations with Empress Elizabeth. I really do not know if this child is mine and if I ought to recognize it.

Though the idea that Catherine was a nymphomaniac is pure speculation, one thing is sure: she was a graphomaniac. Catherine wrote about herself from the time she arrived in Russia, in , at the age of fourteen, until her death, in , at age sixty-seven.

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The memoirs are not one but three main documents in French. She wrote her first full memoir around ; her middle memoir in three parts dates to —73, a text she revised in —91; and she began the final memoir in two parts around In addition, there are two early, short verbal self-portraits, two extensive outlines for the middle and final memoirs, numerous sketches, notes, and anecdotes for the memoirs, and autobiographical letters.

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These autobiographical writings in French and Russian add up to seven hundred pages, forming the last and largest of a dozen volumes of her works, which the Russian Imperial Academy of Sciences published in , the first time this archival material was made public in Russia. Before , scholars knew about the existence of only the final memoir, which circulated after her death in several handwritten copies. Our goal has been an accurate, readable translation that conveys her voice, which combines a well honed art of plain speaking with a vigorous style of thought.

For more than fifty years, she used her autobiographical writing to understand herself as a human being, a woman, and an Empress. She wrote to take stock of her life and reign.

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Catherine also wrote to persuade future readers, for each memoir contains a different overall rhetorical purpose related to her concerns at the time she was writing. She expected her readers to be familiar with the history of her reign, which she does not recount in the memoir. Those eager to encounter Catherine and her memoir directly with no further introduction should have a sufficient overview of her reign and her memoirs from the preceding few pages. It brings together literary and historical analyses of the memoirs in a contribution to Catherine scholarship that is meant to be informative for those encountering Catherine for the first time and for experts alike.

The space between her birth and death is divisible into three parts; with each transformation of her identity, Catherine acquired a different title and name to match her new role. From to , she was Princess Sophie, the daughter of German nobles; from to , she was Grand Duchess Ekaterina Alekseevna, wife of the heir to the Russian throne and mother of his son and successor; and finally, from to , she was Empress Catherine II.

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Two presentation portraits of Catherine were sent to Elizabeth. Frederick the Great and Princess Johanna also intrigued in the Russian court, where other factions favored a French or Saxon bride. In late , Elizabeth invited the fourteen-year-old Princess Sophie and her mother, but for reasons unknown, specifically not her father, Prince Christian August — , to Moscow. On February 9, , Princess Sophie arrived in Moscow.

As her early and middle memoirs make clear, although Catherine was born into a minor German noble house, her mother had prepared Catherine well for life at a royal court. In fact, Catherine shows her disappointment in the quality of Russian court life. While her mother traveled in Europe to keep up family contacts, Princess Sophie stayed with her grandmother in Hamburg and visited, among other places, the Prussian court of Frederick the Great in Berlin.

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This education allowed her to aspire to a royal marriage. She was under constant scrutiny—no part of her life at court, nor anything in the memoirs, most especially her love life, was private. Catherine had innate political instincts that guided her well during and after her introduction to life in the Russian court. The significance for Catherine of the long-awaited birth of a male heir constitutes the underlying plot of her early memoir, written around As the memoirs make clear, the Empress also carefully kept Catherine on a limited budget of 30, rubles per year and watched what Catherine spent.

However, Catherine ran up a debt of six hundred thousand rubles by , money she used to buy the loyalty of courtiers and of her husband, as well as dresses. This pragmatic mixture of love and politics affected her relations with her son, Paul, and with Orlov, and would reach its apogee with Prince Potemkin. This central double thread in the memoirs reflects a system of inheritance in which Elizabeth could choose and, equally important, dismiss her chosen successor. At the bottom of my soul I had something, I know not what, that never for a single moment let me doubt that sooner or later I would succeed in becoming the sovereign Empress of Russia in my own right.

This all seems quite damning evidence of excessive ambition, except that it was in fact possible, though unlikely, for Catherine to rule legitimately—if Elizabeth named her as heir. In eighteenth-century Russia, coups were the rule, not the exception. In the absence of male heirs of the right age, the practice of naming an heir appears to have led to a series of coups by unmarried female rulers and their favorites.

In November , Elizabeth seized power and imprisoned Ivan VI for life; unfortunately for Catherine, he was killed on her watch in However, as Catherine feared, this did not prevent Paul, who behaved as a tyrant, from being overthrown and killed in a coup. Like Elizabeth, Catherine depended for support on family clans, political factions, ministers, favorites, and the elite guards, who formed a complex network of alliances. Throughout her early reign, Catherine relied extensively on the clan of Grigory Orlov her favorite from to , who with the Chernyshev extended family and the elite guards supported her coup.

Catherine was above all a working ruler, unlike Elizabeth. In the memoirs, Catherine criticizes Elizabeth, who let her advisers and favorites write up papers based on what she said, and often did not follow through on matters. In contrast, Catherine did her own writing, had a good memory for details, delegated well, and expected things to get done.

As Empress, Catherine wrote and read every day, adapting her ideas, which she acquired through reading classical, French, German, and English political philosophy, to what was possible in Russia.

She inherited a country that Peter the Great had dramatically turned in the direction of modern European statehood at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Reforms, however, had remained incomplete. Intelligent, well-read, energetic, and ambitious, Catherine, like Peter, applied herself to all aspects of Russian politics, society, history, and culture, and had a profound and lasting impact on Russia and Europe. Barely a month after the coup, having written manifestos proclaiming her rule, she sent one to the French philosophe and celebrity Voltaire — to initiate a literary, political, and philosophical correspondence of mutual flattery and usefulness that lasted until his death.

Throughout her reign, she corresponded constantly with statesmen and women, the philosophes, her ministers, historians, and favorites. Aside from letters and state business, her daily writing included extensive notes on her reading and marginalia in her books. I regularly get up at six A. On Sundays and feast days I go to mass, on other days I go into my antechamber, where a crowd of people usually awaits me, and after a half- or three-quarter-hour conversation, I sit down to lunch.

Our reading, when it is not interrupted by packets of letters or other hindrances, lasts until half past five, when I either go to the theater, or play cards, or else chat with the early comers until dinner, which ends before eleven when I go to bed, to do the same thing tomorrow, and this is as fixed as the lines on a sheet of music. But everybody was interested in everything the Empress wrote and published. The integration of her writings with her life and rule ideally ought to address not only their literary quality and policy significance at the time but also their quantity, variety, and complex political, historical, and cultural functions, the sum of which she meant to transcend her era.

For this compilation of her recommendations on the proper government of Russia, she borrowed extensively from her reading of the best and latest in European political thinking: Spirit of the Laws by Baron de Montesquieu — , a comparison of relations between the state and the people in various nations, and On Crimes and Punishments by Cesare Beccaria —93 , a critique of penal systems. But she published her ideas for all of Europe to read: in Russian and German parallel texts, and also in Russian, Latin, German, and French in one volume, and by , in English, Dutch, Italian, Polish, and Greek translations.

In her lifetime, the Instruction went through seven Russian editions and eight French editions, though it was banned in France. The scholarship that exists on her writings places a premium on publication and readership that makes the memoirs, never published or read in her lifetime, marginal to her writing.

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In another example, like many such letters between luminaries then and now, her correspondence with Voltaire was meant to be read in private and aloud by others and only eventually published, which it was in in France, in in Russia, and thereafter in many editions and translations. In the eighteenth century, many things were written and read without being published, but this did not diminish their importance or influence. In this intimate literary life, writers might publish anonymously, as Catherine did, or under pseudonyms, and still generally be known as the authors of their works.

Writers also worked collaboratively, and salons could produce novels. Even without an audience in her lifetime for her memoirs, Catherine wrote them in French for a future readership that she imagined as part of the literary tradition in which she worked. Catherine followed a French tradition of worldly writing of prose and poetry, fiction and nonfiction, by women as well as men, for educated readers in society. For this reason, she tried hard, unsuccessfully, to learn to write poetry. Thus the memoirs entertain as they instruct, and hide the fact that Catherine planned, researched, wrote, revised, rewrote, and edited them.

In Russia, the private circulation of memoir manuscripts, practiced until quite recently, assured the influence of these works among the political, social, and literary elite without publication. He read and resealed the memoirs, and had all copies confiscated. Their publication in London in was a major political coup for the radical writer and publisher Alexander Herzen, himself the author of the great nineteenth-century Russian memoir My Past and Thoughts — Yet Catherine had a larger audience in mind than just her elite Russian circle that read French, for in the final memoir, she writes Russian phrases and then translates them into French, one indication that she imagined her future audience as foreign.

Catherine had at her disposal an unusual array of genres, means, and opportunities to manage her reputation, from emissaries to salons to letters to publication, informal and formal, unsigned and signed, abroad and at home, in Russian, French, and German. But as with her memoirs, she also looked beyond her place and time. Central to her writing practice was an understanding of herself as making history, which made everything she did significant.

Yet her daily schedule, conversations, and collective authorship could be appreciated by future historians only if written down. Publication was less important because historians would eventually find her manuscripts. Catherine was a prodigious writer in life, but in the middle and especially the final memoirs, she develops her reputation as a serious reader.

The path her early reading took had important implications for the later variety, subjects, and genres of her writings.

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Petersburg, for the first time everything—writing, reading, thinking, and ruling—comes together for her. In her early memoir, from , she never mentions any reading; instead she traces all the difficulties of her life at court, leading to an aborted suicide attempt. Perhaps, in the two memoirs that Catherine wrote after she was in power, it became important for her both to be, and to be seen to be, well-read, which added depth to her Enlightenment credentials.

The final memoir therefore carefully describes the path her reading took, from literature to political philosophy and history, as she educated herself. Once married, she reads novels for a year, beginning with the chivalric romance Tiran the Fair.

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In , she read the four-volume Historical and Critical Dictionary by Pierre Bayle, the most popular work among educated readers in the eighteenth century. Her plays, too, provided a means for portraying Russians as average, decent people. In their correspondence with one another, Catherine and the philosophes share their writings on current events, and she addresses the burning questions of the day.