The Memoirs of Catherine the Great

The Memoirs of Catherine the Great

The Memoirs of Catherine the Great

The Memoirs of Catherine the Great

Excerpt

Large-scale makers of history from Julius Caesar to Hitler and Winston Churchill have felt the urge to inform posterity what they have done, but only one woman ruler is to be found in the list. When Catherine the Great died in 1796 a sealed envelope was discovered by her successor addressed 'To his Imperial Highness the Czarewich and Grand Duke Paul, my dearly loved son. The manuscript, written in French and covering the first thirty years of her life, breaks off in the middle of a sentence describing an interview with the Empress Elizabeth three years before her accession to the throne. The Emperor Paul showed it to a friend and unauthorized copies were made. On his accession in 1825 her grandson the Emperor Nicholas ordered their seizure and destruction, presumably desiring to suppress evidence which might call in question the legitimacy of his father; but when the last of the autocrats passed away Alexander Herzen, the celebrated Russian author and exile, published an edition of the Mémoires in London in 1859.

Manuscripts in Catherine's handwriting are preserved in the National Archives in Moscow, and we know more than Herzen could tell his readers about the date of composition. She began to write nine years after her accession and the first portion was dedicated to her lady-in-waiting Countess Bruce. Twenty years later she added an account of her early years down to 1752. Brief memoranda relating to a subsequent period suggest that she intended to continue the narrative, and we can only guess why the plan was not fulfilled. Like Frederick the Great and Maria Theresa she loved writing, and it must have afforded her satisfaction in the days of her glory to recall the trials of her early years and the fortitude with which she bore them. But was there not also a . . .

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