Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

How Russia, France, and the US Rocked the 18th Century

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

How Russia, France, and the US Rocked the 18th Century

Article excerpt

In the revolutionary years of the late 18th century, one nation stood above almost all others as a beacon of progressive thought. New freedoms abounded there and its leading intellectual lights put desiccated old monarchies to shame.

When the country's popular leader went on a lavish tour, luminaries from across the West showed up to pay their respects. Wine flowed, ladies danced, and philosophers compared notes under the gaze of the most enlightened monarch of the time.

Her name? Catherine the Great. Her country? Russia.

Today, the empress is nearly forgotten in the West except as a woman with a fondness for the boudoir (and, according to some, the stable). But she played a crucial role in creating a new world order, argues historian Jay Winik in his epic and vivid new book The Great Upheaval: America and the Birth of the Modern World, 1788- 1800.

Few leaders "would come to embody the tensions and ferment of the age as Catherine, who would become inextricably intertwined within the tapestry of the two great revolutions germinating in America and France, all with seismic consequences for years to come," writes Winik.

The stories of the French and American Revolutions are familiar ones to modern readers thanks to a plethora of popular histories published in recent years. And bookshelves are littered with tomes by authors who insist they've stumbled upon a Very Important and Revealing Moment in History.

Fortunately for Winik, he actually has a real turning point to write about, a moment in time when the old was upended with lasting consequences. His ambitious triple play - weaving together the stories of Russia, America, and France - offers a fresh take on the era, and his enthusiasm gives readers a treat.

While we think of the US as being largely isolated from the rest of the world at that time, the new American nation was hardly immune to foreign influences. Months-old news was devoured as eagerly as breaking bulletins are today, and the events abroad were hugely influential here.

Catherine could have tried to snuff out the American Revolution but, as Winik writes, she inadvertently served as unwitting midwife.

Meanwhile, Poland - inspired by the US and France - tried to have a revolution of its own, but Catherine succeeded in burying it.

In Poland and beyond, Europe followed the twin revolutions and their aftermaths with great interest. Benjamin Franklin was so popular in France that his face appeared on snuffboxes; French revolutionaries found fame - and inspired fear - almost everywhere. …

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