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-
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
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
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. …