Catherine the Great and Royal Biographies

By Hoogenboom, Hilde | Kritika, Summer 2018 | Go to article overview

Catherine the Great and Royal Biographies


Hoogenboom, Hilde, Kritika


Ol'ga Igorevna Eliseeva, Ekaterina II: Put' k vlasti (Catherine II: The Path to Power). 678 pp. Moscow: Akademicheskii proekt, 2015. ISBN-13 978-5829118273.

Vera Iur'evna Proskurina, Imperiia pern Ekateriny II: Literatura kak politika (The Empire of Catherine II's Pen: Literature as Politics). 256 pp. Moscow: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2017. ISBN-13 978-5444806616.

Following Plutarch, whose second-century Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans remained required reading well through the 19th century, Europeans and Americans have a long tradition in the art of writing biographies of their great men. These are the classic biographies that scholars have rejected in search of new narratives for the men and women of various classes, races, and nations long excluded by such histories. Modern historians' new, self-conscious approaches to the multiple subjectivities, lives, and times of often ordinary individuals, with new virtues and vices, are amply documented in earlier review essays on biographies in this journal. (1)

Less obvious are how these fundamental critiques of the traditional biographies of the "great" as sole agents of nations and history, driven by "character," have changed the necessary enterprise of writing such biographies. Scholars may disparage yet one more biography of Winston Churchill, the founding fathers, the presidents, Stalin, or Hitler, but they remain a staple of publishers' trade lists because they are the lifeblood of national histories, as each generation reenvisions its history. Ol'ga Eliseeva, whose career is grounded in academic research, works in publishing and straddles these worlds in unusual ways. In her approximately 30 books over the past 20 years about Catherine the Great and her era, she argues against the sins of popular biography in Russia. Still, she is hardly known abroad, while Vera Proskurina, the other author discussed in this review, is an internationally recognized academic author of two important monographs about the reign of Catherine, one translated into English. These are not biographies, yet they have a lot to offer biographers.

Together, these authors' work tells important new stories about how Catherine shaped, and was shaped by, intersecting political and literary networks at court, nationally and internationally. As a model of this approach to Catherine, Simon Dixon's splendid biography focuses on her life and reign through European court life as an institution and a theater that brought together the history, symbolism, culture, and networks of rulers, empires, cities, palaces, ambassadors, and families in intrigues grand and small. (2) While Dixon assembles a broad swath of contemporary sources in English, Russian, French, and German, Eliseeva painstakingly compares a dozen contemporary memoirs and correspondences in Russian and Russian translation, representing different courts and national interests, of events leading up to Catherine's coup and Peter Ill's controversial death. Proskurina, in contrast, does not mention the memoirs, which were not published or circulated in Catherine's lifetime, but examines her many published histories, plays, operas, and essays in the witty political dialogues of the European Republic of Letters. Proskurina nicely formulates a guiding principle in approaching anything Catherine wrote. Whether the empress wrote privately for herself or for circulation in manuscript or publication, completely or somewhat anonymously, or publicly under her name, she "usually took up her pen with a very concrete goal" (53). Catherine understood that people would pay attention, even after her death, to the act of writing, if not the words, as she continues to shape and be shaped by the perceptions of her readers. The circulation of her words, through her ink and paper, under various signatures, as manuscripts, journals, and books, in various languages at home and abroad, created and still creates the social networks that Bruno Latour argues are the power of material objects to shape meaning and identity beyond the words they contain. …

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