Making Russia Great

The Spectator, August 25, 2012 | Go to article overview

Making Russia Great


Michael Prodger Catherine the Great: An Enlightened Empress National Museum of Scotland, until 21 October Catherine the Great was born neither a Catherine nor with any prospects of greatness. As Sophie Frederica Augusta of Anhalt-Zerbst she was a minor German princess with modest expectations, but when the Empress Elizabeth of Russia chose her to be the consort of her nephew and heir, the Grand Duke Peter, Sophie's and Russia's fates were transformed.

In 1744 the 15-year-old Sophie arrived in her new country, converted to Orthodoxy, changed her name to Catherine and set about becoming history's ultimate selfmade woman. She was to rule Russia for 34 years and turn it into a global power. She overhauled Russia's economy, foreign policy, legal system and education; she expanded its boundaries and encouraged its arts and sciences. In the meantime she corresponded with the French philosophes and became the most talked-about woman in the world.

Voltaire called her 'the brightest star of the North' and envied the scholar who in 100 years would come to write her biography, not least because she had, in Denis Diderot's words, 'the soul of Brutus and the heart of Cleopatra'.

Voltaire's envy was well placed: Catherine has proved irresistible to subsequent biographers and now the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh is presenting another; this time, though, it is a visual Life. On the 250th anniversary of her accession to the throne, its exhibition Catherine the Great: An Enlightened Empress tells her story through 300 works of art on loan from the Hermitage in St Petersburg, the palacemuseum complex she founded to show off her burgeoning collections.

As a foreigner, a usurper (she overthrew her feckless husband Peter III in a coup) and a perceived regicide (Peter was strangled by the brother of her lover Grigory Orlov, though not on her orders), Catherine's arts patronage was propagandist as much as aesthetic. New palaces, paintings and objets d'art were designed to express her legitimacy, power and Russianness. Just as Alan Clark waspishly reported of Michael Heseltine, Catherine was someone who needed to buy her own furniture. By the end of her life, for the greater glory of herself and her country, she had amassed some 3,000 paintings, 40,000 books and 10,000 engraved gemstones.

The majority of items in the exhibition are of a suitably imperial luxury, the chattels of a woman who was part Mother Russia and part La Reine Soleil. Although her own preference was for the restraint of Neoclassicism rather than the prevailing exuberance of the Rococo, the sheer glitz of the objects on display is not noticeably dulled. …

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