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Who, exactly, was Catherine II, Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia? Catherine II by Fyodor Rokotov. The Hermitage/ Wikimedia Commons.

Why Catherine the Great’s ‘greatness’ doesn’t grate

The current Hermitage exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) is subtitled – quite rightly – The Legacy of Catherine the Great. As per the gallery’s blurb, it:

showcases one of the world’s greatest art collections. Featuring works by artists including Rembrandt, Rubens, Velázquez and Van Dyck, the exhibition offers a dazzling array of works including the finest group of Dutch and Flemish art to come to Australia.

But who, exactly, was Catherine II, Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia?

None of those titles were known, or even likely, when she was born in 1729 in Prussia. In reality, she was connected only rather remotely to Russia, through her mother’s cousin’s husband, and was named Sophie Friederike Auguste, Prinzessin von Anhalt-Zerbst.

But her marriage, arranged by the childless Russian Tsarina, Elizabeth (1709–1762), was to a boy who was both her own second cousin and the only living grandson of Peter the Great (1672–1725).

This orphaned fiancé, Karl Peter Ulrich, was also brought up in Prussia, and stood to inherit the Russian throne as Peter III.

Portrait of Catherine II 1776–77 by Alexander Roslin 1718–93. Oil on canvas. Courtesy The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg., Author provided

When brought to St Petersburg in 1745, aged 14, Sophie’s charm and intelligence boded well for her future as Peter’s consort. She was also astute enough to change her name to Ekaterina, and be received into the Russian Orthodox Church; and even to note, along with many others at the court, that childish, sickly Peter constantly failed to impress as Elizabeth’s nominated heir.

Although the marriage went ahead, Catherine would only have to let external events take their course to see Peter abdicate, and die six months after mounting the throne in 1762. She then allowed herself to be proclaimed Tsarina in her own right.

By that stage her Russian was excellent, whereas Peter’s had been almost non-existent. And therein lay the first key to her popularity and her greatness.

It was apparent long before Elizabeth died – also in 1762 – that her long-term plans were not working. Nine years after the wedding of Peter and Catherine, the much-vaunted marriage had failed to produce a child. Why then frown upon Catherine when she discreetly acquired a lover and gave birth to a boy?

Elizabeth snatched the child, Paul, and brought him up as her own. Honour, so to speak, was saved.

In all of this, Catherine’s behaviour was never questioned. By the time Peter came to his unhappy end, she’d had three relationships, all conducted according to established protocol, and she would have several more “favourites” after taking power in 1762.

Catherine II 1773, by Jean-Antoine Houdon. The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, Author provided

But – and this is another of the reasons she was (including in the modern sense of the word) “great” – they were all in their turn sent away with a bag of money, a smile, and a promise of ongoing friendship.

Sometimes, as in the case of Grigory Potëmkin, her most ambitious, powerful and passionate lover, Catherine continued to seek their advice and companionship long after she’d stopped sleeping with them.

Wise and generous enough to retain former lovers as valued friends, she was nevertheless too single-minded to share her power or position with any one of them.

Five years into her reign, she completed a huge rewriting of Russia’s inadequate legal code to present to her government. She called it her Nakaz (1767), or Instruction. In gratitude for a labour of which they would have been incapable, her officials thought to bestow on her a new title.

Of the many suggestions that were put forward, “Catherine the Great” received the most votes but, though flattered, she rejected it, insisting it was unearned. Looking at the 20 chapters written in French (her secretary translated them into Russian), posterity might disagree with that modesty.

The Nakaz is proof both of great intellectual ability and a capacity to spend long hours combing through political, historical and philosophical treatises from all over Europe, sifting a multitude of ideas into one cohesive document.

A fourth aspect of Catherine’s individual greatness is visible in the fabric and contents of that part of her city whose classical green and white edifices still grace the banks of the river Neva.

Hermitage Museum, the Winter Palace in Winter, St Petersburg. Photo by Andrey Terebenin. NGV/Hermitage, Author provided

The huge Winter Palace in St Petersburg, completed in 1761, was baroque. Most of its buildings were there already, but Catherine had it rebuilt to harmonise with the neo-classical style she imposed on all the buildings she commissioned, and filled it with works and objects of art from all over Europe.

Her famous collections, both legendary and now publicly accessible, should be seen not as mere displays of her enormous wealth, but as an astute, consummate and successful effort to undo her country’s (justified) reputation for barbarism.

The art was only an example, comprehensible to foreigners, of more extensive projects relevant to her own people: there was also her encouragement of reading, through the distribution of printing presses which multiplied the number of books published; her setting up of Russia’s first magazine, which in turn gave rise to the “thick journals” so influential in the 19th century.

Her Academy of Language was founded in 1783, producing the first Russian dictionary. And she also funded many schools, including some for girls.

Meanwhile, she forged ahead with what many history books see as her most significant contribution to the greatness of her country: her expansionist foreign policy. Under Catherine, Russia continued every year to push out its frontiers to the East and South by acquiring tracts of territory as large as Holland.

Of course there were also shocking lacunae in Catherine’s program, in particular her forthright rejection of political ideas which she refused to promote because of their unpopularity with her cherished “noble landlords”.

Yet even the benighted peasants passively accepted her greatness, because to them, as well as to the nobility, the inequalities of the status quo in Russia were overwhelmingly taken as given.

Greatness is, after all, more like a dimension than a virtue. And Catherine had it in spades.

The main source text for this article was Catherine the Great, Portrait of a Woman (2011), by Robert K Massie, published by Random House.

Judith Armstrong will speak at the NGV on Sunday September 6 as part of a special four-part lecture series for Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great. Details here.

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