May 02, 2012

Rethinking a Russian legend: Catherine

I just got done with Robert K. Massie's new "Catherine the Great" biography. From my review:

This is definitely what would be called a “sympathetic” biography of the Russia empress, or tsarina. That said, Massie is a known English-language expert on  Russia, as his award-winning “Nicholas and Alexandra” testifies, so I’m willing to be open to his sympathy for the subject.

And, I learned a few things as fact, and heard a few new things as historic claims.

The biggest fact of which I was previously unaware? George III approached Catherine for Russian mercenaries in the American Revolution. Only after she rebuffed him (but not out of sympathy for Americans) did he look for Hessians.

The two biggest claims, which may well be factual?

Gregory Potemkin did NOT create “Potemkin villages” in the Crimea. Massie says that none of his main rivals at court at the time made such a claim. Neither did Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II, who accompanied his fellow Enlightenment monarch on her long cruise down the Dneiper through the new Russian territories which Potemkin was developin, Massie says.

And, the second claim also relates to Potemkin. Without saying “yes” to it, Massie says the pair may have been married. A few letters from Catherine address him as “husband.”

Beyond that, though, Massie paints a picture of a woman complex, generally enlightened, generally self-assured, and wanting of love. This is a great read.

That said, where did the legend of "Potemkin villages" come from, and why? Although Massie's in the apparently majority of modern scholarship in calling the idea legend, he doesn't address why it started. 

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