Thursday, September 17, 2009


Okay, gentle non-existent reader, my laptop crashes so it may take me a while to get back into fighting form in terms of posts. For the moment, I am reading Simon Montefiore's book on Potemkin. The book is heavily praised by everybody and richly detailed and researched, but I can't seem to get a handle on why Potemkin deserves to be remembered.

I guess the problem is that Catherine burned Potemkin's letters but he kept at least some of hers, so the reader only gets a picture of Catherine's many wonderful qualities. She comes across as remarkably intelligent and politically savvy, but also as somebody who as a firm grip on her own psychology. I guess the term would be emotional intelligence.

It's not that she didn't need anyone, it's really that she understood what she needed in terms of love, sexual satisfaction, friendship, etc. Potemkin, thus far in the book, comes across as manic, spoiled, arrogant, profligate, etc. Apparently, he was incredibly intelligent and energetic and funny as well--but we don't exactly see that as readers, we're just left to take the word of the author and Catherine herself.

The other thing this book does is explain the wide chasm between the 18th century and our own age. When ones comes across Catherine's American Revolutionary contemporaries, one finds them to be operating, generally speaking, in familiar political terrain. The struggle for life, liberty, and happiness isn't a foreign language. But dynastic struggles and murdered pretenders and Cossack rebellions and autocracy and indeed serfdom make little sense in the modern age.

Potemkin's rise to power is a catalog of bizarre offerings from Catherine, including huge estates filled with endless serfs, gigantic monetary offerings, potential crowns, rights to formally attend the Queen, ribbons and medals and other sartorial embellishments, military ranks, a title from the Holy Roman Empire, and various awards such as the Order of the White Elephant from Denmark.

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