Catherine the Great Love, Sex, and Power

Virginia Rounding

St. Martin's Griffin



Trade Paperback

592 Pages



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Dutiful daughter, passionate lover, doting grandmother, tireless legislator, generous patron of artists and philosophers—Empress Catherine II was all these things, and more. Her reign, the longest in Russian imperial history, lasted from 1762 until her death in 1796; during these years she realized Peter the Great's ambition to establish Russia as a major European power and to transform its new capital, St. Petersburg, into a city to rival Paris and London.

Yet Catherine was not Russian by birth and had no legitimate claim to the Russian throne; she seized it and held on to it, through wars, rebellions, and plagues, by the force of her personality and an unshakable belief in her own destiny. Using Catherine's own correspondence, as well as contemporary accounts by courtiers, ambassadors, and foreign visitors, Virginia Rounding penetrates the character of this powerful, fascinating, and surprisingly sympathetic eighteenth-century figure.


Praise for Catherine the Great

"Scarcely more has been written about any Russian ruler, unless it be Peter, than Catherine, but rarely is it done in a way that captures so well her personality and life-shaping experiences. This is not a study of Russia looking in the window at Catherine; it is being in the room with her and looking out to catch glimpses of Russia. Her stifled youth (having been brought to Russia for marriage at age 15), her precocious ambitions as the teenage bride of the tsar-to-be, her early dalliances, the plotting that brought her to power, the intimate male alliances she struck throughout a 34-year reign, the differentiated affections for son and grandsons, and, above all, her private thoughts about people, power, and her purpose—all are carefully reconstructed from remarkably revealing memoirs and the dispatches of discerning foreign ambassadors. The book is so readable because it brings Catherine alive, and not least in her relations with the men she drew to her side."—Foreign Affairs

"Rounding focuses on the pageant of Russian court ceremonies . . . and on Catherine's personal and romantic life: her love for her grandchildren and her greyhounds, her testy relationship with her autocratic son, her sharp eye for a good painting, her dry wit, her appetite for ideas. Rounding makes copious use of the documentary evidence that Catherine and her courtiers left behind."—Amanda Vaill, The Washington Post

"Born Sophie Frederica Auguste of Anhalt-Zerbst, Catherine II was arguably the ablest monarch in Russian history. Her reign began with a coup: she deposed her husband, Peter III, and let him be murdered. Rounding explores both the private and the public figure, culling with expertise from archival sources. By nature, Catherine was humane, with a personality that blended candor and guile. Unlike her predecessors or successors, she encouraged her ministers to express themselves without fear of retribution, even when they disagreed with her. Her energy and intelligence paid off. Reflecting on her reign, she listed '29 [new] government districts . . . 30 conventions and treaties, 78 military victories, 88 'memorable edicts concerning laws or foundations' . . . 123 'edicts for the relief of the people' . . . 492 achievements in all.' She purchased numerous artworks for the Hermitage, corresponded regularly with Voltaire and Diderot, and served as patron to artisans, architects, and educators. Until the excesses of the French Revolution soured her, she enthusiastically supported the Enlightenment. This is an attractive account of the reign of a most remarkable woman; Rounding's use of the voluminous and lively court correspondence is a plus. Strongly recommended."—David Keymer, Library Journal

"Lively biography of a much misunderstood, most gifted ruler of Russia . . . Catherine, Rounding makes clear, understood that sex was an element of power. She had come to a St. Petersburg that was still mostly a metropolis of log cabins to be married off to young Peter III, who, it emerged, was a bit of a dimwit and rather easily controlled . . . Catherine was, after all, well-read, fluent in several languages and given to philosophy and literature, though in later life her philosophy was of a practical and even Machiavellian nature . . . Peter kept his distance from her, pushing her into the willing arms of a succession of dashing cavaliers and counselors who helped her build St. Petersburg into a mighty city and Russia into a mighty empire; in this regard, Rounding ranks the empress as equal to or greater than her predecessor Peter the Great, who was certainly more murderous than she. A welcome study of a 'multifaceted, very eighteenth-century woman.'"—Kirkus Reviews

"This lengthy biography of Russia's greatest female ruler is by no means as salacious as the subtitle suggests, but this sympathetic portrayal certainly focuses on Catherine's private life. British scholar Rounding relies on memoirs, private letters and previous monographs as she details how, after dissolution of the unhappy marriage that brought Catherine to Russia from Germany, the empress juggled her relationships with men as she attempted to thrust Russia into the modern era and make it a European power. Indeed, Rounding offers an intriguing . . . thesis that Catherine was most effective as a ruler when she was satisfied in her private life. That life was never dull: Catherine's final lover was 40 years her junior, helping to give rise to wild but untrue rumors about her sexual appetite. Rounding's prose matches the excitement of its subject, with vivid portrayals of the late 18th-century Russian court and the machinations of Catherine and those around her . . . Rounding's work will appeal to Catherine-philes and those interested in women's history."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Reviews from Goodreads



  • Virginia Rounding

  • Virginia Rounding is a translator and writer who lives in London. Author of the critically acclaimed Grandes Horizontales, she studied Russian at the University of London and visits St. Petersburg regularly.

  • Virginia Rounding
    Virginia Rounding