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Elizabeth and Catherine: Empresses of all the Russias

Book review by Edna Boardman, Bismarck, North Dakota

Coughlan, Robert. Elizabeth and Catherine: Empresses of all the Russias. Edited by Jay Gold. New York: Putnam, 1974.


In the stories of Catherine the Great (Catherine II), Empress Elizabeth, who preceded her, is often treated as merely the person who made Catherine's reign possible. While this book is largely a biography of Catherine, the reign of Ellizabeth, her very real achievements, and her role in Catherine's life comes more sharply into focus than they do in other biographies of Catherine.

Elizabeth was the only surviving child of the 13 children of Peter the Great, the Czar who wrenched Russia into the modern world. The alarming infant mortality rate of the time, Peter's murder of Alexei, his timorous, religious son who was in line to succeed him, and a succession of short-term czars and czarinas gave little stability to the country. Finally, beautiful, robust Elizabeth staged a coup and grabbed the throne. She carried on with her father's modernizing policies and, though she was vain and something of a procrastinator, she is recognized by historians as a good leader.

Elizabeth was not married and had no children, and the question of who would succeed her worried her terribly. Finally, she brought her nephew Peter from one of the small German countries to Russia. She recognized early on that he was a person of weak character but also figured that, if he had a wife and produced grandchildren, perhaps the next generation would be better. So it was that Catherine, a princess from an unimportant, nonthreatening German municipality, came into the picture.

This is generally a good book, full of facts and interpretations. Its outstanding feature is a 35-page prologue that traces Russia's history from its beginnings as a trading country with its center in Kiev, through its defeat and rule by the Mongols, and then through czarist times up to the reign of Elizabeth and after her, Catherine II. None of the other biographies this reviewer has read brings the reader up to speed in quite the same succinct, absorbing way.

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