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"In Catherine's reign, whom Glory still adores"
The Author's Apology For Great Catherine
Exception has been taken to the title of this seeming tomfoolery on the ground
that the Catherine it represents is not Great Catherine, but the Catherine whose
gallantries provide some of the lightest pages of modern history. Great
Catherine, it is said, was the Catherine whose diplomacy, whose campaigns and
conquests, whose plans of Liberal reform, whose correspondence with Grimm
and Voltaire enabled her to cut such a magnificent figure in the eighteenth
century. In reply, I can only confess that Catherine's diplomacy and her
conquests do not interest me. It is clear to me that neither she nor the statesmen
with whom she played this mischievous kind of political chess had any notion of
the real history of their own times, or of the real forces that were moulding
Europe. The French Revolution, which made such short work of Catherine's
Voltairean principles, surprised and scandalized her as much as it surprised and
scandalized any provincial governess in the French chateaux.
The main difference between her and our modern Liberal Governments was that
whereas she talked and wrote quite intelligently about Liberal principles before
she was frightened into making such talking and writing a flogging matter, our
Liberal ministers take the name of Liberalism in vain without knowing or caring
enough about its meaning even to talk and scribble about it, and pass their
flogging Bills, and institute their prosecutions for sedition and blasphemy and so
forth, without the faintest suspicion that such proceedings need any apology from
the Liberal point of view.
It was quite easy for Patiomkin to humbug Catherine as to the condition of
Russia by conducting her through sham cities run up for the occasion by scenic
artists; but in the little world of European court intrigue and dynastic diplomacy
which was the only world she knew she was more than a match for him and for
all the rest of her contemporaries. In such intrigue and diplomacy, however, there
was no romance, no scientific political interest, nothing that a sane mind can now
retain even if it can be persuaded to waste time in reading it up. But Catherine as
a woman with plenty of character and (as we should say) no morals, still
fascinates and amuses us as she fascinated and amused her contemporaries.