Catherine the Great: A Winter Book Review

Robert K. Massie’s recent bestseller, Catherine the Great, is a wonderfully engrossing tale of 18th century Russian History as experienced by one of the world’s dominant female rulers, Empress Catherine the Great.

We have been reading this book as we travel throughout New England from one frozen mountain to the next. This is certainly a winter book and as we stomp our feet in the frozen snow or curl up by a winter fire we empathize with the location of the characters of this grand book:  the frozen tundra of a winter Russia.  The backdrop for many adventures is the horse drawn sledge, pulled miles across frozen lakes and ice-covered roads.  Occupants bump about, averaging 12miles a day, as they lie huddled beneath bear furs. The winter winds rush across Russia with the same ferocity that we hear as the barren ice-covered branches of New England’s trees clack against one another and against our winter windows.

Young Catherine

In a word:  we are there.  Massie has created a portrait of Catherine the Great that provides us with a window into the very soul of Russian history.  He begins the tale when young Catherine is only 14 years old and becomes betrothed to the hapless, then adolescent, Peter III.  As a young wife, suffering under Russian Empress Elizabeth, Catherine is sequestered and prevented from loving contact with her friends and family.

Isolated, the young girl turns to books, and these become her true friends and allies. For a period of almost 12 years Catherine is prohibited from social interaction, and yet through her intellectual curiosity she is able to grow and develop and ultimately become one of the most knowledgeable and sophisticated leaders of her era.

A look at Catherine’s reading list should give us all inspiration.  Catherine read incessantly and describes herself as, “always having a book in my pocket…” Some books of particular note are the 10 volume edition of General History of Germany, and the Annals by Tacitus, a history of the Roman Empire through the reigns of Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero.  Tacitus emphasized the destruction of personal liberties by the cruelties imposed through aggressive rule. Catherine also read Montesquieu and was moved by his Enlightenment thinking.  This exposed Catherine to the ideas of a society ruled by rational thought, rather than pure power.  In addition, Voltaire was a favorite with his irreverent and witty modernistic philosophy.  As Catherine grew in intellectual and emotional maturity she was able to view some of the behaviors of the Russian court in the context of previous despotism and began to form her own more enlightened attitudes towards autocratic rule.

Massie intersperses Catherine’s own diaries throughout the book and in this way we come to know Catherine through her own voice as well as her actions.  Constant shifts in power impact Catherine and her life is filled with political upheavals, romance and desire for power.  Ultimately, through a series of astute machinations she becomes Empress Catherine and she now has the opportunity to put some of her enlightened thinking into action.  Regrettable she finds, as have so many leaders, that granting liberty and equality to the human masses is not as easy or as personally painless in practice as it is in theory.

Empress Catherine

As Empress Catherine’s power grows so does her political savvy. She begins to realize that she cannot free the Russian serfs, as she had once dreamed and that her future lies in continued actions of aggression against her neighbors.  Her motives are personal and political, tactical and geographic.  Russia needs to secure trade routes through the Baltic ocean, and therefore covets waterways and harbors belonging to other nations.  Catherine finds that her continued aggression in the region wins her foreign accolades as she is triumphant in battle after battle.

As reader we are placed in the uncomfortable position of watching an unchecked leader exercise total power over her hapless subjects despite her initial best attempts at Enlightenment Thinking.  At all costs, Catherine sees that she must protect herself and the ruling class.

Liberté, égalité, fraternité

This fascinating story of the late 1700’s is a tale which effects us all.  The revolutionary thinking of the times, beginning with our own American Revolution, the resulting French Revolution and ultimately the demise of the British throne had seeds which were sown in the great mistreatment and inequality of the vast majority of the proletariat.  Enlightenment thinking and satiric philosophers also paved the way for new thinking: Words do have the power to effect great change.

Catherine the Great covers each of these uprisings and we can understand them both from the perspective of the people as well as from the monarchies the people sought to overthrow.

Russia in 1725

One of the great joys of this book is to follow the action on a map and to see how the countries borders were constantly being redrawn.  It is fascinating to understand the diplomatic reasoning behind tactical acquisitions and to see how the ordinary person was constantly expected to realign themselves with a new governing body.

It is also interesting to see the way religious lines are drawn, almost by the map, as battle-lines are drawn between Lutheran, Catholic and Orthodox believers.  The late 1700’s were a time of deep faith among Christians, and yet that deep faith did not yield greater understanding, tolerance or Christian love for one another.

We really recommend this book to anyone who loves a great tale, enjoys romance and intrigue, is intellectually curious about the philosophers of the 18th century and loves history and geography.  Suggestion:  Read this book on a cold winter’s day by a warm fire while the snow is falling thickly and the logs are burning crisply.

Follow-up reading:  A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.  This intertwined tale of love, politics and social inequality, gives a unique insiders view to the guillotine and the French Revolution.

Let Me Count the Days:  Homeschooling is admitting that 300 years ago people were better educated than they are today.   

The Illuminated Manuscript: Using Art and History to Teach Cursive

The study of cursive writing is not merely relegated to the tedium of copying specific letters.  It is the ability to create beautiful manuscripts and illustrations in which words are as important as images.

As with all our subjects, we began with the technique and then quickly segued into the role of cursive writing in history, art and religion.  Bounce started his cursive career with our Zaner-Bloser Handwriting Book 2C.  He copied the entire manuscript and cursive alphabets, both upper and lower case.  He then had the opportunity to write and read a few simple sentences.  He worked carefully and was off to a fine start.

He concentrated. Some words were more legible than others, but all words unarguably wiggled across the page in a confident and loopy cursive.

Eager to inspire Bounce with the beauty of writing, we began our study of cursive by looking at the root word, script, whose origin lies in the word scribe.  A scribe is quite simply, one who writes.  Before the advent of the printing press, and now publishing and the internet, there were scribes who perfected the art of copying.  Writing was a true art, one which demanded both accuracy and beauty.

http://www.aucklandcity.govt.nz/dbtw-wpd/virt- exhib/realgold/Images/rossdhu.jpg

Nowhere is beautiful writing more evident than in the illuminated manuscripts and Book of Hours of the Middle Ages.

We studied these manuscripts and noticed several things.  Bounce recognized immediately that the first letter of each page was enlarged and elaborately decorated.  We also noticed that the colors were bright and beautiful.  The designs were primarily geometric or inspired by nature emphasizing elaborate curves and swirls.

Our Happymess art, history and cursive project is to create our own illuminated manuscript page.  Bounce was excited about this project because he loves drawing and creating beautiful pictures.

Handwriting Without Tears?  We had no tears at all with this project.  Bounce was motivated to write in cursive because he wanted to create his own Book of Hours.  We chose a simple short verse, Psalm 33.  We chose a psalm because we wanted to be historically accurate.  The Book of Hours was a personal book of prayer.  I abbreviated the psalm so it was short enough for Bounce to copy, and emphasized points he could easily understand:  singing, praising and playing.

Psalm 33

Sing joyfully to the Lord

Praise the Lord with the harp;

Sing to Him a new song;

Play skillfully, and shout for joy

Bounce created a “page” which highlighted the first letter of each line so that he could also “illuminate”.

In between each line of scripture (there’s that word root again), Bounce hopped on his bike and rode around the yard.  This gave him plenty of exercise while he was learning the art of cursive.

Truth liked the look of the project and decided to make a page of his own.  For Truth’s page we abbreviated Psalm 133 and chose lines that would have meaning for Truth.

Psalm 133

How good and Pleasant it is

When brothers live together in unity!

For there the Lord bestows his blessing,

Even life forevermore.

Truth decorated his page with an elaborate picture of brothers camping in the wilderness.  He and Quantum will be camping together this weekend, so that seemed appropriate.

Truth also read aloud several sections from our book on the history of the illuminated manuscript.  We found that the majority of illuminated manuscripts were written between 1200 and 1450 (advent of the printing press).  They were primarily created in the scriptoria of a monastery.  Most illuminated manuscripts were Bibles or personal prayer books, such as The Book Hours.

Vocabulary for this lesson:  Scriptoria, containing the word script, derived from the word scribe.  A scriptoria (similar to cafeteria) is the place within a monastery where the writing takes place.

Cursive, derived from Medieval Latin: cursivus, literally “running”,

Geometric, designs using mathematical shapes

Symmetry and symmetrical, designs with equally appearing elements presented in a balanced design.

Let Me Count the Days:  Homeschooling is teaching cursive as an art form, not a workbook exercise.