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Catherine the Great

Further to my prior article Peter the Great, I finished rereading Robert K. Massie’s Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman this past week. With the benefit of greater background knowledge, I enjoyed the second reading of Catherine the Great much more than my first.

Peter the Great and Catherine the Great were remarkable leaders. Peter provided Russia with a pathway to Europe through his building of Saint Petersburg and his acceptance of foreigners and their knowledge and technology. Moreover, he forced change upon his own people by updating some of their important customs and rituals and providing new governing institutions. And, one of his significant legacies to Russia was a powerful army and navy.

Catherine complimented and furthered Peter’s achievements. She provided another pathway to Europe through Crimea and the Black Sea. Through her reading and her correspondence with leaders of Enlightenment, she brought to Russia the best of Europe’s moral, political and judicial philosophy. Being a patron of the arts, she also brought literature, art, architecture, and sculpture. As an aside, if you attend any of the Bolshoi Ballet productions at your local theater, you should note that the introduction mentions that the theater was constructed during the reign of Catherine II or Catherine the Great. Furthermore, she assembled one of the largest and finest art collections in Europe, which is stored at the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg. Catherine helped advance medicine—she herself was one of the first to be inoculated against smallpox and then persuaded the noblemen to follow. She also constructed schools, hospitals, and orphanages. Catherine built on Peter’s legacy and created an even stronger, more diverse, and richer country.

As I read about Catherine, I was most impressed by her intelligence, strategic thinking and planning, and, perhaps most of all, determination. Born as Sophia Augusta Fredericka on April 21, 1729, she left Germany at age fourteen to marry Peter III in Russia, the grandson of Peter the Great. Peter III had been severely mistreated during his upbringing and that led to many problems, including his unhappy and difficult marriage. Catherine endured eighteen years of boredom and loneliness during her marriage, which provided her the opportunity to read many books. She utilized this knowledge during her reign to achieve her many accomplishments.

Unlike Peter the Great who spent much of his time outside of Russia, either learning from Europeans or fighting wars, as sovereign Catherine spent most of her time in Russia. Where Peter set the foundation for further growth and development, Catherine admired and capitalized on his achievements, and used her strengths to help further modernize Russia. As evidence of her admiration, she commissioned a heroic equestrian statue in bronze to sit on the riverbank of the Neva River, with the inscription: TO PETER THE FIRST, FROM CATHERINE THE SECOND.

While her achievements are numerous and significant, I was left with the impression that her life was difficult. As much as she enjoyed governing Russia, she also enjoyed her close friends. Unfortunately, after her unhappy marriage and the murder of her husband Peter III, she never succeeded in finding a lifelong partner to share her dreams and accomplishments. She went through a series of partners and is later thought to have married Gregory Potemkin, though unconfirmed. Even after their passions subsided and both found others, they continued to remain close.

Her relationship with her first child and heir, Paul, was strained throughout her life. Some suggest that as she was nearing the end, she was also preparing to disinherit Paul in favor of her grandson Alexander. She died, however, before putting her plan in place.

Although some of her personal aspirations were never satisfied, she along with Peter the Great were two of Russia’s greatest sovereigns.

Massie spent eight years researching and writing Catherine the Great. I am glad that he devoted so much effort, because his book is not only historical and educational but is also an absolute joy to read.


Peter the Great

I recently read Robert K. Massie’s Peter the Great: His Life and World (Modern Library) and am rereading his book Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman.

Both books together provide a historical perspective on the current Ukraine crisis. I should note, however, that I initially read Catherine the Great last year and started Peter the Great earlier this year, prior to the current crisis. Having read both books, I have a good understanding of Russia’s history concerning Crimea and that knowledge helps to put the current crisis in better perspective.

Although I cannot do justice in writing about the book Peter the Great, I will provide a quick review. It is an immense book of over 1100 pages that, according to Wikipedia, in 1981 earned Robert K. Massie a Pulitzer Prize for Biography.

Peter the Great at about 201 cm or 6’7″ was a towering leader, both literally and figuratively. I am impressed by his willingness to fight wars alongside his army; his constant search for new and novel things, including knowledge and education in almost all topics; his passion for people and their potential, regardless of their rank or station in life; his love of his family and country; and his general enthusiasm for life.

Given that he was the sovereign, he could have easily escaped any role or responsibility for personally fighting wars. Yet, he fought alongside those who placed their lives at risk. And, he was demanding leader who constantly sought to better his armies.

With his prominent role as a leader within his armies, I am surprised at his passion for knowledge and learning. Whenever he traveled, he always asked to be shown new things. And, if the person said that there was nothing new to show, then he asked to be shown everything, for he might find something new even if his host did not. He loved books and brought as many back to St. Petersburg as possible. Even more impressive was his breadth of interests—everything from shipbuilding to medical surgery.

Despite his prominent role as the sovereign of Russia, he did not limit his contacts only to those born into upper society. Instead, he preferred those individuals who rose on their merits. Moreover, he worked hard and he played hard with all ranks of people. From fighting in the trenches to shipbuilding to socializing with foreigners to dancing on tabletops, he saw it as all part of his job. I also admired how he changed and modernized Russian society, demanded religious tolerance, championed industry and commerce as well as promoted the roles of women within society.

Although he died young at only fifty two, toward the latter part of his life he was preoccupied with succession. He wanted to ensure that all his accomplishments would be continued and strengthened. He designated his wife, which at that time was unusual for a woman to lead, to succeed him. Russia needed to keep advancing forward.

Overall I simply admired his passion for life. Even though he was responsible for Russia, he still enjoyed learning as much as he could and even working with hands, whether it was shipbuilding or his daily two hours working on a lathe to build things. He always saw opportunities to continue to learn and develop.

A leader such as Peter the Great comes along, perhaps, every few centuries. I no longer think it is possible for another leader to match his accomplishments. No leader today could have his wide array of interests without being labeled crazy. For example, no leader today could have serious interests in shipbuilding, war, nation building, and surgery. Each of those of specialties now take a lifetime of preparation and study.

I am sad to have finished the book, because I enjoyed learning of Peter the Great’s latest accomplishments.

Even aside from learning about Peter the Great, I enjoyed traveling back in time to imagine what life must have been like. All the emotions and dramas that play a part of our lives today were equally prevalent back then.

Regarding Catherine the Great, although I had read the book last year, I decided to reread it with having Peter the Great as background knowledge. I am finding the book even richer and more interesting now than I did before. Perhaps once I am finished Catherine the Great, I will provide another book review.

Switching topics, having read Peter the Great and Catherine the Great and being of Ukrainian ancestry, I am interested the Ukraine crisis. Even though I don’t want to comment too much on the current crisis, I will provide a brief discussion in the form of a few links to different information sources for those wanting to know more. I have read almost every recent article on the topic from the British Broadcasting Corporation, Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, and New York Times. And with deepening crisis, I recently started a subscription to Stratfor, a global intelligence website. From having read as much as I can, I have learned that there are many different viewpoints. I tend to disregard those articles that are simply ad hominem attacks, for they reveal nothing. Instead, I try to understand the driving motivations and possible outcomes.

As I write, the situation is still fluid. At present, John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov are planning to meet soon in hopes of finding a path through the crisis. Each of the previously mentioned sources have useful articles. I will highlight below some of the articles that I have found helpful in framing this crisis. Each of the articles is free; however, registration might be required.

  • Ukraine Turns From Revolution to Recovery (Stratfor)
  • Ukraine’s Increasing Polarization and the Western Challenge (Stratfor)
  • How the Ukraine crisis ends (Washington Post)
  • As tensions build, U.S. facing ‘zero options’ in Ukraine (PBS News Hour)
  • Russia Examines Its Options for Responding to Ukraine (Stratfor)
  • From Estonia to Azerbaijan: American Strategy After Ukraine (Stratfor)

My above list is by no means exhaustive. As mentioned, each of my earlier sources has helpful and informative articles. And, if you are trying to understand this situation, you should read as many differing viewpoints from different sources as possible.

I hope that this unfortunate situation is resolved soon and peacefully.


February 2014 Blog Update

I am still busy working away on learning various website technologies. I have read a couple of books on WordPress, plus a book on HTML5 and CSS3. Although not difficult, reading and comprehending these books still takes time.

At present, I am about one-third of the way through Adobe Dreamweaver CC Classroom in a Book. Given that I am updating my knowledge on web technologies, I decided to learn how to use Adobe Dreamweaver. For simply entering new posts into my WordPress blog, it’s probably overkill. In the future, however, I might decide to get under to hood of my WordPress blog, and knowing how to use Dreamweaver will be helpful.

The purpose of this post is to let everyone know that I am still making progress and will be posting more soon.


Welcome To My New WordPress Blog

I took the above picture of Waterfowl Lakes on 24 October 2013, the last warm day in Banff National Park in 2013. If you click on the picture, you’ll end up at the picture on my Flickr site.

This entry is my first post into my new WordPress blog. My old Movable Type blog has been retired. I purposefully did not import the old data into this new blog. Instead, I like the idea of starting fresh.

In preparation for moving to WordPress, I have begun learning about HTML5, CSS3, themes, skins, and various plugins. It’s amazing how much has changed since I was last actively blogging. While I had a reasonable understanding of HTML 4, XHTML, and CSS, everything has changed. I find, however, that my past learning is helping me learn this new material.

I am still in the process of learning how to use WordPress. So I expect changes to this website over the coming days and weeks.