Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 8, 2018

Sensational Snippets: Catherine the Great, Selected Letters, a new translation (2018) by Andrew Kahn and Kelsey Rubin-Detlev

Well, look what arrived in the mail today, just in time for #WITMonth…

*chuckle* I’m just guessing, but I suspect that Catherine the Great was not the kind of author the instigators of Women in Translation had in mind!

But before we jump to conclusions, perhaps we should check her CV:

Here’s the blurb:

Catherine the Great’s letters present a vivid picture of Russia in a momentous age. They also offer a unique account of her personal development and intimate life, her strategic acumen as a diplomat and military commander, and her political skills at the Russian court and in handling foreign monarchs. Born a German princess, Catherine married into the Russian royal family and came to the throne after a coup. As absolute ruler for 34 years she presided over the expansion of the Russian empire, legislated actively to reform the country in keeping with the principles of the Enlightenment, actively promoted the arts and sciences, and in her correspondence engaged with the most renowned minds in Europe, among them Diderot and Voltaire. Her letters are her literary masterpiece, written to a wide circle of associates and friends, not least her most celebrated lover and ally, Potemkin. Combining her wit, charm, and quick eye for detail, they entertain and tell the gripping story of a self-made woman and legendary ruler.

I’ve only browsed the book so far, but I found letters which show her fussing about the Smolnyi Institute for Noble Girls, smirking about revolutionary shenanigans in France, tolerating a middle class (without altering the lifestyle of the Russian autocracy of course) and setting a good example by being inoculated against smallpox.

And here she is writing to Prince Dmitry Golitsyn about the impending visit of Diderot in 1773:

I must clarify with you several preliminary points on the issue.  The newspapers have announced the departure of the person in question for the month of July.  According to your first letter of the month of February, I must not write until after they have left.  They will spend some time as the guest of our neighbours – about a month, I suppose.  That then takes us to the month of August or September.  Will it not be risky to travel here in that season by sea?  Of course I shall send my ‘golden squadron’, [these ones?] that is to say the yachts I use myself and of whose reliability in fetching them I feel confident.  Nonetheless, the lateness of the season will give me concern.  I also have to say, quite apart, that I would much prefer it if this person came during a season when it would be possible to enjoy the delights of my assorted country houses in my company.  One is always more constrained in the city.  (p.130)

Hmm.  I wonder which of her country houses she means?  Maybe this one at Pushkin outside Moscow?

I shall have to read on to find out if they had to slum it at her winter residence instead…

Author: Catherine the Great (1729-1796)
Title: Catherine the Great, Selected Letters
Translated by translation by Andrew Kahn and Kelsey Rubin-Detlev
Publisher: Oxford University Press, 2018
ISBN:  9780198736462, pbk., 480 pages
Review copy courtesy of Oxford University Press


  1. LOL! I think there’s room for ALL women in WIT! Coincidentally I have this one lined up next when I finish my current read of Marina Tsvetaeva – looking forward to spending time in Catherine’s company!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Marina Tsvetaeva – love her poetry! Happy reading!


    • I wish I’d had this before I went to Russia. Even browsing through just a bit of the book has humanised her for me.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Very interesting, Lisa! I didn’t know that Catherine the Great’s letters were collected! Happy reading! Will look forward to hearing your thoughts! On Smolny institute, one of my friends studied there! It is so nice to see it mentioned in the book!


    • Hello Vishy, lovely to see you here! That’s interesting about your friend – the Soviets didn’t change the name? They changed a lot of others (Petrograd, Leningrad etc. They must have changed that it was for Noble Girls, because there weren’t any nobles left by the time the Soviets had finished.


      • That old Smolny college was closed down when the Communists came to power, Lisa. After the fall of Communism, this new Smolny college was started at near the same place, inspired by the old college. This new college is a liberal arts college.


        • Ah, that explains it, thanks Vishy:)


  3. Look forward to your thoughts on this one!


    • I suspect I’ll be learning some European history from it:)

      Liked by 1 person

  4. You should check Robert K. Massie’s book about Catherine. He uses her letters amongst other douments to try and narrate Catherine’s life. I think especially interesting were her years before she ascended the throne. She must ahd felt like a prisoner of Elizabeth literally. I did my best to write a short piece about Catherine’s the Great life:


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: