While in the UK the eighth of March often passes unnoticed, International Women’s Day is a national holiday in Russia, on which women regularly expect flowers and other gifts from the men in their lives. This saccharine twenty-first-century custom is a far cry from the holiday’s revolutionary origins in Russia. Invented in the US in 1909 and established as an annual holiday by the Second International Conference of Women the following year, International Women’s Day was first marked in Russia in 1914. Only three years later, in 1917, women’s protests against food shortages on 8 March (23 February according to the Julian calendar then used in Russia) marked the start of the February Revolution, which brought down the Romanov dynasty and opened the door for the Bolshevik revolution later the same year.
One of the many outstanding women in Russian history and perhaps the most powerful woman anywhere in the world in the eighteenth century, Catherine the Great would undoubtedly have been horrified by the Russian Revolution. But she might have had a bit more sympathy for the theme of this year’s Oxford International Women’s Festival (28 February-16 March 2019): ‘We Will Survive and Thrive’.
Catherine’s Selected Letters, translated and edited by Andrew Kahn (Oxford) and myself, recently appeared in the Oxford World’s Classics series, and tells in Catherine’s own words the story of how she learned to ‘survive and thrive’ in the perilous worlds of the Russian court and international politics in the eighteenth century.
Catherine was in many ways a self-made woman. Born to a German princely family in what is today Poland, she was brought to Russia at the age of 14 to be married off to her first cousin and the heir to the Russian imperial throne, the future emperor Peter III. As she recounts in her marvellous memoirs, when she first arrived in Russia she was forbidden even from having pen and paper, for fear that she would meddle in politics. Her marriage was very unhappy, and Catherine found herself extremely isolated. As she put it in an epitaph she later imagined for herself, ‘Eighteen years of boredom and solitude made her read many books.’ But she also began to dream big and to see herself as a future stateswoman who could make a difference in Russian history. She told the English ambassador (writing in the third person so that, if enemies at court intercepted the letter, they would not immediately recognise its author): ‘she will never advise anything except what she believes to be for the glory and in the interest of Russia […]. But she also knows how very much the nation needs to be well managed internally.’
And then, in 1762, Catherine brought about her own revolution: a coup d’état overthrowing her husband, the recently acceded emperor (in the eighteenth century, any major political change was called a ‘revolution’). She still had an uphill battle to fight: not only was she unrelated by blood to the Romanov family, she had not been designated by the previous empress, Elizabeth, as the legitimate heir in accordance with Russian law. Many people expected Catherine to rule as regent for her young son, Paul, or to be overthrown too in short order. Instead she ruled for thirty-four years, acquiring unprecedented political and cultural clout for Russia and the epithet of ‘the Great’ for herself. If asked the secret to her survival and success she would point to her resilient and positive personality, dubbing herself the ‘Imperturbable One’, and telling an old family friend, ‘one must be cheerful. Only with that can one overcome and endure anything.’ Reading Catherine’s letters one can watch that personality in action, as she handled everything from diplomatic tangles to the challenges of grandmotherhood with pragmatism, good humour, and the will to survive and thrive.
– Kelsey Rubin-Detlev (University of Southern California)