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The Return of Catherine the Great

Tony Lentin gives an upgraded assessment of Russia's empress 200 years after her death.

After seventy years of neglect and dismissal in the Soviet period as foreign adventuress, hypocrite and poseur, indifferent to the needs of 'the people' and marginal to the pre-occupation of Marxists with 'class struggle' and revolution, Catherine the Great (1762-96) is suddenly sweeping into favour in Russia as a focus of unprecedented interest both at the popular and the scholarly level. New lines of enquiry or the re-investigation of older ones have been set in motion. Revisionism, rehabilitation and research proliferate.

The process of rehabilitation began under the impact of glasnost' in the late 1980s and early 1990s with the publication of more positive assessments of Catherine by Alexander Kamensky and Oleg Omel'chenko. (See John Alexander, 'Comparing Two Greats: Peter I and Catherine' in A Window on Russia. Papers from the Vth International Conference of the Study Group on Eighteenth-Century Russia, edited by Maria di Salvo and Lindsey Hughes, La Fenice, 1996, pp.43-50, and Kamensky's article, in Russian, 'The significance of the reforms of Catherine II in Russian history', ibid., pp.56-65). The wave of scholarly interest that followed culminated in August 1996 in an international conference in St Petersburg to mark the bicentenary of Catherine's death. Held under the auspices of the Academy of Sciences and a host of associated organisations, the conference was supplemented by an exhibition of paintings and artefacts at the Hermitage devoted to the Age of Catherine the Great. (See abstracts of conference papers in Mezhdunarodnaia konferentsiia. Ekaterina Velikaia: Epokha Rossiiskoi Istorii, St Petersburg, 1996. Conferences have also been held in Germany: at Zerbst, Potsdam and Eutin).

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