Book Reviews: Secret Lives Of The Tsars & Embrace Your Magnificence

Hello everyone,

here are today’s reviews. Enjoy!

Secret Lives of the Tsars: Three Centuries of Autocracy, Debauchery, Betrayal, Murder, and Madness from Romanov Russia
by Michael Farquhar

The Romanovs, one of the world’s most fascinating dynasties, ruled Russia for over 300 years. They were years full of shocking violence and unimaginable excesses, all now chronicled in this little book by Michael Farquhar. Rather than relating every event in the reign of each tsar, Farquhar, briefly sums up their most spectacular, scandalous, and violent, traits. Thus, the chapter on Alexander II focuses on the many attempts on his life, while those on Catherine The Great (she dominates the chapter about her husband, Peter III, too) are about her love life. Only the reign of the last tsar Nicholas II, who gets a staggering three chapters, is examined more in-depth.
Farquarh has done his research well. He doesn’t repeat nasty rumours or mentions them in passing only to dismiss them, but, most importantly, he has been able to simplify 300 hundreds years of history without watering it down and making it shallow and incomplete. Instead, he puts events in the proper context, provides interesting insights on each tsar, and leaves readers with enough understanding of how the history of Russia has evolved during the reign of the Romanov dynasty. All this, while entertaining them too. Although this is by no means a funny read, the witty and colloquial writing style keeps the mood light, entertaining both history buffs and casual readers alike.
If you’re already familiar with the Romanovs and craving new information about them, this book may disappoint you. You won’t find anything new here. But if you’re looking for an introduction to this dynasty, this is a great place to start.
Available at: amazon
Rating: 4/5

Embrace Your Magnificence: Get Out of Your Own Way and Live a Richer, Fuller, More Abundant Life by Fabienne Fredrickson
Deep down, do you long for a richer, fuller, more abundant life? Once you realise how magnificent you are, that becomes possible. Fabienne Fredrickson knows it well. She had a difficult upbringing that shattered her self-esteem and self-love. It took a lot of time and a lot of work for Fabrienne to grow to love herself again, and only then, did she manifest her abundant life. Now, she shares her experiences, her realizations, and her advice to help others.
This short book is chock-full of tips and lessons on how to heal and achieve a high self-esteem. Fabienne reminds us that, to live a happier, richer, life we shouldn’t compare ourselves to others, gossip about them, or judge them. It encourages us to listen to our intuition and to spend more time with people who support us and our dreams. It stresses the importance of being honest with yourself and taking personal responsibility for your words and action, as they, together with your thoughts, shape your life. Most importantly, the book prompts you to be yourself, not the person your family, your friends, your colleagues or society, expects you to be. And this is only the tip of the iceberg. You’ll find many more tips inside the book.
But Fabienne never preaches. She’s been there and knows the pain you’re feeling. Her advice is delivered in a kind and compassionate manner that will make you feel like you’re talking to a friend who really gets you and doesn’t judge you. If you’re suffering from low self-esteem, or know someone who does, I highly encourage you to pick up this book. You won’t regret it.
Available at: amazon
Rating: 4.5/5

What do you think of these books? Are you curious to read them?

Disclaimer: I received these books in exchange for my honest opinion. In addition, this post contains affiliate links.

A Description Of A Young Catherine II

The future Catherine II was thus described by a lady of rank who knew her when she was a young girl:

“Her deportment was good; her figure large for her years; her countenance, to which her gaiety and courtesy gave an additional charm, without being beautiful, was agreeable. Her education had been conducted wholly by her mother, who, watching her strictly, carefully repressed that propensity to pride which she early discovered. She was, from her childhood, taught to salute the ladies who visited the Princess, ‘with those marks of respect which became her years.”

Further reading:
La Belle Assemblée, Volume 2

Madame Vigée LeBrun Meets Empress Catherine II

In 1795, famous portraitist Elizabeth Vigée LeBrun travelled to St. Petersburg, where she was introduced to the Empress Catherine The Great. Here’s how the painter recalls their meeting in her memoirs:

I was far from recovered from all my fatigue – since the term of my residence in St. Petersburg had been only twenty-four hours – when a visitor was announced in the person of the French Ambassador, Count Esterhazy. He congratulated me on my arrival at St. Petersburg, telling me that he was about to inform the Empress of it and at the same time to take her orders for my presentation. Very little later I received a visit from the Count de Choiseul-Gouffier. While conversing with him I confessed what happiness it would give me to see the great Catherine, but I did not dissemble the fright and embarrassment I expected to undergo when I should be presented to that powerful Princess. “You will find it quite easy,” he replied. “when you see the Empress you will be surprised at her good nature; she is really an excellent woman.” I acknowledge that I was astonished by his remark, the justice of which I could scarcely believe, in view of what I had heard up to that time. It is true that the Prince de Ligne, during the charming narration of his journey in the Crimea, had recounted several facts proving that this great Princess had manners that were as gracious as they were simple, but an excellent woman was hardly the thing to call her.

However, the same evening Count Esterhazy, on returning from Czarskoiesielo, where the Empress was living, came to tell me that Her Majesty would receive me the next day at one o’clock. Such a quick presentation, which I had not hoped for, put me into a very awkward position. I had nothing but very plain muslin dresses, as I usually wore no others, and it was impossible to have an ornamental gown made from one day to the next, even at St. Petersburg. Count Esterhazy had said he would call for me at ten o’clock precisely and take me to breakfast with his wife, who also lived at Czarskoiesielo, so that when the appointed hour struck I started with serious apprehensions about my dress, which certainly was no court dress. On arriving at Mme. d’Esterhazy’s, I, in fact, took note of her amazement. Her obliging civility did not prevent her from asking me, “Have you not brought another gown?” I turned crimson at her question, and explained how time had been wanting to have a more suitable gown made. Her displeased looks increased my anxiety to such a degree that I needed to summon up all my courage when the moment came to go before the Empress. […]

A few minutes later I was alone with the autocrat of all the Russias. The Ambassador had told me I must kiss her hand, in accordance with which custom she drew off one of her gloves, and this ought to have reminded me what to do. But I forgot all about it. The truth is, that the sight of this famous woman made such an impression upon me that I could not possibly think of anything else but to look at her. I was at first extremely surprised to find her short; I had imagined her a great height – something like her renown. She was very stout, but still had a handsome face, which her white hair framed to perfection. Genius seemed to have its seat on her broad, high forehead. Her eyes were soft and small, her nose was quite Greek, her complexion lively, and her features very mobile. She at once said in a voice that was soft though rather thick: “I am delighted, madame, to see you here; your reputation had preceded you. I am fond of the arts and especially of painting. I am not an adept, but a fancier.” Everything else she said during this interview, which was rather long, in reference to her wish that I might like Russia well enough to remain a long time, bore the stamp of such great amiability that my shyness vanished, and by the time I took leave of Her Majesty I was entirely reassured. Only I could not forgive myself for not having kissed her hand, which was very beautiful and very white, and I deplored that oversight the more as Count Esterhazy reproached me with it. As for what I was wearing, she did not seem to have paid the least attention to it. Or else perhaps she may have been easier to please than our Ambassadress.

I went over part of the gardens at Czarskoiesielo, which are a veritable little fairyland. The Empress had a terrace from them communicating with her apartment, and on this terrace she kept a large number of birds. I was told that every morning she went out to feed them, and that this was one of her chief pleasures.

Directly after my audience Her Majesty testified her wish to have me spend the summer in that beautiful region. She commanded her stewards, of whom the old Prince Bariatinski was one, to give me an apartment in the castle, as she desired to have me near her, so that she might see me paint. But I afterward found out that these gentlemen took no pains to put me near the Empress, and that in spite of her repeated orders they always maintained that they had no lodgings at their disposal. What astonished me most of all, when I was informed of this matter, was that these courtiers, suspecting me to belong to the party of the Count d’Artois, were afraid lest I had come to get Esterhazy replaced by another Ambassador. It is probable that the Count was in connivance with them about all this, but anybody was surely little acquainted with me who did not know that I was too busy with my art to give any time to politics, even if I had not always felt an aversion to everything smacking of intrigue. Moreover, aside from the honour of being lodged with the Empress and the pleasure of inhabiting such a fine place, everything would have been stiff and irksome for me at Czarskoiesielo. I have always had the greatest need to enjoy my liberty, and, for the sake of following my own inclination, I have always infinitely preferred living in my own house.

Further reading:
The Memoirs of Madame Vigée Le Brun

Historical Reads: Etiquette From Catherine the Great

All things Ruffnerian shares the rules of etiquette posted by Empress Catherine the Great at her Hermitage:

2. Orders of precedence and haughtiness,
and anything of such like which might result from them,
shall be left at the doors.

3. Be merry, but neither spoil nor break anything,
nor indeed gnaw at anything.

4. Be seated, stand or walk as it best pleases you,
regardless of others.

5. Speak with moderation and not too loudly,
so that others present have not an earache or headache.

6. Argue without anger or passion.

7. Do not sigh or yawn, neither bore nor fatigue others.

To read the entire post, click here.

Madame Vigée Le Brun On Catherine The Great

A while ago, I posted Madame Vigée Le Brun’s thoughts about her first meeting with the Russian Empress Catherine The Great. The portraitist spent a lot of time in Russia and had the chance to meet the Empress several more times and form her own opinion about this autocrat. Here’s what she wrote in her memoirs:

The Russian people lived very happily under the rule of Catherine; by great and lowly have I heard the name of her blessed to whom the nation owed so much glory and so much well-being. I do not speak of the conquests by which the national vanity was so prodigiously flattered, but of the real, lasting good that this Empress did her people. During the space of the thirty-four years she reigned, her beneficent genius fathered or furthered all that was useful, all that was grand. She erected an immortal monument to Peter I.; she built two hundred and thirty-seven towns in stone, saying that wooden villages cost much more because they burned down so often; she covered the sea with her fleets; she established everywhere manufactories and banks, highly propitious to the commerce of St. Petersburg, Moscow and Tobolsk; she granted new privileges to the Academy; she founded schools in all the towns and the country districts; she dug canals, built granite quays, gave a legal code, instituted an asylum for foundlings, and, finally, introduced into her empire the boon of vaccination, adopted by the Russians solely through her mighty will, and, for the public encouragement, was the first to be inoculated.

Catherine herself was the source of all these blessings, for she never allowed any one else real authority. She dictated her own despatches to her ministers, who, in effect, were but her secretaries.

Catherine II. loved everything that was magnificent in the arts. At the Hermitage she built a set of rooms corresponding to certain rooms in the Vatican, and had copies made of the fifty pictures by Raphael adorning those rooms. She enriched the Academy of Fine Arts with plaster casts of the finest ancient statues and with a large number of paintings by various masters. The Hermitage, which she had founded and erected quite near her palace, was a model of good taste in every respect, and made the clumsy architecture of the imperial palace at St. Petersburg appear to worse advantage than ever by the contrast. It is well known that she wrote French with great facility. In the library at St. Petersburg I saw the original manuscript of the legal code she gave the Russians written entirely in her own hand and in the French language. Her style, I was told, was elegant and very concise, and this reminds me of an instance of her laconic manner of expression which seems to me quite delightful. When General Suvaroff had won the battle of Warsaw, Catherine at once sent him a messenger, and this messenger brought the fortunate victor nothing but an envelope on which she had written with her own hand, “To Marshal Suvaroff.”

This woman, whose power was so great, was at home the simplest and least exacting of women. She rose at five in the morning, lit her fire, and then made her coffee herself. It was even said that one day, having lit the fire without being aware that the sweeper had climbed up the chimney, the sweeper began to swear at her, and to shower the coarsest revilements upon her, believing he was speaking to a stove-lighter. The Empress hastened to extinguish the fire, though not without laughing heartily at having been thus treated.

After breakfast the Empress wrote her letters and prepared her despatches, remaining in seclusion until nine o’clock. She then rang for her men servants, who sometimes did not answer her bell. One day, for instance, impatient at waiting, she opened the door of the room they were in, and, finding them settled down at a game of cards, she asked them why they did not come when she rang. Thereupon one of them calmly replied that they wanted to finish their game – and so they did. On another occasion the Countess Bruce, who was allowed in the Empress’s apartments at all hours, came in one morning to find her alone at her toilet. “Your Majesty seems to be without assistance,” said the Countess. “How can I help it?” answered the Empress. “My maids all went off. I was trying on a dress which fitted so badly that I lost my temper over it, and so they left me to myself. Not one of them stayed, not even Reinette, my head maid, and I am waiting for them to cool off.

In the evening Catherine would gather about her some of the people of her court she liked best. She sent for her grandchildren, and blind man’s buff, hunt the slipper and other games were played until ten o’clock, when Her Majesty went to bed. Princess Dolgoruki, who was among the favoured, often told me with what good spirits and jollity the Empress enlivened these gatherings. Count Stachelberg and the Count de Ségur were invited to Catherine’s small parties. When she broke with France and dismissed the Count de Ségur, the French Ambassador, she expressed deep regret at losing him. “But,” she added, “I am an autocrat. Every one to his trade.”

A few days later I went to a gala dinner at court. When I entered the room the invited ladies were all there, standing by the table, on which the first dish was already served. A moment after, a large door with two valves was thrown open, and the Empress appeared. I have said that she was short, but nevertheless on state occasions, her erect head, her eagle eye, her countenance so used to command – all was so symbolic of majesty that she seemed to be the queen of the world. She wore the ribbons of three orders. Her garb was plain and dignified, consisting of a muslin tunic embroidered with gold and enclasped by a diamond belt, a pair of wide sleeves being turned back in oriental fashion. Over this tunic was a red velvet dolman with very short sleeves. The cap set on her white hair was not adorned with bows, but with diamonds of the greatest beauty. When Her Majesty had taken her place all the ladies sat down to the table, and, according to universal custom, laid their napkins on their knees, while the Empress fastened hers with two pins, just as napkins are fastened on children. She soon noticed that the ladies did not eat, and suddenly burst out: “Ladies, you do not want to follow my example, and you are only pretending to eat! I have adopted the habit of pinning my napkin, as otherwise I could not even eat an egg without spilling some of it on my collar.

I, in fact, observed her to dine with a very hearty appetite. A good orchestra played during the whole meal, the musicians being in a large gallery at the end of the room.

Prince Bezborodko was a man of high ability. He was employed in the reign of Catherine II. and of Paul, first as secretary to the cabinet, and then, in 1780, as Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. In his desire to avoid the countless appeals by which he was besieged, he made himself as inaccessible as possible. Women sometimes followed him into his carriage. He would answer their demands with “I shall forget,” and if it was a case of a petition with “I shall lose it.” His greatest gift was a thorough and exact knowledge of the Russian language. In addition to this he boasted a phenomenal memory and an astonishing facility of putting his thoughts into words. I give a well-known instance in proof thereof. On one occasion the Empress ordered him to draw up a ukase*, which, however, a great pressure of business caused him to forget. The first time he saw the Empress again, after conferring with him on several matters of administration, she asked him for the ukase. Bezborodko, not the least bit in the world dismayed, drew a sheet of paper out of his portfolio, and without a moment’s hesitation improvised the whole thing from beginning to end. Catherine was so well pleased with this presentment that she took the paper from him to look at it. Her surprise may be imagined at the sight of a sheet that was quite blank! Bezborodko began elaborate excuses, but she stopped him with compliments, and the next day made him Privy Councillor.

*Ukase: decree

Further reading:
The Memoirs of Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun

Catherine II’s Death

Famous French portraitist Madame Vigée LeBrun spent six years in Russia, a country she seemed to have genuinely loved. During her stay she got to meet the Empress Catherine II several times. I have already posted about their first meeting and her recollections and thoughts about this autocrat. In this last instalment, Madame Vigée LeBrun talks about Catherine’s death and funeral:

The Sunday preceding her death, I went to Her Majesty after church to present her with the portrait that I had made of the Grand Duchess Elisabeth. She congratulated me upon my work and then said: “They insist that you must take my portrait. I am very old, but still, as they all wish it, I will give you the first sitting this day week.” The following Thursday she did not ring at nine o’clock as was her wont. The servants waited until ten o’clock, and even a little later. At last the head maid went in. Not seeing the Empress in her room, she went to the clothes-closet, and no sooner did she open the door than Catherine’s body fell upon the floor. It was impossible to discover at what hour the apoplectic shock had touched her; however, her pulse was still beating, and hope was not entirely given up. Never in my days did I see such lively alarm spread so generally. For my part I was so seized with pain and terror when apprised of the dreadful tidings that my convalescing daughter, perceiving my state of prostration, became again ill.

After dinner I hastened to Princess Dolgoruki’s, whither Count Cobentzel brought us the news every ten minutes from the palace. Our anxiety continued to grow, and was unbearable for everybody, since not only did the nation worship Catherine, but it had an awful dread of being governed by Paul. Toward evening Paul arrived from a place near St. Petersburg, where he lived most of the time. When he saw his mother lying senseless, nature for a moment asserted her rights; he approached the Empress, kissed her hand, and shed some tears. Catherine II. finally expired at nine o’clock on the evening of November 17, 1796. Count Cobentzel who saw her breathe her last sigh, at once came to inform us that she had ceased to live.

I confess that I did not leave Princess Dolgoruki’s devoid of fear, in view of the general talk as to a probable revolution against Paul. The immense mob I saw on my way home in the palace square by no means tended to comfort me; nevertheless, all those people were so quiet that I soon concluded, and rightly, we had nothing to fear for the moment. The next morning the populace gathered again at the same place, giving vent to its grief under Catherine’s windows in heartrending cries. Old men and young, as well as children, called to their “matusha” (little mother), and between their sobs lamented that they had lost everything. This day was the more depressing as it augured so sadly for the Prince succeeding to the throne.

The Empress’s body was exposed six weeks in a large room at the palace, lit up day and night and gorgeously decorated. Catherine was laid out on a bed of state and surrounded by shields bearing the arms of all the towns in the empire. Her face was uncovered, her beautiful hand resting on the bed. All the ladies – of whom some took turn in watching by the body – bent to kiss that hand, or pretended to. I, who had never kissed it in her lifetime, did not dare to kiss it now, and even avoided looking at Catherine’s face, which would have left too bad an impression on my memory.

After his mother’s death, Paul at once had his father Peter disinterred; he had been buried for thirty-five years in the convent of Alexander Nevski. Nothing was found in the coffin but bones and a sleeve of Peter’s uniform. Paul desired the same honours rendered to these remains as to Catherine’s. He had them exhibited in the middle of the Church at Kazan; the watch service was performed by old officers, friends of Peter III, whom his son had pressed to come, and whom he loaded with honours. The day of the funeral having arrived, Peter III.’s coffin, on which his son had placed a crown, was put with great ceremony beside Catherine’s, and both were conveyed to the Citadel, Peter’s preceding, it being Paul’s wish to humble his mother’s ashes. I saw the marvellous procession from my window as one sees a play from a box in the theatre. Before the Emperor’s coffin rode a horseman of the guard, clad from top to toe in golden armour; but the man riding in front of the Empress’s coffin wore only steel armour. The murderers of Peter III. were, by order of his son, obliged to act as pall-bearers. The new Emperor walked in the procession on foot, bareheaded, with his wife and the whole court, which was very numerous, and attired in deep mourning. The women wore long trains and enormous black veils. They were obliged to walk in the snow, at a very low temperature, from the palace to the fortress, where Russia’s sovereigns were laid to rest, a long distance on the other side of the Neva. Mourning was ordered for six months. The women’s hair was brushed back, and their headgear came to a point on the forehead, which did not improve their looks at all. But this slight inconvenience was insignificant compared to the deep anxiety to which the Empress’s death gave rise throughout the whole empire.

Further reading:
The Memoirs of Madame Vigée Le Brun