- Romanut na Imperatritsata: Romanoviiat diskurs v avtobiografichnite zapiski na Ekaterina II. Rakursi na chetene prez vtorata polovina na XIX vek
The Bulgarian scholar Angelina Vacheva's work is evidence of the high quality of contemporary East European research in Russian studies.1 Her book is an interdisciplinary study of the autobiography of Catherine II. Incorporating many insights from her earlier publications, it also draws on the latest advances in Western and Russian literary criticism while remaining grounded in the historical context. Although focusing on the role of the memoirs in legitimating Catherine's power, Vacheva also pays attention to their reception at the time of their first publication in 1858. The monograph is divided into an introduction, four chapters, and a conclusion. [End Page 510]
Throughout much of the book one senses the presence of Richard Wortman, to whom Vacheva acknowledges her debt on the very first page of the introduction. She sets herself the task "of exposing the literary mechanisms of the making of the empress's autobiography" (7), but she is also aware of the historical significance of the memoirs as part of Catherine's "scenario of power." Through the methodological use of literary theory, she analyzes the different versions of the text to trace the evolution of Catherine II's legitimating myth as the "philosopher on the throne" (7–8). Vacheva focuses on two items on Catherine's agenda that derive from the philosophical context of the Enlightenment: the problem of personal and universal happiness and the enlightened monarch's responsibility for achieving it; and the question of "intellectual gender equality" (8). Vacheva also seeks to fill in the gaps in the historiography of Catherine's autobiography, in which there is very little on the memoirs as a literary work. Ignoring more recent scholarship, Vacheva gives credit only to E. V. Anisimov and A. B. Kamenskii, who acknowledge the significance of the memoirs as both a historical source and a literary work, but their appeals to keep both dimensions in mind are no more than passing comments (12–17).2
Vacheva devotes her first chapter to "Genre Issues." It would have been helpful to preview the main ideas in the opening section, but instead she only clarifies her take on the issue of Catherine's authorship. She supports the view that the empress did indeed write the memoirs, judging by their unity and distinctive poetics (25). The title of the first subsection ("Different Versions of the Memoirs of Catherine II: Paratextual Peculiarities") is a little misleading, because the author never defines "paratext." When she mentions the term (35), it seems to refer only to the dedications of the three versions of the memoirs (to Countess Bruce, née Rumiantsova; to Baron Cherkasov; and to someone not clearly identified). Instead, she deals in this chapter with the historical context, arguing that Catherine conceived of the memoirs around 1771 in response to a growing loss of confidence in her rule among some sections of the nobility. Like elsewhere in the book Vacheva here combines historical with literary analysis. From the 1770s to the 1790s, the empress prepared her autobiography for eventual publication to further buttress her legitimating mythology (31). Her choice to write in French was significant, for it was likely to secure wider dissemination of the work both in the West and in Russia, where most novels were sold in that language. In addition to these political considerations, the choice of French [End Page 511] allowed Catherine to shift the development of women's autobiography in Russia away from the then-prevalent hagiographical models toward the imagery and topics typical of the novel: using the French language would bring associations with famous works of this genre in the West and function "as a sort of code to help send a message to the readers."3 The...