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How Catherine Became “the Great”

An online lecture by Dr. Hilde Hoogenboom

Catherine the Great is in the air again. A four-part BBC series on HBO stars Helen Mirren and covers her reign. A ten-part series on Hulu called The Great, now with a second ten-part season, covers Catherine’s life as she becomes Empress in 1762. This talk covers the whole of Catherine’s II’s life, and her unusually intense afterlife in history and the arts, especially plays, movies, and television.


Catherine herself prepared her legacy as an enlightened ruler who was both a legislator and administrator. She paid attention to what Europeans wrote about her and Russia, suppressing critical histories abroad. Fluent in German, French, and Russian, she read widely and wrote memoirs, histories, plays, and operas. In over 10,000 letters, she corresponded with European royals and intellectuals, as well as with her servitors, friends, and lovers. In the nineteenth century her memoirs were a state secret because they indicate that her heir Paul I was illegitimate, and thus the rest of Romanov dynasty. Her reign remained politically controversial because she expanded the Russian Empire around the Black Sea and into Ukraine and Poland, also expanding serfdom.

In the twentieth century, the Bolsheviks erased the legacy of the Russian empire. Only since the end of the Soviet empire in 1991 have Russians begun to practice the art of writing the royal biographies of their founding fathers and mothers. In the United States, the largest collection of materials from her reign are housed at Hillwood Museum in Washington, D.C., along with a few items in the Russian History Museum. We will examine some of the reasons that Catherine the Great and her 36-year reign continue to fascinate both scholars and the general public.

About the Speaker

Hilde Hoogenboom, PhD, associate professor of Russian in the School of International Letters and Cultures (SILC) at ASU, researches connections between nineteenth-century Russian literature, history, intellectual history, women’s studies, and digital humanities. She has a PhD from Columbia University. She is an expert on Catherine the Great and her memoirs, which she translated from French for Modern Library at Penguin Random House. The memoirs have sold over 15,000 copies.

Other publications include Noble Sentiment and the Rise of Russian Novels: A European Literary History (forthcoming with University of Toronto Press), supported by the National Humanities Center and Social Sciences Research Council, archival letters by Russian women writers, a collection on gender in Russian literature, and articles on Russian women writers. Her latest work examines the significance of representations of corruption in Russian literature for reimagining Russian writers as nobles and members of civil society. Dr. Hoogenboom was on the board of the Association of Women in Slavic Studies and past president of the Eighteenth-Century Russian Studies Association.

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Connecting With Zoom

This virtual lecture is presented live via Zoom. Registered users will be emailed a link to join this Zoom program. To get started, please download Zoom on your chosen device and explore the Frequently Asked Questions.

This program will be recorded.

The Second Saturday lecture series is supported in part with federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds allocated to the New York State Library by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).


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