John-Michael Gariepy

Two Books: Flatland and Catherine the Great, Portrait of a Woman

Flatland is a ‘Romance of Many Dimensions’ written by Edwin A. Abbot in 1884.  It’s a tough book to categorize, but let’s say it’s a mathematician’s exploration of what life would mean if constrained to two-dimensional shapes.  Despite the subject matter of geometry and philosophy written from Victorian England, it’s a light read.

Catherine the Great, Portrait of a Woman, is an exploration of the life and times of Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia from 1762 to 1796.  In it, Robert K. Massie helps tell the story a young Prussian princess, her self-involved stage mother, her unwilling and foolish husband, and Queen Elizabeth of Russia, who is desperate for an heir to cement her monarchical authority.  How Catherine maneuvers into power, and what she does with it once achieved makes excellent reading.

With this installment of Two Books I want to cut to the chase:  Both books are great, and deserve four stars out of five.  Flatland is a good story, and is great for getting the reader to think about the universe about him and what it means.  At times, though, it reads as a dissertation on mathematics and society, and at times it reads like a Christmas ghost story.  Having split it’s focus, ‘Flatland’ can’t achieve a perfect five of five, but comes close.  ‘Catherine the Great, Portrait of an Empress’ is a delightful read, and, if I was forced to put the book down half way through, I would have given it five of five stars.  Unfortunately, the work is exhaustive.  Massie dedicates whole chapters to Catherine’s lovers, the artwork she bought and the buildings that she had built.  He jams too many subjects that could have been books in their own right toward the end in a not-really-an-appendix.  If Massie kept the narrative flow of his story straight, perhaps this book would have maintained its power.  But he attempts to hold both the narrative and this much trivia about Catherine in one book, and, consequently, one suffered for the other.  Still a great read, though.


In Flatland, a middle class square of the realm of two dimensions has a vision of a one-dimensional world made out of lines and the spaces between them, and is later shown a vision of Spaceland, a higher world of three dimensions.  A Sphere, who describes himself as “a more perfect Circle than any; but to speak more accurately, I am many Circles in one” guides our narrator through his domain and labors over his explanation of what it means to have three dimensions.  The Square understands the math, which proves the existence of three dimensions (and four, and five, and so on), but cannot see beyond the aphorisms he picks up from his tutor (That the third dimension touches him from his insides and spreads outward, and that the third dimension continues from a point that is up, but not north).  When the Square is returned to his own world, he longs to teach the gospel of many dimensions, but finds himself incapable of convincing anyone who did not experience his paradigm shift, nor can he even explain what it is he is trying to prove.  To one unaccustomed to the mechanics of three dimensions, the Square can only explain that he had an experience, but can not explain what it meant.

The themes of Flatland pull from the Victorian England, and a systematical society that treated its population as so many shapes that could be slotted into various holes.  Similarly, Russia, the country Catherine the Great inherited into, was built on the back of serfdom, a class system born from feudalism that differed from slavery only in the minds of those who practiced it.  Serfs were bought, sold, beaten and raped.  They were separated from their parents, husbands and wives whenever it was profitable.  Serfs could either be created through birth or bankruptcy, and represented from one third to one half of Russia’s population.  While Russia’s peasant class had more freedoms, at times their livelihood could be as maltreated and misrepresented as the serfs.  Peasants were tied to the land they worked, and were subject to the demands of a noble class that insisted on results.  The peasants of Russia would often find themselves at the losing end of contracts that were impossible to maintain or break.

Queen Catherine has her own visions risen by Enlightenment Thinkers that she read from and wrote to throughout her life.  Catherine admitted to stealing much of Motesquieu and Cesare Baccaria when she wrote her Nakaz, a set of legal principles to base a new, more equal government for her people.  Her instructions for government were praised by Enlightenment thinkers the world over, despite heavy editing by her advisers.  In order to give her Nakaz purpose, Catherine gathered representatives from each class and every corner of her nation to create a Legislative Commission, a first for Russia in 1767, and the last time a representative body of the Russian people would be gathered by the government until The Russian Revolution.

Russia had ‘Westernized’.  Indeed, it put into practice many ideas that Western Europe championed, but could not set into action.  The Legislative Commission appeared to be a promising step to the creation of a unified Russian peoples who worked as independent individuals toward the establishment of a better nation.  Of the peasant classes represented at the Legislative Commission, many of them were only interested in local problems, such a border disputes and property damage.  The serfs were represented by their masters, the noble class.  Little was accomplished to break down regional borders and create a national identity, since sharing responsibility did not increase the fortunes of any one region.  The Nakaz was commonly cited, but for justification, not for inspiration.  Since The Nakaz was a set of instructions, and not a legal code, it failed to make a lasting impression on the people.

Like Abbot’s Square, Catherine knew what she wanted to achieve, but did not know how to accomplish it.  She understood that people should have certain freedoms, but not how to impart those freedoms on her people, or make them understand the opportunities at their disposal.  Her self-education informed her of a world that was up, but not north.  While she understood the mathematics of such a government, she had no experience in the policies required to move a two-dimensional monarchical government into a three-dimensional free nation.  If Catherine was incapable of understanding what would be needed, how could her people, who were not enlightened, be expected to create a more perfect union merely by gathering together and receiving a set of guidelines?

Did Catherine lose faith in government through Enlightenment principals?  Or when she fought to censor Jacobin authors post-French Revolution, did she do so knowing that the form of government she wished to achieve in her country was impractical now, but may be possible in the future?  Is this part reason why Catherine invested large portions of the Russian treasury on artwork and libraries?  In hopes that, if her people could not be more equal, than perhaps they could be more cultured and educated, and that would lead them to pursue equality?  Or did she just like art and learning for its own sake?

And does an unattainable dream matter if it cannot be fathomed or realized?  Much is made of Abbot’s ribald attack on Victorian England, and how the book is an excellent refutation of the nature of social hierarchy.  But how much of Abbot’s book was an attack on the society he lived in, and a vision of the society that England could become, and how much of it was a simple and honest assessment of the world he knew?  When a humorist pokes fun at your own society without understanding why their society is the way it is, or how that society can change, is it satire, or mere observation?  And if your math and your instincts are right, does it matter if you can’t perceive a fourth dimension with your senses?  Does the personal knowledge that you are right require validation to be justified?

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2 thoughts on “Two Books: Flatland and Catherine the Great, Portrait of a Woman

  1. John T. Alexander on said:

    Massie’s Catherine is certainly not great. The man doesn’t even read Russian! hat tells you how deeply it is researched. It is full of errors and poorly writte to boot. miserable book praised by amateurs and idiots. Don’t waste your time or money.

    • I’ve heard this claim with Massie. I can’t comment on it, since I’m not a Russian historian… I’m a writer, and can only report whether someone did a good job keeping and shaping their narrative. In that sense, Catherine is a great read. It could be full of historical innacuracies… I couldn’t tell you.

      That said, I heard a few of the criticisms laid at Massie’s feet when I was doing my research, and I noticed many critics weren’t talking about historical innacuracy so much as political agenda… and not even Russian political agendas… many of them were English and American political agendas, since we speak English. The one I saw multiple people attack Massie for was claiming that Thomas Jefferson had X number of children by Sally Hemmings, without even citing the controversy on the subject. So I did a preliminary pass at Wikipedia (which, I admit, is not the best source for historical accuracy, but it will do in a pinch) and, controversy aside, the DNA testing shows that there’s a 99% chance that Jefferson is the father. Since this book is about Russian History, and not American History, it seems fair to me to cut mitigating circumstances out of the narrative.

      That said, I’d be more than happy to hear specifics as to what Massie wrote that is wrong or controvertial, and I’d be happy to do more research on those claims and let the readers of my blog decide for themselves what’s fair. I am certain, however, that one does not need to know the language of a country to be fluent in that country’s history. It is dissapointing to imagine that a person who has dedicated his life writing books on Russian History would never learn Russian in his thirty year career, but claiming that makes Massie a bad historian would be attacking the man, and not his work. I’m not a big fan of using Ad Hominem to win my arguments. Do you have any complaints specific to Catherine the Great?

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