26 July 2012
Catherine the Great
gets me thinking about
The new exhibition 'Catherine The Great, an enlightened Empress' at the National Museum in Edinburgh – in the 250th anniversary year of her accession to power – is a 'must see' not only for those of us with a sense of history, but for others with antennae well-attuned to current politics in Scotland.
The quality of the 600 exhibits from the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg and the coherence of the story they tell attest to the myriad ways in which this extraordinary woman changed Russia – and, I think, give us a prompt to consider the real, radical possibilities for reforming our society that Scotland has in the next few years.
Scots are first recorded in the Baltic crusades of the Teutonic knights in the late 14th century, and from then onwards became increasingly influential advisers in the affairs of state, education, and in military and naval organisation. At a time when most people in this country never travelled more than a few miles from the town or village of their birth, Scots merchants, physicians, planners, architects, designers and academics were regularly making their way to Russia, many of them to attain the highest positions of influence. The extraordinary influx increased when Catherine came to the Russian throne in 1762, and brought about a period of astonishing enlightenment, planned along western lines, and a resulting series of cultural connections between her city of St Petersburg and Scotland.
Perhaps the most interesting of all the links between our countries are the medical ones – a point noted in his book by the traveller John Richard in 1778, when he said that doctors in Russia were 'scarce and generally Scotch'. Not only were they doctors who happened to be Scots, but many of them reached stellar heights of power, authority and personal admiration, exemplified by the two of the 15 or so exemplars to whom I will refer here.
Robert Erskine (1677-1718) spent the last 14 years of his life in Russia, moved in court circles and became chief physician to Peter the Great, travelling with him everywhere. Throughout his life, he also collected exotic botanical specimens and medicinal herbs which were to form the centrepiece of the St Petersburg Botanical Garden; likewise, his personal library became the heart of the library of the Russian Academy of Sciences. When he died at the early age of 41 on St Andrew's Day in 1718, he was given a magnificent funeral by Peter.
During Catherine's reign, John Rogerson (born in 1741 in the village of Lochbrow in Dumfriesshire, where at least two neighbours became prominent physicians in Russia) was in Russia by 1766 and was a court doctor within three years. Rogerson – reckoned by some observers to rely too heavily on the doubtful remedies of blood-letting and laxatives – nevertheless formed an extraordinarily close and relaxed relationship with Catherine, to whom he was personal physician until her death in 1796.
Catherine had gifted Rogerson an estate at Minsk, which provided him with a considerable income, and he remained in Russia for 50 years, during which time he was a significant figure in Russia itself, and in promoting intellectual, cultural and social links with Britain. He had maintained particularly close bonds with Scotland, and returned on at least three occasions for visits. In later years, he had purchased the estate of Dumcrieff, near Moffat, where he spent seven years in retirement before his death in 1823.
It is perhaps especially poignant to consider the delicate situation of the 'court physician' in revolutionary times; for foreigners to attain such elevation (and such intimate personal and political knowledge), and to remain there successfully in trust, without attracting excessive factional attention, seems unusual to say the least. Both Peter and Catherine the Great wrought great changes in their land; for the most part the changes were enlightened and enormously beneficial, even if we tend to conjure images of the terrible anxieties that proximity to such power suggests.
I left the exhibition with a clear feeling that Catherine had a fine, well-judged sense of herself; she gave clear indications that she abhorred fawning deference and that she had a proper sense of humour – all vital attributes for someone essentially intent on building a new country. Those feelings travelled with me through the exhibition, confirming a parallel with the expectations that many of us will have for the future of Scotland in the next few years. The walls of the exhibition carried a number of quotes from Catherine's diaries and other writing, the most prescient of which read: 'Power without a nation's confidence is nothing'.
Dave Harvie was a film editor in a past life, and now writes in a variety of guises