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The Great and the Businessman

by on July 8, 2020

This is a story about the Russia of history and current affairs. Part of the title refers to “The Great,” the story “satirical, comedic” story of Catherine the Great. But this story is neither “satirical” or comedic,” although it begins with, and was inspired by, the story of Catherine the Great.

THE GREAT

Catherine (née Sophie Friederike Auguste) was born in what was then Prussia to the prince of Anhalt-Zerbst, an area now in the middle of Germany. She was a a grand-niece of Frederick the Great of Prussia, and first cousin to Swedish kings. At fourteen she was sent to Russia (St. Petersburg was the capital) to marry the heir apparent to the Russian throne, Peter of Holstein- Gottorp, who was the grandson of Peter the Great.

According to the Russian mini-series Ekaterina after seven years of marriage (they were married in 1745), Peter and Ekaterina (Catherine) had yet to have sex. Peter is portrayed as a great lover of music, and an adequate musician. He would sit in a theatre in the palace, and command people to act for him. He would join in the acting. He loved dogs, in the same way Ramsy in Game of Thrones loved dogs. Peter loved Lutheranism (very popular in Germany) and hated Russian Orthodoxy. He played with toy soldiers but understood very little about the life of a soldier.

It was another decade before Peter’s aunt, the Empress Elizabeth – really somewhere between a regent and a usurper – died and Peter III succeeded to the throne in January of 1762. Despite the fact that the royalty of Russia were of German descent the German states (Prussia, Saxony) were enemies of the Russians. Under Elizabeth Russia allied with France and Austria, and Russia itself was fighting against Frederick the Great of Prussia at the time of Elizabeth’s death.

Peter III, a great lover of Lutheranism and an admire of Frederick the Great, immediately ended war with Prussia. Now, on the face of it, this sounds pleasant for anyone against war. However, by all accounts, Russia was winning the war and had taken Berlin at the time that Peter told his troops to retreat. After thousands of deaths and an apparent victory, no fighting force likes to be told to retreat, and receive nothing for their efforts. Peter didn’t end the war; he merely decided that the Prussians were his allies, and his allies the Austrians were enemies. He did this against advice and against the interest of his country. Meanwhile, his troops returned home.

His relationship with Catherine, which was never good, was terrible. Both of them were likely in extramarital affairs and were living separately. Various motion-picture renditions have them quarreling at dinners, and Peter refused to call Catherine an honorable name, such as “her excellency”. Although the mini-series Ekaterina either glossed over it or I missed it (the show is in Russian, with subtitles) Catherine spent time making friends with the noble families that felt spurned by Peter, either because of his foreign or domestic policies.

On the night of July 8-9, 1762 (happy anniversity!), one of Catherine’s co-conspirators was arrested (the show missed this part), and it was decided that immediate action was needed, before Peter’s expected marriage to a noble-woman / lady in waiting, and Catherine’s invalidation as the Empress Consort. With support of the military Catherine forced her husband to abdicate. Peter III died on July 17. Six years later, Catherine, well-ensconced in the power of the throne despite a war against the Ottomans in the south and the Poles in the west, and domestic uprising by “pretenders” claiming to be Peter, was declared Catherine the Great.

THE BUSINESSMAN

Now let’s focus on current affairs. No leader of a state or a country is referred to as The Great, but politics hasn’t changed.

In 2016, mainly out of desperation caused by a system that had been ignoring the populace for years, the United States elected businessman Donald Trump because he promised – falsely – to provide better healthcare and better jobs. Oddly, these are the same conditions Catherine the Great provided to her empire.

Trump loves the arts – or rather, he loves profiting off them. Like Peter, he he relishes in undoing the alliances and domestic policies his predecessor had maintained or put in place. It’s likely that both Donald and Peter did this and do this out of spite.

For decades the United States has been allied with countries that oppose Russia and its allies. Under Trump, this did an about-face, and Russia became our friend while we shunned states and countries that we had worked to build alliances with for security and humanitarian reasons. This is quite like how Peter pulled his armies back from a win, and decided that his enemy was his friend, and his friend was his enemy. (Whether the U.S. needs Russia as an enemy is not the point. It’s the rejection of former alliances – who mainly share our ideals – that is nonsensical.)

Trump is a businessman, not a politician. The alliances he cancels and the alliances he forms has nothing to do with national security. His actions are for his own business interests. Like Peter III Trump never served in the military, but he’s never been as interested in playing war the same way Peter did. Trump has merely continued the wars he inherited, while pushing away the allies that were – at least, they think they were – helping in the war, including the non-state allies of the Kurds.

There is nothing Great about Trump. He’s a businessman. Nothing he does is “satirical” or “comedic,” not even in the commedia dell’arte style. He does remind us though, of Peter III, who, in his short reign, tried to undo the alliances and systems that he inherited.

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As an addendum, it’s important to acknowledge Peter’s good qualities. He abolished the secret police – the only short time, since Peter the Great, that Russia didn’t have secret police. He was in favor of democratic reforms.

Trump, on the other has, has made little effort to reduce the security state that he inherited, and has not promote democratic reforms. It is true, though, that he operates in a two-party system and the his opposition party (Democrats) just prevented him from withdrawing troops from Germany (our ally, until the Trump years) and Afghanistan (which we’ve been at war with before and during the Trump years.

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