16 Things I Learned from Catherine the Great


From Robert Massie’s Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman:

  1. Dignity is quiet.

    “Bereft of affection and approval, she nevertheless maintained a respectful attitude toward her mother… Later, concealment of pride in humility came to be recognized as a deliberate and useful tactic which [Catherine] used when confronting crisis and danger.” pg. 9

  2. Try hard. It will be noticed.

    “The little foreign princess loved Russia so much that now she was lying at death’s door in order to learn the Russian language more quickly. [T]his story won Sophia the affection of many….” pg. 54

  3. Obsess abut reading. Catherine did for (at least) 18 years.

    “Books were her refuge. Having set herself to learn the Russian language, she read every Russian book she could find. But French was the language she preferred, and she read [French books] indiscriminately… She always kept a book in her room and carried another in her pocket… Gradually, guided by her own curiosity, she was gaining a superior education.” pg. 145

  4. Don’t let yourself be dragged around by the world.

    “Whatever happened, she wrote, ‘I felt myself possessed of sufficient courage either to rise or fall without being carried away by undue pride on the one hand, or being humbled and dispirited on the other.’” pg. 212

  5. We might not know what lies ahead, but there will be some things we’ll need no matter what. Focus on those.

    “Which path would be open to her was unclear, but one thing was certain: whatever happened, she would need allies.” pg. 227

  6. Learn to shift easily between having fun and being serious.

    “She softened imperial presence with a sense of humor and a quick tongue; indeed, with Catherine more than any monarch of her day; there was always a wide latitude for humor. There was also a line not to be crossed, even by close friends.” pg. 281

  7. Make the most of what you have. Guard against potential pitfalls.

    “[Catherine] was magnanimous to former opponents, never retaliating against supporters of her former husband or other adversaries, personal or official. Knowing that she needed the assistance of every available person of administrative ability and experience, she drew around her a number of men who had sided with her husband… To [the field marshal who urged Peter to seize Catherine], the new empress remarked, ‘You only did your duty.’” pg. 283
  8. Devote yourself to a cause.

    “On her fourth day as empress, she was present at a session of the Senate which began with reports that the treasury was empty and the price of grain had doubled. Catherine replied that her imperial allowance, amounting to one-thirteenth of the national income, should be used by the government. ‘Belonging herself to the nation, she said, she considered that everything she possessed belonged to the nation. In the future, she continued, there would be no distinction between the national and her personal interests.” pg. 292

  9. You must understand the details.

    “[Catherine] began her reign with no experience in administering an empire or large bureaucracy, but she was eager to learn and prepared to teach herself. When it was proposed that… the burdensome task of reading all diplomatic dispatches and ministerial reports be spared the sovereign and only extracts provided, Catherine refused. She wished to know every detail of the problems Russia faced and every ingredient in the decisions she needed to make. ‘Full reports will be brought to me every morning,’ she declared.” pg. 292

  10. Don’t be afraid to question the basics.

    “At these meetings, she quickly discovered that in the Senate there were heavy layers of ignorance. One morning, when the senators were discussing a distant part of the empire, it became apparent that none of them had any idea where this territory lay. Catherine suggested looking at a map. There was no map. Without hesitation, she summoned a messenger, took 5 rubles from her purse, and sent him to the academy of sciences, which had published an atlas of Russia.” pg. 293

  11. Write. And write to the people who will eventually be reading.

    “The relationship between an ambitious, politically powerful woman and the most celebrated writer of the age became one of mutual benefit. Both were mindful that they were playing before an immense, influential audience. Catherine recognized that a letter to Voltaire, which could be passed along to his friends, was potentially a message to the intelligentsia of Europe.” pg. 337

  12. Always be working on a grand project. Even if you’re the Empress of Russia.

    “She began working on the
    Nakaz in January 1765 and devoted two or three hours a day to it for two years. The document was published on July 30, 1767, and is, in the view of Isabel de Madariaga, the preeminent historian of Catherine’s Russia, ‘one of the most remarkable political treatises ever compiled and published by a reigning sovereign.’ In 526 articles, grouped into twenty chapters, she presented her view of the nature of the Russian state and how it should be governed.” pg. 345

  13. Don’t wait for someone else to set the precedent.

    “It is worth noting that Catherine’s writing of the
    Nakaz and summons to the Legislative Commission took place nine years before Thomas Jefferson wrote, and the Continental Congress voted to approve, the American Declaration of Independence. It preceded by twenty-two years Louis XVI’s summons to the Estates-General. None of Catherine’s successors on the Russian throne dared to summon such an assembly again until 1905, when Nicholas II was forced by revolutionaries to sign a document transforming Russia from an absolute autocracy to a semi-constitutional monarchy…” pg. 362

  14. Even the best plans will go awry.

    “Catherine had succeeded in making Poland a vassal state with a puppet king, but she had also succeeded in arousing the hatred of the Poles, the alarm of Turkey, the anxiety of Austria, and even the nervousness of Prussia.” pg. 374

  15. Love. Love hard.

    “… I had resolved never to love without restraint a man who would not return this love in full; such was my disposition that my heart would have belonged entirely and without reserve to a husband who loved only me.” pg. 88

  16. You are not too busy.

    “Catherine admitted, ‘I cannot live one day without love’” pg. 414

Natural vs. Political Laws

spirit of laws

Montesquieu defines ‘law’ in a way that I had not considered before: “the necessary relations arising from the nature of things.” (The Spirit of Laws, Book I, pg. 1) This definition makes sense to me in the scientific context – we discover the laws of nature, and the scientific establishment at least seems to be trying to figure out what is actually happening according to the ‘nature of things.’ But politically? I’m so used to people challenging the laws we have that it’s become salient to me that laws are neither ‘necessary’ nor ‘from the nature of things’ but rather are artificial restrictions imposed upon us for the common good… at least in name. In practice do they create the relations that yield common good? Kind of… well, to varying degrees of success.

But the thing that Montesquieu’s definition is reminding me to consider is that laws are meant to be “necessary relations arising from the nature of things,” and this has in fact often been used as an argument to get people to obey them. “This is just the way things should be” is (surprisingly) compelling justification to many people to do as the law says.

Countries, Not Companies: Where is the ambition?

Is this really how the world works?

Is this really how the world works?

What should you do if you are young and ambitious? Until recently, it seemed to me that the obvious answer was to start a company. In a world that idolizes Elon Musk and Jack Ma, not Barack Obama and Lee-Kwan Yew, business is seen as the best way to make a lot of money, gain social status, and ‘change the world.’

Perhaps business is in fact the most effective way of making money. Perhaps it’s also the most effective way of looking good. But is it the most effective way of improving the world? This is something that I’ve been wondering about recently, and I don’t think so anymore, for two reasons. The first is that companies operate within, and are therefore constrained by, a system. The second is because starting a business forces you to devote years of your life to solving one problem, and we live in a world where there are many.

First, I want to address a narrative that is widely accepted by America’s youth, but that I don’t think is accurate. By the media we are told the story of a defective government, of a big, blundering bureaucracy populated by inept politicians. A government that struggles to keep up with technological advancements while startups dazzle us with disruption and innovation. But how do we reconcile this with the fact that the atomic bomb, radar, GPS, the Human Genome project, and the internet (among other things) were initiatives funded by the government? How do we reconcile this with the fact that we have nicely paved roads, beautiful national parks, and functioning (if controversial) emergency services? And how do we reconcile this with the fact that the vast majority of startups fail? So although we should be thankful to businesses for our iPhones and our Amazon accounts, we should also take note of the entity that allows for these businesses: the government.

This brings me to my first qualm with the idea that business is the most effective way of changing the world: no matter how large and how powerful a company gets, it still exists within the system; depends on that system. And that system is the government. What this means is that companies are still required to follow rules that the government makes, and those rules have a major impact on how effective and how impactful a company can be. So the first issue is that businesses are limited by an external power.

The second issue is that companies are also limited by themselves. For example, the nature of a company is such that you can only tackle a problem if, by doing so, you stand to make money. But what if the initiatives that will actually improve the world are ones we can’t capitalize off of? They don’t have jurisdiction over many domains that the government decides to take control of. Another limitation is that a company can only tackle one problem effectively – at least at first. But what if entrepreneurs don’t choose the right problems? It’s feasible that people can create a whole bunch of profitable businesses while making little meaningful positive impact.


What I’m trying to say is that young people can’t give up on the government. Just because we don’t trust it now doesn’t mean we should stop trying to improve it. It’s a system that has intimate control over our lives, and we can’t disregard it if we want to significantly improve the world.

So what I mean when I ask, “Where is the ambition?” is simply this: less than 300 years ago, young ambitious people were trying to start countries, not companies.