I usually keep two books going at once. I like to find the connections and divergences between seemingly unrelated texts.
Recently, I’ve been making my way through a biography of Catherine the Great and the autobiography of Frederick Douglass.
Going in, I figured the brain-candy thread tying the two together would be the dissimilarities between their nearly contemporary lives: Douglass (1818–95) born into American slavery, eventually escaping, becoming a leading abolitionist and statesman; Catherine (1729–96) born into German nobility, marrying into Russian royalty, ruling for more than 30 years.
But as it turns out, the stories of these historical giants have three associations particularly relevant to our work.
Catherine the Great tried to end serfdom—but eventually grew acclimated to power.
Photo from the Wikimedia Commons
First, though she was spectacularly wealthy—casually distributing estates, amassing the largest art collection in Europe’s history—Catherine tried to end the abomination of serfdom. As the book recounts, “The conditions of Russian serfs resembled that of black slaves in America.”
It is striking how two people from such disparate backgrounds could be compelled to advocate for the same moral cause. Douglass lived the horror: He had no knowledge of his age and was separated from mother in infancy. He was often awakened in morning by “the most heartrending shrieks” of slaves...