Author: Robert K. Massie
No. of Pages: 656
”Born into a minor noble family, Catherine transformed herself into Empress of Russia by sheer determination. Possessing a brilliant mind and an insatiable curiosity as a young woman, she devoured the works of Enlightenment philosophers and, when she reached the throne, attempted to use their principles to guide her rule of the vast and backward Russian empire. She knew or corresponded with the preeminent historical figures of her time: Voltaire, Diderot, Frederick the Great, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, Marie Antoinette, and, surprisingly, the American naval hero, John Paul Jones.Thoughts: Robert Massie’s Catherine the Great covers the life and death of this famous, and infamous, Russian ruler, the last female monarch in Russia. Starting with her inauspicious beginnings and ending with her death, Mr. Massie guarantees that a reader will finish his biography with a complete and detailed understanding of Catherine the person and Catherine the ruler, her rise to power, and the challenges she faced both before and after she became Empress. Using her own journal entries, personal correspondence of key figures, and other important and highly relevant historical documents, he creates as detailed a picture as one can get of Catherine and makes for fascinating reading.
Reaching the throne fired by Enlightenment philosophy and determined to become the embodiment of the “benevolent despot” idealized by Montesquieu, she found herself always contending with the deeply ingrained realities of Russian life, including serfdom. She persevered, and for thirty-four years the government, foreign policy, cultural development, and welfare of the Russian people were in her hands. She dealt with domestic rebellion, foreign wars, and the tidal wave of political change and violence churned up by the French Revolution that swept across Europe. Her reputation depended entirely on the perspective of the speaker. She was praised by Voltaire as the equal of the greatest of classical philosophers; she was condemned by her enemies, mostly foreign, as “the Messalina of the north.”
Catherine’s family, friends, ministers, generals, lovers, and enemies—all are here, vividly described. These included her ambitious, perpetually scheming mother; her weak, bullying husband, Peter (who left her lying untouched beside him for nine years after their marriage); her unhappy son and heir, Paul; her beloved grandchildren; and her “favorites”—the parade of young men from whom she sought companionship and the recapture of youth as well as sex. Here, too, is the giant figure of Gregory Potemkin, her most significant lover and possible husband, with whom she shared a passionate correspondence of love and separation, followed by seventeen years of unparalleled mutual achievement.”
The few female rulers across Europe have always fascinated historians because of their absolute power and dominance in male-oriented world. Catherine’s story is especially unique because unlike Elizabeth I, Mary Tudor, Mary Queen of Scots, and other female monarchs, she was not raised to be a monarch. Her rise to power was convoluted and unlikely, making her achievements all the more impressive once she gained the throne. Her reign spans one of the most tumultuous periods in European history, and her ability to maneuver through the uncertainty remains unsurpassed.
Like any person of political and historical importance, Catherine was multi-faceted, and nowhere is this seen more than in her belief in an absolute monarchy and simultaneous beliefs in the more progressive teachings of Voltaire and Diderot. In fact, she counted the latter gentlemen among friends. Her desires to end the servitude and sufferings of the serfs while weighing the dangers such actions would take to her ability to rule the clergy and nobility is as intriguing as it is foreign to anyone studying monarchies. She was one ruler who really did have the best interest of her subjects foremost in her mind, at least in the beginning.
Of equal fascination is the subject of her favorites. While she can often be compared to Elizabeth I, Catherine the Great differed from this other great female ruler because unlike Elizabeth, she has no desire to flaunt her purity but instead relishes her sexuality. It is an approach that would raise eyebrows even by today’s standards, and yet, during her reign, no one thought anything was amiss on her increasingly young, beautiful lovers and the rewards she showered on them.
Even though the details are fascinating, the narrative has a tendency tends to drag, making it difficult to read for any length of time especially right before bed. This is not the fault of the author or the subject though. Rather, it is due to a biographer’s need to explain the politics, geography, culture, and economics of the times and region in order to better showcase their subject’s responses to them. In Catherine’s case, the politics, geography, and economics of Europe as well as her own Russia are so complicated that prolonged explanations are necessary albeit dry. Each time the narrative focuses its attention back to Catherine though, the prose again becomes mesmerizing enough to keep a reader’s attention.
There is so much to admire about Catherine the Great. Her ability to survive in a foreign court with an disinterested, childish husband and vicious Empress as her mother-in-law is amazing. Her understanding of Russian politics and ability to capitalize on popular opinion not only helped her claim her crown but served her well through her long reign. Her friendships with Voltaire, Diderot, and other enlightened philosophers allowed her to remain beloved among her subjects as her progressive leanings prevented her from being as harsh and autonomous as previous Russian czars. She was a remarkable woman with an astonishingly adroit understanding of contemporary politics living in an extraordinary period in history. Mr. Massie has managed to bring this remarkable woman back to life with his detailed and exquisitely written biography.
Acknowledgments: Thank you to Erika Gruber at Random House Publishing for my review copy!