Thursday, October 6, 2011

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie

The blurb:
The Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Peter the Great, Nicholas and Alexandra, and The Romanovs returns with another masterpiece of narrative biography, the extraordinary story of an obscure young German princess who traveled to Russia at fourteen and rose to become one of the most remarkable, powerful, and captivating women in history.

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.

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 story is superbly told. All the special qualities that Robert K. Massie brought to Nicholas and Alexandra and Peter the Great are present here: historical accuracy, depth of understanding, felicity of style, mastery of detail, ability to shatter myth, and a rare genius for finding and expressing the human drama in extraordinary lives.

History offers few stories richer in drama than that of Catherine the Great. In this book, this eternally fascinating woman is returned to life.

Pulitzer Prize winning Robert Massie adds Catherine the Great to his earlier biographies of Russian leaders (Peter the Great, Nicholas and Alexandra, and the Romanovs).  This meticulously researched narrative biography is tells us the story of Sophia Augusta Federicka, daughter of minor German nobility, her fortuitous marriage to the grandson of Peter the Great, and her climb to become Catherine II, Queen of the Russias.

Sophia's mother, Johanna, was from one of the great Ducal families in Germany, the Holstein-Gottorp family while her father was one tier below her socially, considerably older, and dull.  Johanna  was socially ambitious and bitterly disappointed in her marriage.  Johanna saw a son as the way to improve her social standing, she had little time or affection for her rather plain looking daughter.  Sophia learned to be self-sufficient and to "draw around herself a cloak of meekness, deference, and temporary submission" which served her well throughout her life.  Through luck and Johanna's family's connections to the Empress Elizabeth, Sophia was presented as a possible bride for the grandson of Peter the Great also named Peter.  Her prospective husband was the nephew of Empress Elizabeth and son of Charles Frederick, Duke of Holstein.  Peter's mother died soon after he was born and he was largely raised by governesses and tutors.  He was seen as heir to his father's dukedom of Holstein and in line to the throne of Sweden. His claim to the Russian throne was less certain and he grew up with great respect for Prussia and its military.  It was unfortunate that he was raised to have little affinity for Russia, its religions or customs.  He was orphaned at the relatively young age of eleven, he was left under the care of a controlling and abusive tutor.  Peter's childhood left him "fearful, deceitful, antagonistic, boastful, cowardly, duplicitous and cruel" - traits that would taint his adult relationships, his reign, and his marriage to young Sophia (Catherine).

Politics and fate raise Peter's prospects from Duke of the small principality of Holstein to  the future Tsar of all the Russias as Empress Elizabeth's heir.   Empress Elizabeth invites Sophia and her mother to Russia to meet and marry her nephew and heir Peter.  Sophia is determined to succeed in this venture and she understands that she must adapt to her new land.  Sophia converts to the Orthodox religion, diligently learns the Russian language, customs and learns to love and appreciate her new home country.  Elizabeth gives her the new Russian name of Catherine. 

Marriage between Peter and Catherine would have been difficult because of their differences in intelligence, interests, lack of physical chemistry and their unequal status.  The intrigues of the Russian court,  Peter's cruelty towards Catherine, their differing allegiances meant that the marriages was painful for both parties. 

Massie shows us how Catherine won the respect of those who got to know her from Empress Elizabeth and Russian nobility to foreign diplomats and the Russian military.   Massie meticulously covers what she went through from her move to Russia at fourteen to the years under Empress Elizabeth to her husband's short reign and her successful coup to her long and fruitful reign as Catherine the Second, Empress of all the Russias.  From her diaries and correspondence, we get a sense of Catherine as a young woman, a lover, and as an enlightened monarch attempting to bring change and reform to the largest and wealthiest nation of her time.  

Catherine the Second forced Russians to evaluate the system of surfdom and attempted to reform the legal system. Catherine "brought European moral, political, and judicial philosophy, literature, art, architecture, sculpture, medicine and education to Russia.  She assembled the greatest art gallery in Europe, hospitals, schools and orphanages." She was one of the first to be inoculated for smallpox, and through encouraging her people to do so, prevented the spread of an epidemic. 
Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman is a meticulously researched and fascinating account of one of the most important and influential women in history. 

ISBN-10: 0679456724 - Hardcover $35.00
Publisher: Random House (November 8, 2011), 656 pages.
Review copy courtesy of the Amazon Vine Program and the publisher.

About the Author:
Robert K. Massie was born in Lexington, Kentucky, studied American History at Yale University and European History at Oxford University, which he attended as a Rhodes scholar.  He was president of the Authors Guild from 1987 to 1991.  His previous books include Nicholas and Alexandra, Peter the Great: His Life and World (for which he won the Pulitzer Prize for biography), The Romanovs: The Final Chapter, Dreadnought: Britain, Germany, and the Coming of the Great War, and Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea.


  1. I already own this book, so I'm pleased to see that you enjoyed it so much :)

    She sounds like a fascinating woman.

  2. As with past Massie biographies of Peter the Great, and Nicholas & Alexandra, Massie writes as if it an historical novel. A coherent and easy to read book that grabs you from the first page. Catherine the Great makes for a great book.