Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman
- Robert K. Massie
- Random House
- 656 pp.
- November 10, 2011
A full-length study of an extraordinary empress who stands as one of history’s greatest female rulers.
Reviewed by Laura Fargas
Robert Massie has pursued his love for Russia in three previous books. Now he sets a seal on his passion for Russia with a full-length study of its extraordinary empress, who stands, along with Elizabeth I of England, as one of history’s greatest female rulers. This book is subtitled "Portrait of a Woman", but it is more than that; it is a full-fledged, detailed study of a genius and master strategist who survived the intrigues and jealousies of an 18th-century imperial court to rise to unquestioned rule of a great empire during three tumultuous decades.
Born Princess Sophia Augusta Frederika of Anhalt-Zerbst, a minor princess among the welter of petty German royalties, she was elevated to importance by the dynastic and also sentimental ambitions of Elizabeth, Empress of Russia. Elizabeth, the daughter and heir of Peter the Great, mated young Peter Ulrich of Holstein (nephew of a fiancé Elizabeth lost to smallpox and mourned for the rest of her life), with Sophia (niece of a beloved sister she lost to the aftermath of childbirth, and again a source of lifelong mourning), whom she renamed Catherine. With these two German children ― both in their mid-teens when they married ― Elizabeth re-created what would have been the bloodline of her own lost marriage. (As it happened, Catherine had three children during the marriage, none of them fathered by Peter.)
From a very early age, Catherine had the gift of discretion and used it to protect herself. Unlike her impetuous husband, she bore both minor and major slights with a silent patience that served her, and sometimes also served him, well in the imperial inner circle of Empress Elizabeth, who, like Peter, was subject to passionate, ill-tempered outbursts. Catherine understood that her principal function, and her greatest protection, would be to produce the heir the Empress so ardently desired, a goal thwarted by Peter’s refusal to consummate the marriage. After seven years of marital neglect, she produced the longed-for heir by the expedient of taking a lover. By the time she consolidated her power as Empress, she had borne two more children by two other lovers.
In June 1762, six months after the death of Empress Elizabeth, Catherine became the unquestioned Empress of Russia by usurping the throne of her husband ― the weak, German-loving Peter III. Peter had so antagonized the Russian establishment ― nobles, army, and Church ― that Catherine’s takeover was accomplished by a daring, but not too difficult, military coup. Once she was given a formal Orthodox coronation, she sat unchallenged on a throne she was neither born nor intended to occupy. In the early years of her reign, she had military success in a war with Turkey, winning Russia unfettered access to the Black Sea, and thus to the Mediterranean; diplomatic success in dictating the occupant of the Polish throne (a former lover) then negotiating a partition that gave parts of Poland to Russia, Prussia, and Austria; and internal success in suppressing a Cossack uprising that appealed to serfs to turn upon and slaughter their masters.
It is curiously easy for Americans to identify with the young Catherine presented in this book (written by an American) because of the emphasis on her intellectual sympathy with the liberal European, and especially French, thinking of the 18th century. That same European philosophical and political canon underlies the intellectual history of the American Revolution and the design of its founding government. Even now, her ideas to some extent sound like our ideas. For example, Catherine was adamantly opposed to the use of torture, even on the leader of a rebellion against her. She held that torture “always obscures the truth.” Early in her reign, she personally drafted a philosophical platform for a potential new code of laws for Russia based on Enlightenment ideals of the dignity and the rights of man, just as, within less than two decades, the founding documents of the American Revolution would be.
However, as the first 12 years of her reign unfolded, for Catherine the paramount lesson was that Russia was Russia, not Western Europe (and especially not France). Though some of the leading Enlightenment thinkers visited her in Russia, and numerous others were her regular correspondents, her experiences convinced her that Russia must rule as an absolute autocracy, and that the nobles-and-serfs system could not be abandoned until a significant portion of the peasantry could be educated. Her tentative philosophical code was abandoned, never to be revived. Instead, she found herself putting down the most violent uprising Russia would face until the 1905 rebellion against Nicholas II.
In 1764, the advent of Gregory Potemkin revolutionized Catherine’s personal life. He was to remain her essential companion until the end of her life. He was the fifth and last of Catherine’s officially recognized lovers, and may have been her second husband ― there are many hints of the existence of a marriage, some in their mutual correspondence, but there is no definitive proof. Potemkin matched both her emotional and intellectual passions, and was as devoted to serving the Russian empire as Catherine. He was an effective general, a brilliant chief of staff and a visionary administrator. The book takes pains to put right the story of the “Potemkin villages,” supposedly slapdash false fronts and painted facades erected to falsely persuade the Empress her southern territories were prospering as she made her famous trip down the Dnieper to the Crimea. It is the story that is a façade, Massie argues, put forth by jealous rivals; she points out that in two centuries, no one has brought forth such allegations from anyone who was actually on the trip.
This book is already 656 pages long, but might have been well served by a few more pages setting out historical background. Perhaps it is very basic to remind the reader what the greatness of Charles XII of Sweden was based on, or to recite the Hapsburg lineages yet again. Still, a slightly more fleshed out historical primer might help the lay reader (such as this reviewer) follow the intricacies of 18th-century diplomatic and dynastic intrigue the book explores so richly. Likewise, as in some Russian novels, it is rather difficult to follow the family, marital and other relationships of some of the great families of the Russian courts covered in the book. Finally, inclusion of a map of Russia and its shifting borders during the wars of Catherine’s time would have been helpful.
These are fairly petty quibbles, though, regarding a book that has the depth and complexity of a great tapestry, with a pattern of dynastic ambition and shadings of diplomatic strategy shot through it at all points. Most of all, because of its detail and because of the scope of the author’s sympathetic understanding of a remarkable figure in a turbulent age, we experience Catherine with great intimacy and are given rare insight into both the private heart and public vicissitudes of an empress.
It is worth adding that readers who admire this book might do well to find copies of the author’s three previous books on Russia and her rulers: Nicholas and Alexandra (2000), Peter the Great: His Life and World (1986) (which won the Pulitzer Prize) and The Romanovs: The Final Chapter (1996).
Laura Fargas is an attorney and poet living in Washington, D.C.