Review of “Catherine The Great: Portrait of A Woman” by Robert K. Massie

There is never a dull moment in this outstanding biography of Russia’s Catherine the Great, who ruled Russia for 34 years, from 1762 until her death in 1796. She turned from liberal to conservative to reactionary over time (and as the revolution in France put her in fear of her own position as monarch) but nevertheless left a great legacy to Russia, including the acquisition of a Black Sea port, the importation of European philosophy, literature, art, medicine, education, and at least an introduction to the idea of eventual political reform. She never waivered however, in her belief that absolute monarchy was the most fitting way to govern Russia. Her leadership was enhanced later in her regime by a collaboration with her long-time lover and partner, Gregory Potemkin, who masterfully helped her shape the Empire. He died five years before Catherine’s own death.

Massie paints a sympathetic portrait of Catherine, taking us through her loveless upbringing; loveless (and sexless) marriage to the heir of Empress Elizabeth, Peter III, who had also grown up without love and who spent all his time – even as an adult! – playing with toy soldiers; her efforts at self-education; her friends, associates, lovers, and political liaisons. This book could also serve as a great way to understand why this era was so prone to revolutionary uprisings. Massie is entirely focused on Catherine and the royal lifestyle, but one can only imagine the condition of the peasantry who had to support it even while they often starved. Her predecessor, for example, The Empress Elizabeth, who brought Catherine at age 14 to Russia, had some 15,000 gowns and robes. (She refused to wear a dress more than once.) And these outfits were studded with jewels and fur. Moreover, she had her hair woven with diamonds and pearls, and on her neck she wore sapphires, emeralds, and rubies. Court dinners offered fifty to sixty different dishes.

Empress Elizabeth of Russia, Daughter of Peter the Great

Catherine continued Elizabeth’s extravagant ways. Her imperial crown was crusted with diamonds and surmounted by an enormous 389-carat ruby. She purchased fabulous art collections, and bestowed money freely as bribes and rewards. She did, at first, try to do something to help the ten million serfs, or slaves, in Russia. But the nobility, on whom she was dependent for her power, would not agree to any betterment of the conditions of serfdom, and early on she gave up trying. (The nobility owned some 56 percent of the total number of serfs, who were considered to be a human subspecies by their owners, and treated accordingly.)

Catherine the Great at age 16

Catherine had twelve lovers during her lifetime, and each one received hundreds of thousands of rubles, titles, at least one palace or estate, and more monetary support for the family of the favorite. St. Petersburg became a jewel of a city with all the beautiful mansions she had built, but the vast majority of Russians remained mired in poverty. These lower classes, often starving, tried to stage a revolt during Catherine’s reign, but were defeated by her military. Indeed, the vast chasm in wealth in Russia and the resentment it created was not exceptional in Europe; Massie’s only digression from Catherine’s story concerns the revolution in France.

Catherine's coronation gown included a mantle made of 4,000 ermine skins

By the end of this absorbing narrative, we understand well how Catherine came to be the person she was. Massie shows us a woman who was brave, proud, confident, and endlessly ambitious. We come to sympathize with her frustrations and fears, but we also see clearly how inexorably Catherine repeats toward her own heirs the injustices that were committed toward her. In spite of the riches and the incredible luxury in which she lived compared to others, she did not have the best life. But she did the best she could under the circumstances, and what she did was very good indeed.

Catherine the Great in later years

Evaluation: This excellent and well-researched history was a pleasure to read. Like a novel, it focuses on family, love, sex, betrayal, and survival, and leaves the bulk of information on military battles, foreign policy, and the like, to other, drier authors. In an Afterword, the author says he will miss Catherine after spending so much time researching her, and I feel I will miss her too.

Rating: 5/5

Published by Random House, 2011

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