Published: 17 July 2012
Pulitzer Prize winner Massie offers the tale of a princess who went to Russia at fourteen and became one of the most powerful women in history. Born into minor German nobility, she transformed herself into an empress by sheer determination. Possessing a brilliant, curious mind, she devoured the works of Enlightenment philosophers, and reaching the throne, tried using their principles to rule the vast, backward empire.
She knew or corresponded with notable figures of her time: Voltaire, Diderot, Frederick the Great, Maria Theresa of Austria, Marie Antoinette & John Paul Jones. Wanting to be the “benevolent despot” Montesquieu idealized, she contended with the deeply ingrained realities of Russian life, including serfdom. She persevered, and for 34 years the government, foreign policy, cultural development and welfare of the Russian people were in her hands.
She dealt with domestic rebellion, wars & the tides of political change and violence inspired by the French Revolution. Her reputation depended on the perspective of the speaker. She was praised by Voltaire as like the classical philosophers. She was condemned by enemies, mostly foreign, as “the Messalina of the north.”
Her family, friends, ministers, generals, lovers and enemies are vividly described. These included her ambitious, scheming mother; her weak, bullying husband, Peter (who left her sexually untouched for nine years after their marriage); her unhappy son & heir, Paul; her beloved grandchildren; and her favorites—the young men from whom she sought companionship and the recapture of youth as well as sex.
Here, too, is Gregory Potemkin, her most significant lover & possible husband, with whom she shared a correspondence of love & separation, followed by 17 years of unparalleled mutual achievement. All the qualities that Massie brought to Nicholas & Alexandra and Peter the Great are present: historical accuracy, deep understanding, felicity of style, mastery of detail, ability to shatter myth & a genius for finding and expressing a human drama.
A few years ago, I read Nicholas and Alexandra by the same author which was a fascinating account of the Tsar of Russia and the shocking execution of his family at the start of the Russian Revolution. The book was written in a very appealing way without ever becoming dry and I felt that I got to know Nicholas and his family very well, so much so I mourned their appalling deaths. When Catherine the Great became available as a special offer on Amazon, I downloaded it right away knowing I would be in safe hands.
Sophia of Anhalt-Zerbst was born in Germany and was chosen as a wife to the Russian heir, Peter of Holstein-Gottorp, nephew of Empress Elisabeth. Upon arrival in Russia, the young Sophia was required to convert to the Orthodoxy church whereupon she became known as Yekaterina Alexeevna or Catherine. The first part of Massie’s book concentrates on Catherine’s life as she becomes accustomed to the Russian court and her prospective duties as a Grand Duchess and as a wife to an immature boy. At first, the Empress Elisabeth is very pleased with her choice of Catherine as a bride but her continued failure to produce an heir drives a wedge between them and the Empress begins to treats Catherine with contempt. Catherine did her best to get on well with her husband but his spirit had long been broken by his abusive guardian, resulting in exceedingly odd behaviour.
Peter and Catherine were yet to consummate their marriage, hence the lack of an heir. According to Massie, Catherine was asked to solve the problem by taking a lover, the first of many, and she duly conceived her son, Paul. However, Catherine’s happiness was short-lived when the Empress took the child from her to raise by herself and she was never able to form a motherly bond with her son even after the Empress’s death. Catherine would eventually have a further three children but their births were kept a secret.
The second half of the book deals with the death of Empress Elisabeth and Catherine’s realisation that Peter’s reign will do nothing but harm to Russia. With an alienated army behind her, Catherine ousts Peter from the throne, proclaims herself as Empress Catherine, and begins the hard task of trying to bring the largest kingdom of Europe into the modern era of Enlightenment. Catherine’s plans for Russia are clearly set out, as are her frustrations when her sweeping reforms cause more problems than they solve and she is met with obstacle after obstacle until she realises that not all things are possible in Russia. The advent of the French Revolution and the executions of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette throw fear into Catherine’s heart and many of her enlightened views are suppressed to maintain autocracy to prevent the spread of republicanism.
As you would expect, the second half becomes more political and I have to admit I got a bit tired of the constant issues in Poland and the many alliances formed only to be broken again. When I read these books, I’m more interested in the personal lives of the rulers, and while I appreciate you can’t really separate the politics from Catherine’s life as a ruler, it’s still not something that interests me greatly. Apart from the odd paragraph, we don’t learn a lot about her son Paul and his estrangement from his mother as she focuses her attention on one lover after another. Paul becomes obsessed with the man he believes to be his father, the deceased Peter III, so much so he begins to imitate Peter’s odd behaviour. There is also not much focus on Catherine’s other children, especially her daughter, Elisabeth, and her son, Alexei, who are fathered by her lover, Orlov.
For me, the first part of the book when Catherine is still a Grand Duchess works better because I felt I was getting to know her but once she becomes Empress, Catherine the person gets somewhat lost along the way.