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Catherine the Great—Portrait of a Woman

By Robert K. Massie

Random House, New York | 2011

Reviewed by Jane M McCabe

What better endorsement can a reviewer give a book than to recount the many hours of pleasure brought in reading it? And so it is with Robert K. Massie’s biography of Catherine the Great, who ruled Russia for 34 years, from 1762 to 1796.

Catherine was the enlightened empress who governed ten million Russian subjects during the last half of the 18th Century, during the time of the Enlightenment leading up to the French Revolution. She was the spiritual heir to Peter the Great, who had wrested Russia from being a primitive, medieval backwater into a modern European nation.

As if the world had not been sufficiently enriched by Robert Massie’s masterful biography of Peter the Great, one of the best biographies I’ve ever read (for which he deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize), I suppose it inevitable that he would one day also write the biography of Catherine the Great.

If Peter’s biography was somewhat flawed to a reader not terribly interested in the detailed military maneuvers of Russia’s wars with Turkey and Sweden, Catherine’s biography is seamless.

Peter the Great was born in 1672 and he died in 1725. Peter was tsar of Russia from 1682 to 1725. His self-given title was Peter the Great though he was officially Peter I.

Peter the Great is credited with dragging Russia out of the medieval times to such an extent that by his death in 1725, Russia was considered a leading eastern European state. He centralized government, modernized the army, created a navy and, alas, increased the subjugation of the peasants. His domestic policy allowed him to execute an aggressive foreign policy.

Peter the Great had two wives, with whom he had fourteen children; three of them survived to adulthood, including a son, Alexei, and two daughters, Anna and Elizabeth.

Peter was succeeded by his wife Catherine who had the aid of the imperial guards. Upon her death in 1727 she was succeeded by Alexei’s son, Peter II. His daughter Elizabeth seized power in a coup d'état in 1741. Elizabeth’s sister Anna was married to a minor German noble and she had given birth to Peter III, who became Elizabeth’s designated heir.

Peter III was a queer duck of a man no more suited to be emperor of Russia than Donald Duck. It was imperative that he marry and produce an heir. Since he was half-German, Sophia of Anhalt-Zerbst, the daughter of a penurious Prussian nobleman, was chosen as his bride. Once married to Peter III she was renamed Catherine. It was this obscure German princess who had traveled to Russia at the age of fourteen who became Catherine the Great.

Not a blood relative of Peter the Great, Catherine shared characteristics with him—a brilliant mind, an insatiable curiosity, an intense interest in the emerging philosophies of the Enlightenment, and the desire to make Russia an intellectual center and part of Europe—and so she rivaled Peter as the greatest of Russian monarchs.

In the pantheon of great female rulers Catherine’s closest company is Elizabeth I, who ruled England from 1558 to 1603, and achieved preeminence for England as a European power toppling Spain’s dominance. But, these two great female rulers were at opposite ends of the spectrum when it came to sexual proclivities.

Elizabeth was the celibate, Virgin Queen who rejected all who sought her hand in marriage, as though fearing alignment with a male consort would interfere with her ability to carry out her duties; Catherine, on the other hand, had many lovers and seemed not to be able to do without sex. It’s ironic that such a reasonable and calm lady should have had such a voracious sexual appetite.

Rumors of her nymphomania, which was common knowledge, may be as exaggerated as those of Marie Antoinette’s excesses—despite Antoinette’s essential loyalty to her husband, she was accused of debauchery and of having multiple affairs.

Mr. Massie portrays Catherine so sympathetically that soon enough this kid was rooting for her and feeling defensive on her behalf. In almost every instance she proved to be more levelheaded and reasonable than her temperamental lovers, they the divas who stormed about the palaces she had given them while complaining of their lowly status.

Her husband Peter III was a buffoon—emotionally immature, sexually incompetent, frivolous, and probably a little mad. His loyalty was to the Prussian emperor Frederick the Great. His favorite activity was play-acting battles with his men dressed his Prussian uniform. His marriage to Catherine remained unconsummated after nine years. (This is reminiscent of Marie Antoinette’s marriage to Louis XVI but eventually the dauphin discovered the joy of sex and fathered three children.)

Catherine gave birth during this time but the father of the son she bore was not Peter but Sergei Saltykov, a charming philanderer who bore her no abiding affection. Her son Paul was whisked away from her and raised by Empress Elizabeth, so Catherine was not even allowed to enjoy the comfort of motherhood.

Despite common knowledge that Paul was not Peter’s son, he was proclaimed heir following Peter himself.

Catherine’s luck with men and with life in general improved as time went by. Her third lover, if Peter III can be called a lover, was Stansilaus Poniatowski, by whom she bore another child, a daughter who survived only fifteen months. Poniatowski remained firm in his affection for her but when he became more a liability than an asset. Once she became the empress, she banished him to Poland and made him king there.

Catherine seized power from Peter III shortly after the death of Elizabeth in 1762. She would not have been able to do this without the help of Orlov brothers. Predictably, Peter proved to be a disaster as emperor—almost every policy he instituted, whether remaking the age-old Orthodox Church in the Protestant model, demanding that priests shave their beards and abandon their long brocaded robes, or insisting that soldiers wear Prussian style uniforms, soon alienated the entire population.

When his six-month reign was over and Catherine was enthroned, no one complained. Frederick the Great said of him, “He allowed himself to be dethroned like a child being sent to bed.”

Gregory Orlov then was Catherine’s fourth lover, to whom she bore a third child, another son, Alexis. She rewarded Gregory and his brothers, to whom she owed her ascension to the throne, with properties and honors. Gregory was none too happy when he was displaced in the queen’s affections by Gregory Potemkin, who of all her lovers was most worthy of her and whom she actually married.

I was happy for her when she called Potemkin to St. Petersburg and began her affair with him—at last, I thought, Catherine has a lover who is her equal in intelligence and capability, but, soon enough Potemkin proved to be as temperamental and demanding as were her less talented lovers.

Potemkin was also the most enduring. Catherine relied heavily on him and respected most of his opinions. She made him adjutant general of the Russian army, gave him the title Prince of the Holy Roman Empire and then appointed him commander of Russia’s second war against the Turks.

I believe Catherine’s happiest time was the journey Potemkin arranged for her through the Crimea, where along the Dnieper River he had built ports, warships and shipyards. It has been described as the most remarkable journey ever made by a reigning monarch and Potemkin’s greatest public triumph, but it has been disparaged as a gigantic hoax: the prosperous villages the empress saw were said to have been made of painted cardboard, the happy villagers marched from place to place, appearing and reappearing, waving and cheering as Catherine passed. These accusations are the basis of the colloquium, “Potemkin villages,” signifying a sham or something fraudulent.

Catherine was also inspired by the philosophers of the Enlightenment. Her friendship with Voltaire, whom she never met but with whom she carried on a voluminous correspondence, caused her to believe the best form of government was a benevolent autocracy. When Voltaire died she purchased his library.

Denis Diderot, the founder and chief editor of Encyclopedia, visited Russia at her invitation and stayed for four months. Later he assisted Catherine in buying a number of European art collections.

Catherine’s embrace of Enlightenment principles made her an advocate for the abolishment of serfdom and prompted her, like the 6th Century Byzantine Emperor Justinian, to write her own legal code, called Nakaz or Instruction.

She began with Locke’s belief that in an ordered society, law and freedom were necessary to one another, since the latter could exist without the former. She defined Russia as a moderate monarchy and said that the laws ought to be so framed as to secure the safety of every citizen as much as possible.

She rejected the use of torture and sought to abolish serfdom—when Diderot had criticized the squalor of the Russian peasant, she replied bitterly, “Why should they bother to be clean when their souls are not their own?” It fell to Tsar Alexander II to finally emancipate the serfs in 1861, one hundred years later. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freed America’s black slaves.

The French Revolution had a profound impact on all the monarchs of Europe, not the least of which on Catherine. As reports of the atrocities committed—of the property of the nobility being seized, the defacement of Versailles, the imprisonment of the royal family and the eventual beheadings of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette—trickled into Russia, Catherine was aghast, fearing this “poison” might spread into Russia and cause uprisings there.

Now she found the idealism of the philosophers of the Enlightenment more flawed than she originally thought, and she censored publications that a decade before she would have welcomed.

She was right to fear these ideas, but what she feared would not happen in her own lifetime—Russia would be ruled by the Romanovs until the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917.

Catherine became a great patron of the arts. She commissioned many buildings to be built in St. Petersburg, including the Hermitage, originally an art gallery in which to hang the new collections of paintings which she had purchased and a private retreat. The Hermitage, with its Rembrandts, Hals, Van Dycks, Rubens, and a Caravaggios, is now acknowledged as one of the great art museums of the world.

One of the last works to be commissioned by Catherine (completed by Etienne Maurice Falconet in 1787) was the equestrian statue of Peter the Great, which still stands along the Neva River in the middle of the city which Peter founded. Its inscription reads simply, “To Peter the First from Catherine the Second.”

Catherine, the great tsar’s true political heir, decided that there should be a visual tribute to the figure that had made Russia a great European power. She considered herself as resuming his journey to civilization and greatness. Perhaps she wanted people to understand and accept this connection—as indeed we do!

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