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

“She sat on the throne of Peter the Great and ruled an empire, the largest on earth. Her signature, inscribed on a decree, was law and, if she chose, could mean life or death for any one of her twenty million subjects. She was intelligent, well-read, and a shrewd judge of character. During the coup, she had shown determination and courage; once on the throne, she displayed an open mind, willingness to forgive, and a political morality founded on rationality and practical efficiency. She softened imperial presence with a sense of humor and a quick tongue; indeed, with Catherine more than any other monarch of her day, there was always a wide latitude for humor. There was also a line not to be crossed, even by close friends.”

I knew almost nothing about Catherine the Great before reading this book. Now that I’ve finished it, all I say is damn, this lady was impressive.

It would have been easy for this book to be a never-ending litany of reasons Catherine’s life sucked, but even as Massie details all the tragic aspects of Catherine’s life, we never get the sense that we should feel too sad, because her personal strength and character shine through clearly, no matter what hell she happens to be going through at the time. And she went through a lot of shit in her lifetime. Catherine was fourteen when she was brought to Russia to marry the nephew of the Empress Elizabeth, who was unmarried and, despite numerous affairs throughout her reign, didn’t have a child of her own to be her heir. So she brought Peter of Holstein to Russia at the age of fourteen to make him her heir instead, and Catherine was shipped over (that’s the most accurate way to describe it) in a hurry so they could get married and Elizabeth could officially make Peter her successor. Due mostly to the fact that he’d been uprooted from his home and controlled by sadistic tutors for most of his life, Peter was an unpleasant little shit, and he and Catherine disliked each other. It didn’t help either that they didn’t have sex for nine years after their marriage (shades of Marie Antoinette), or that Elizabeth was intensely protective of Peter and had Catherine spied on every waking minute, even going so far as to dismiss any servants that Catherine got too friendly with. When Catherine finally had her first child (the father was almost certainly not her husband), Elizabeth had the child taken to her own rooms the second it was born. Catherine didn’t see her newborn son for an entire week after giving birth to him, and after that she was barely allowed to see him.

So it’s understandable that as soon as Elizabeth died and Peter got the throne, Catherine put up with that for about five minutes, and then it was coup d’etat o’clock. (or, more accurately, her friends in the military were like, “Hey Catherine, if you feel like overthrowing your lame husband we’ll totally back you up” and she was like, “Might as well. Fetch my Usurping Gown.”)

Once Catherine becomes empress, everything gets awesome. Massie’s book may portray her in an overly-glowing light, but as far as I can tell, Catherine was an ideal ruler. She worked from six am to ten pm, often went days without sleeping or eating, and genuinely wanted the best for her people. She spent months organizing and revising a codex of laws, expanded the empire, improved hospitals and medical practices in the country, and tried to abolish serfdom (all while maintaining affairs with a succession of handsome and charming men, all of whom were in their mid-twenties even when Catherine was in her fifties. Get it, girl). She made permanent improvements to Russia and its people, and it’s easy to forget that she technically stole her throne, and wasn’t even born Russian. She was a complex, utterly-competent woman who managed to take a terrible situation and make it awesome, and then become one of the greatest women in history.

Comparisons to Elizabeth I are inevitable, and thankfully Massie avoids them almost entirely. This book could have easily dissolved into “here’s why Catherine was similar to Elizabeth and other famous female rulers, and here’s why they were different, etc”, and I was very glad that Massie didn’t take the book in that direction. Other historical figures come and go here (such as Louis XVI, Voltaire, and even the founder of the US Navy John Paul Jones), but, minus one over-long detour into the French Revolution, Catherine always remains the center of the book’s focus. As she should be. She’s certainly earned it.

Verdict: four out of five stars

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie

  1. Masswie cannot even read Russian! His Catherine book is a travesty! Miserably researched. poorly written, incredibly derivative. He’s lost it a 82. Professional historians have only contempt for his juvenile efforts. He should hang his head in shame. He thinks he’s protecting innocent readers from salacious stories about her sexuality, unaware that these have been all over the internet for t least two decades! Pathetic!! Why the Carnegie folks awarded him money for this abysmal book is beyond me. There are several much better books by scholts who do read Russian! Hang it up gospodn Massie!!!

  2. In fairness, this is the only Catherine book I’ve ever read, so I had nothing to compare it to as far as the research and the information goes. I disagree that it’s poorly written, however – I thought the writing was very clear and flowed well. Not sure what you mean about “protecting readers from salacious stories about her sexuality,” since he writes very openly about her numerous affairs. Surely you aren’t referring to the rumor that she fucked horses?

    (and since you seem to be the expert, could you recommend some of these “much better books by [sic]scholts who do read Russian”? I’m interested in Catherine, and want to learn more about her)

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