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This biography tells the story of the woman who was to become Catherine the Great, who reigned as Empress of Russia from 1762 until her death in 1796. Born Sophia Augusta Frederica of the modest German principality Anhalt-Zerbst in 1729, she owed her destiny largely to her ambitious mother, who was related by marriage to the ruling Russian and Swedish dynasties. Taken to Russia during her adolescence, she was speedily betrothed and married to Grand Duke Peter, heir to the throne. This unfortunate youth had been scarred physically and mentally by smallpox, showed no interest in her whatsoever, and the marriage was a disaster. Considerable attention is devoted to Catherine's difficult early years in Russia during the reign of Empress Elizabeth, with the young Grand Duchess turning to lovers and also biding her time, cultivating support by converting to the Russian Orthodox Church and learning to speak the language fluently.
Peter succeeded to the throne in 1762, but with his undisguised preference for everything German, he made himself increasingly unpopular. Only six months later a coup d'etat in St Petersburg made his wife reigning Empress, while he was deposed, placed in captivity and murdered, probably by strangulation. As far as is known she had not been aware of his gaolers' intentions, but news of his violent death must have come as a relief to her. Her son Paul had no doubt of her complicity in the deed, and nursed such a grudge against her that after her death when he succeeded her on the throne, he reinstated the right of male succession only. (The irony was that she always claimed Paul was her son by one of her lovers, Count Saltkyov, and Tsar Peter had nothing to do with it).
With a regular procession of favourites and lovers, Catherine was no paragon of virtue. The author suggests that throughout her life she was constantly seeking the love and affection that had been denied her as a child and indeed as a wife, as well as the intellectual company without which this woman who craved for knowledge and new ideas would not have been nearly such a towering or well-informed personality. Her reliance on favourites such as Grigory Orlov, whose brother Alexei gave Russia a foothold in the Black Sea victory as a result of his victory at the battle of Chesme Bay in June 1770, and Grigory Potemkin, governor of Russia's new southern provinces (and possibly her morganatic husband as well), is carefully documented. However she proved a strong and successful figurehead, whom Massie compares in some ways to Queen Elizabeth of England some two centuries previously.
An intelligent and learned woman, she corresponded with and patronised the French Enlightenment writers Diderot and Voltaire, and indeed presided over a similar Russian age of Enlightenment. She founded the Smolny Institute, the first state-financed higher education institution for women in Europe, and was responsible for the founding and development of the Hermitage Museum. Beyond the frontiers of her empire, her reign saw victories over the Ottoman Empire, and territorial expansion in the west, notably partition of Poland. While she regarded herself as a humane reformer, like many other heads of state she was horrified by the French revolution and the possibility that such poisonous ideas could spread to Russia. Out of this came a more repressive attitude, resulting in her instituting censorship and presiding over the imprisonment of a nobleman who spoke on behalf of the gradual abolition of serfdom.
Massie confirms her status in history as `a majestic figure in the age of monarchy'. He makes the case that that her only equal as a female ruler on a European throne was Elizabeth I of England, and suggests that in ability and achievement, among the other Russian Emperors and Empresses, she had no equal apart from Peter the Great.
It is a hefty volume, over 500 pages of text, and a very worthwhile read, but not flawless. Personally I thought that Massie had too much of a tendency to let himself be sidetracked into tangential issues throughout, such as the history of an aristocrat who married a serf during the reign of the Empress, and musings on death by guillotine and how long it took the victim to die. It's all very interesting and up to a point relevant, but in a book where the last chapter finishes at little short of 600 pages, such information could usefully have been omitted or at the least heavily edited. It is also arguable that in his opening pages he seems to rely a little too heavily on quoting from Catherine's own memoirs. While it is only right that her own voice should be allowed to speak to an extent, it strikes me that this does smack of padding for its own sake unless kept firmly within limits.
Nevertheless, he has built up an impressive portrait of this capable, even remarkable if not always likeable personality, and a defining picture of the thirty years or so that she dominated her empire and brought it forward into the modern age.
The book has an eight-page colour plates section and several maps at the front, although a genealogical table would have been welcome as well.
Robert K. Massie established himself as a major biographer over forty years ago with 'Nicholas and Alexandra' (1968). His other books include 'Dreadnought: Britain, Germany and the coming of the Great War', and a biography of Peter the Great.
[Revised version of a review I originally published elsewhere]
Catherine the Great was ruler of Russia in the eighteenth century.Born Princess Sophia of Anhalt-Herbst, she was brought to Russia by the Empress Elizabeth as bride to her nephew and heir, Peter. The marriage however was not happy, and when Peter ascended the throne and proved to be a poor Tsar, largely due to his idolisation of Frederick of Prussia, Russia's enemy and ruler of Peter's birthplace, Catherine staged a coup and became Empress, ushering in one of the golden periods of Russia's history.
Catherine the Great by Robert Massie is not the first book on Romanov rulers by the author which I have read. Several years ago, having been fascinated by an exhibition on the last Tsars at Edinburgh's National Museum of Scotland, I read and loved Nicholas and Alexandra. It was after visiting an exhibition on Catherine at the same museum that I wanted to learn more about this incredible woman, and once more turned to Massie.
His work on Nicholas and Alexandra had a personal focus, as he too has a son with hemophilia, however Catherine the Great does not have this connection. It is a biography of one of history's great figures, and examines her childhood, marriage and reign, as well as her personality, successes and failures. She was by no means perfect, but is hailed as one of Russia's great rulers, particularly for her love of the arts and the impact this had on the country. It was she who commissioned the huge statue of Peter the Great which stands in St Petersburg; although not descended from him, as indeed by birth she was not even Russian, she wished to align herself with him and show continuity.
Massie's writing has that all-important quality for a historical biography, authority. He shows excellent attention to detail, and although he clearly admires Catherine, he is not fawning nor does he shy away from her faults and mistakes. Catherine the Great is a lengthy and detailed book, and appears to be a fairly exhaustive biography, although as I have not read anything else on the subject I can't be certain of that. Due to its sheer volume there can be little of Catherine's life that Massie does not touch upon, yet he never gets bogged down in dry facts. Catherine the Great comes to life in the pages of this book, and it is that rare thing, a biography which is fascinating and compelling from the the very beginning. Many biographies which are otherwise excellent have sections which are dry and hard to get through, but even passages detailing Catherine's contribution to the arts are lively, which in other hands could be sections the reader skims over.
There was plenty of action in Catherine's life, yet what I found most interesting was her succession of "favourites", the term given to the Empress's lovers. The most important and influential of these was Grigory Potemkin, who she may even have married. Even though she later took other lovers, he remained a lifelong friend and her most important advisor. His achievements are simply incredible, including founding and building several towns in the new southern provinces which he had helped to capture, towns whose names I recognised from my reading on Nicholas and Alexandra, yet here I was reading about one man founding them all.
Catherine the Great is a daunting read, a large biography of a figure from a period of the past which may not seem as exciting as other times. Yet as soon as you start reading you realise this is a misapprehension, and that Catherine's reign was exciting and innovative. I found myself eagerly looking forward to my commute to work so I could get the book out and continue Catherine's story. Massie brings her back to life, and his work truly does justice to a great woman.