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

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

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A very full life and times of Catherine, Empress of Russia, one of the dominant figures of the Romanov dynasty.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 625 Date: November 2011
Publisher: Head of Zeus
ISBN: 9781908800008

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Already known for major biographies of Nicholas and Alexandra, and of Peter the Great, Massie has now written an equally full and absorbing life of the late eighteenth-century reigning Empress.

Born Sophia Augusta Fredericka of the modest German principality Anhalt-Zerbst in 1729, she owed her destiny largely to her ambitious mother, 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, 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. Paul succeeded to the throne in 1762, but with his undisguised preference for everything German, he made himself increasingly unpopular. A bloodless coup d’etat made his wife reigning Empress, while he was deposed, placed in captivity and murdered, probably by strangulation. She had not been aware of his gaolers’ intentions, but news of his violent death must have come as a relief to her.

With a regular procession of favourites and lovers, Catherine was no paragon of virtue. The author suggests that throughout her life she was 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. 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', saying that her only equal on a European throne was Elizabeth I of England, and suggesting that, in ability and achievement, among the other Russian Emperors and Empresses, in ability and achievement she had no equal apart from Peter the Great.

It is a lengthy saga and an impressive read. Occasionally Massie is sidetracked into tangential issues, such as an aristocrat who married a serf during the reign, and musings on death by guillotine and how long it took the victim to die. These could usefully have been excised if not heavily edited. It is also arguable that in his opening pages he seems to rely a little too heavily on her own memoirs. 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.

If you're looking for further reading then we can recommend:

Russia: A 1,000-Year Chronicle of the Wild East by Martin Sixsmith
A Concise History of Russia by Paul Bushkovitch
Empress of the Night by Eva Stachniak if you'd like to try some fiction.

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