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

Robert Massie is one of my favorite popular historians.  My European history teacher assigned us passages from Dreadnought in high school; I enjoyed it so much that I went on to read the rest of the book.  In college, when I was assigned Nicholas and AlexandraI read the whole thing in two or three pleasant afternoons.  On the other hand, I’ve been reading Peter the Great off and on for over a year and I still haven’t finished it.*  So I wasn’t sure what to expect when a family member bought me Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman at Christmas.

I finally started Catherine the Great in February; two days later, I had finished it.  I couldn’t put it down.  I was quickly absorbed by the story of the teenaged Princess Sophia, a German sent to Russia to become the bride of the future emperor.  Sophia converted to Russian Orthodoxy, was christened Catherine, and married Grand Duke Peter.  The new Grand Duchess was increasingly at odds with the powerful and mercurial Empress Elizabeth; even worse, her marriage to Peter was a disaster on every level.  The story of how the smart and ambitious Catherine overcame those obstacles to rule in her own right as Empress Catherine II is incredibly compelling.  It is worth mentioning that Massie is able to draw on Catherine’s own unfinished memoirs to tell the pre-Empress parts of her story, which adds extra texture and emotion to the tale.

Massie’s account of Catherine’s reign, however, meets with more mixed success.  Massie argues that Catherine was an important monarch who made great strides for Russia, but at the end of the book I wasn’t quite sure he had made that case.  Catherine’s successes included obtaining a Russian port on the Black Sea, creating a much better system of hospitals, and agreeing to have herself inoculated against smallpox (a prominent example that was significant not just for Russia but for all of Europe).  I was also fascinated by the scope of Catherine’s intellectual interests — she was one of Europe’s most voracious art collectors and she corresponded regularly with Enlightenment philosophers.  She even bought the impoverished Diderot’s library on the condition that he would remain in possession of it until his death.  Massie also suggests that Catherine’s “cultural” influence in Russia paved the way for the era of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, although it’s unclear how.  Her attempts to reform Russian laws in accordance with Enlightenment principles met with little success, however, and as her reign went on she became more and more convinced that autocracy was the only way to govern Russia.   In the end, how much did life change for the average Russian under Catherine?  How significant was her impact on the high intellectual culture of the country she ruled?  I needed a clearer before-and-after picture of Russia in order to really grasp Catherine’s impact.

I was also a bit skeptical of the amount of time Massie spent on Catherine’s love affairs.  Three of her lovers — the future Polish king Stanislaus Poniatowski, the officer Gregory Orlov, and the politician Gregory Potemkin — were undeniably important in her life and in European history.  The others were non-entities chosen for their looks and charm.  If Catherine had been a male monarch I’m fairly certain no one would care how many lovers she had (Massie carefully counts twelve) or in what order she took various paramours.  I would much rather have read a more extensive account of Catherine’s correspondence with Voltaire than a blow-by-blow of the names of the handsome young men she chose as her favorite companions over the years.

My favorite Massie book, Dreadnought, did a masterful job of showing how personal relationships and private vendettas shaped global events.  Catherine the Great is less successful on that front.  At the end of the book, I felt I had gotten to know a clever, cultured, ambitious woman, but I was unsure of exactly how significant her role was in world history.  Fortunately, Catherine’s personal story is compelling enough to stand on its own.  I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in European history.

Rating: Buy it

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*  My slow progress is due to my severe disinterest in military history.  I do not care what time King Charles XII stopped for a lunch of salt pork and hard tack during the Battle of Some Frozen Place.  But Peter the Great did win the Pulitzer, so YMMV.

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