Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman

Biographer Robert K. Massie gives us a Catherine the Great who is ever interesting and intelligent – but not necessarily admirable.

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    Catherine the Great:
    Portrait of a Woman
    By Robert K. Massie
    Random House
    656 pp.
    View Caption

Robert K. Massie, whose "Peter the Great" won a Pulitzer Prize 30 years ago, is about as comfortable a biographer as I know.

He never seems flustered or tied down to academic details. He’s got his sympathies in place and a story to tell. His simple and straightforward thesis? “[Catherine] and Peter the Great tower in ability and achievement over the other fourteen tsars and empresses of the 300-year Romanov dynasty.” Elizabeth I of England, meanwhile, was “the only woman to equal [Catherine] on a European throne.”

While Massie is smitten with Catherine (1729-1796), who “beneath her title and her diamonds ... was only a little German girl brought to Russia for the sole purpose of providing the son of the house with an heir,” the reader, sympathetic or not with some of the grown-up empress’s pragmatic inaction and actions, will always be fascinated. That she wrested the crown of all Russia from her husband, Peter III, and with the help of her lover placed it on her own head, and then tried to keep it from her son’s head and place it on her grandson’s, is forgivable – or at least, understandable – in the context of the Sopranos-style skullduggery and double-crosses and murders that characterize royal history.

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Maybe all idealized politicians, from Peter the Great to Lincoln to Lenin to Obama, disappoint when we realize that they’re playing the dirty game of politics. And then we humbly resign ourselves to witnessing the exciting and fateful contests.

Massie is so familiar with the figures of the Russian court that he (and consequently we) never feel lost. Among the personalities he presents, the Empress Elizabeth, Peter the Great’s daughter, is especially engaging. She had been placed on the throne through a coup that imprisoned the “rightful” tsar, the infant Ivan VI, and for the next 20 years indulged herself in privilege, a couple of wars, and fitful slackness (she habitually put off governmental business). She proved a positively queenly ruler, but was childless, so she coerced one of Peter’s grandsons, Peter III, to leave his beloved German state of Holstein and come to Russia and marry and impregnate the German princess Sophia (renamed Catherine by Elizabeth). Contrary to the amusing and kitschy Josef von Sternberg movie of Catherine’s life, "The Scarlett Empress," starring Marlene Dietrich, Peter III was not a half-wit. Peculiar, yes, but he had plenty of marbles and being Lutheran and culturally German, his distaste for Russian customs and religion are understandable.

From girlhood to power-player, Catherine is ever interesting and intelligent; she’s usually likable though not necessarily admirable. The basis of the first half of Massie’s biography is Catherine’s own memoir. She wrote lucidly and remarkably candidly about her miserable life as the wife of Peter III, who it seems never once slept with her: “Never did two minds resemble each other less. We had nothing in common in our tastes or ways of thinking.... I was constantly left to myself and suspicions surrounded me on all sides.”

Bookworms, however, always have some consolation, as Catherine would observe in her self-penned epitaph: “Eighteen years of boredom and loneliness gave her the opportunity to read many books.” Peter, an adolescent himself when he arrived in Russia and perhaps the victim of a penile condition that made sex painful, preferred playing toy-soldiers in bed: “The absurdity of what they were doing, often until two in the morning, sometimes made Catherine laugh, but usually she simply endured.” Eventually, with impatient foster-grandma Elizabeth’s knowledge or indifference, Catherine took a court chamberlain as a lover and became pregnant with Paul, who was legally regarded as Peter the Great’s great-grandson.

Once Catherine gave birth, she was treated as if she had lost her use and was only rarely allowed to see her son: “For ten years [Elizabeth] had been keeping [Catherine and Peter] at the expense of the state. Thus, the child, required for reasons of state, created by her command, was now, in effect, the property of the state – that is, of the empress.”

It’s important to remember that Catherine herself had no legal or blood-relation claim on the throne – but when has fact ever hindered political ambition? Upon Elizabeth’s death, Peter III made one botch after another, the main one being that he never stopped thinking of himself as German and the disciple of Frederick the Great of Prussia, with whom the Russians were at war. Peter III immediately tried to refashion the army in the Prussian military image and boldly challenged the privileges and abuses of the Orthodox church.

Catherine, meanwhile, had in the eyes of the Russian court been doing almost everything right. She had learned Russian and, though an Enlightenment freethinker, had converted to Russian Orthodoxy and become Russian enough so that after only six months of her husband’s rule the people and the church supported a coup by the army, led by the warrior family of Orlovs (Catherine would have a son by one of them), and forced Peter to abdicate. Frederick the Great, shaking his head in disgust at Peter’s behavior, remarked, “He allowed himself to be dethroned like a child being sent to bed.”

Peter begged his wife to let him and his girlfriend return to Holstein; instead, Catherine kept him locked up until one of the Orlov brothers “accidentally” killed him. Catherine got herself crowned Empress, despite the fact that her son had been designated the heir-apparent by Empress Elizabeth. Once Ivan VI was also murdered in a failed rescue attempt, Catherine felt relatively secure, notwithstanding her nervousness about her son’s eagerness to rule. (Yes, more crime-family flashbacks.)

After becoming empress, Catherine was too busy working to spare much time for her serial lovers, whom she disposed of as nicely and comfortably as a fond aunt would. Her three children were fathered by three impressive beloveds. Only later, when she was older and less attractive and had less need to be secretive, did she raise eyebrows by her happy flings with army officers. Massie refutes the rumors of Catherine’s wanton sexuality. (She was only indulgent, he argues – perhaps like Elizabeth Taylor).

Catherine had big ambitions for Russia’s enlightenment but – to the disappointment of those expecting her to be heroic  – she turned out to be a shrewd and practical politician. “It is not as easy as you think,” she told an aide. “In the first place, my orders would not be carried out unless they were the kind of orders which could be carried out... I examine the circumstances, I take advice, I consult the enlightened part of the people, and in this way I find out what sort of effect my laws will have.”

Though “intellectually opposed” to serfdom, she sold out any kind of reform for half of Russia’s population. When the illiterate peasant Pugachev inspired a bloody uprising by the serfs in the Urals, she clamped down in a fashion that would have made dictators ever since proud: “There would be no further talk of eliminating serfdom. Landowners were encouraged to treat their serfs and peasants humanely, but the empress now was convinced that enlightenment could not be bestowed on a nation of illiterates until the people had been prepared with education.” She did not fund any education initiatives.

She also cynically placed her second lover, Stanislaus Poniatowski, on the throne of Poland, whose territory over the next few decades she cut up like a roast chicken for Prussia, Austria, and herself. “Afterward Catherine repeated that she had annexed ‘not a single Pole,’ and that she had simply taken back ancient Russian and Lithuanian lands with Orthodox inhabitants who were ‘now reunited with the Russian motherland.’ ” So, thanks to Catherine, for the next 126 years “the people and culture of Poland did not possess a nation.” No love lost there or to the south, where her ambitions for access to the Mediterranean led to war with Turkey.

She probably secretly married the savvy and irascible Gregory Potemkin, whom she called “one of the greatest, most bizarre, and most entertaining eccentrics of the iron age.” The hot-tempered and capable Potemkin became and, even after their love affair extinguished itself, remained her right-hand man: he helped her extend Russia’s vast boundaries, which in the grand scheme of world history has benefited and gratified Russia and no one else.

Catherine was brilliant and always fascinating and may have been educationally enlightened (though her French philosopher friends Diderot and Voltaire watched sadly as during her 34-year reign she tightened her authoritarian grip and implemented stupefying censorship). She was certainly cultured (her art collection became the basis for the marvelous Hermitage Museum), but she saw fit to keep herself in power by any means possible, even at her son’s expense, not to mention at the expense of the freedom of millions of serfs. She kept Paul out of the way and sitting on his hands until she died of natural causes in 1796, at which time Paul the First asserted a new law of primogeniture that ensured there would never again be a woman on Russia’s throne.

In spite of her queenly power-plays, her selfishness, her self-justifications, her criminality, she was a major player in the 18th century and, if we have to take what we get, she at least wasn’t as bad as any of the tsars before or after her. In the absence of real democracy in 21st-century Russia, it’s probably about time for a female counterweight to Putin.

Bob Blaisdell edited "The Communist Manifesto and Other Revolutionary Documents and Selected Federalist Papers."

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