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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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.
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.”