Catherine II (or as history knows her, Catherine the Great), remains one of the most intriguing women in history. Thanks to the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert K. Massie, she is once again in the public eye. In Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, Massie, who has previously written highly acclaimed biographies of the Russian rulers Peter the Great and Nicholas II, doubles as both an academically trained historian and a lively storyteller as he describes this passionate and precocious woman who rose from minor Prussian nobility to become the empress of Russia from 1762 to 1796.
The author crafts a richly textured portrait of Catherine’s life both as a woman and as a ruler and draws the reader into her world through his lively descriptions of the Russian court and the personages whose lives intersected with her own. Assuredly Catherine has not lost her power of seduction, for Massie is clearly in awe of his subject.
By Massie’s account, Sophia Augusta Fredericka was a plain but intelligent girl who rose to greatness through a combination of fortuitous circumstance and her own determined will. Through her mother, Joanna, she was connected by birth to the Romanovs, the ruling family of Russia, and through this her family scored a major coup. In 1744, at age 14, she was betrothed to the heir to the Russian imperial throne, the future Peter III, a duke of Holstein and grandson of Peter the Great.
As was typical of the time, Sophia had no voice in the matter and found herself a virtual prisoner in a loveless marriage to an immature, capricious bully. She was forced to spend 17 years living with him at the court of Empress Elizabeth, who was herself quite jealous and often harsh to Sophia, who upon marriage took the Russian name Catherine and converted to Russian Orthodoxy. Yet during this time she took charge of her own fate by learning Russian, educating herself, particularly in the writings of the European Enlightenment and, perhaps more significantly, building a solid network of friends and allies.
When Peter III finally ascended the throne in 1761, apparently intending to replace Catherine and marry his longstanding mistress, she masterfully outmaneuvered him with the help of the Imperial Guard, who deposed Peter and proclaimed her Autocrat of All the Russias. This high-stakes gamble paid off, but it left Catherine with a perpetual sense of insecurity, always aware that she was a foreigner and usurper.
The book follows a standard chronological narrative, divided into seven parts, each of which covers a particular period in her life. Massie, more than many of Catherine’s biographers, devotes nearly as much attention to her life prior to taking the throne in 1762 as he does to her reign as empress. In his coverage of Catherine as ruler, Massie devotes chapters to major issues and events like her intellectual engagement with the Enlightenment; her unsuccessful attempt to codify laws through the convening of a representative legislative commission; the massive popular rebellion led by an army deserter, Emelyan Pugachev; her wars against the Ottoman Turks; and the significant expansion in territory that she accomplished, in part through her leading role in the three partitions of Poland.
Massie gives equal weight to her personal life, including detailed portraits of her relations with a succession of lovers (“favorites”), particularly the man Massie suggests she may have married, Gregory Potemkin. But he does this without sensationalizing her situation as a single woman who craved physical and intellectual companionship but whose position as empress made it extraordinarily difficult to form lasting bonds.
Massie may not bring new insight into Catherine, but he does provide a multidimensional picture of her as a resourceful and talented woman operating in a world largely dominated by men. He does not separate Catherine the woman from Catherine the empress who sought to continue the efforts of her predecessor Peter the Great to expand Russia’s stature in the world and integrate her subjects into a wider European culture. While much of Massie’s treatment is familiar, what makes this biography special is that it makes Catherine accessible to a broader audience, thanks to Massie’s gifts as a writer with a reputation as a bestselling author. It also skillfully explores the interplay between individual will and personality and the larger forces of history.
Massie shows how Catherine took charge of her own destiny, defied social conventions and as ruler played a significant role in the reshaping of the European map; yet at the same time she herself was bound by the historical context within which she lived. Given her insecurity as an interloper and a woman, she could not defy the Russian nobility to reform the system of peasant servitude known as serfdom, even if she had wanted to do so. She did not believe that enlightened ideals of liberty and representative government applied to Russia and rejected any alteration in the absolute power of the monarchy.
More specialized readers may question the diminished focus on Catherine’s reforms as well as the relative absence of critical analysis of her policies and actions. Massie relies heavily upon Catherine’s own memoirs in telling much of her story but without much discussion of personal bias or offering a different perspective. He seems to accept her version of events at face value, and does not probe too deeply into her contradictions, including the fact that she refused to apply Enlightenment principles to her own power and unabash-edly carved up Poland, dividing the spoils with her fellow Prussian and Austrian rulers.
Nonetheless, this is an impressive book about a remarkable woman who not only took power from her husband’s hands but held onto it for 34 years, ruling over 20 million subjects in the vast Russian empire, all with a son and three male grandsons waiting as possible challengers in the wings.