Skip to content Skip to footer

Book review: “Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman” by Robert K. Massie

The subtitle of Robert K. Massie’s “Catherine the Great” is “Portrait of a Woman.” But that’s too limiting.

This 574-page biography is the portrait of a person — one who happens to have been a woman and who happens to have been the empress of Russia for more than thirty years in the late 1700s.

On the final page of the book, Massie makes the argument — hard to dispute — that Catherine was the greatest monarch of her era and the equal to her predecessor, Peter the Great. That’s saying a lot since Peter was the man who, four decades earlier, had dragged his nation out of the Middle Ages and into modern eighteenth-century Europe to play a significant role in world affairs.

“Peter imported technology and government institutions,” Massie writes. “Catherine brought European moral, political and judicial philosophy, literature, art, architecture, sculpture, medicine and education.”

Indeed, Catherine created the Hermitage Palace in St. Petersburg and its original collection of art by such luminaries as Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Raphael and Titian. Today, it contains the largest collection of paintings in the world, and is considered one of the greatest art museums on earth.

She also commissioned “The Bronze Horseman,” a monumental equestrian statue of Peter by French sculptors Étienne Maurice Falconet and Marie-Anne Collot, considered one of the masterpieces of Russian art.

And, to sooth the nerves of Gregory Potemkin, her former lover (and also probably her husband), she even came close to importing a pianist-composer from Germany — by the name of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

“Peter,” Massie writes, “shaved off the beards and truncated the long robes of his leading noblemen. Catherine persuaded them to be inoculated against smallpox.

“Peter made Russia a great power. Catherine magnified that power, and advanced the nation toward a culture that, during the century that followed, produced among others: Derzhavin, Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Chekov, Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, Glinka, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Petipa, and Diaghhilev.”

The person of Catherine

Yet, those great accomplishments are not Massie’s focus.

Instead, in this biography, he is interested in the person of Catherine — in what it felt like to be her, in what made her tick.

In this pursuit, Massie has the great help of Catherine herself.

She was a wonderful writer, clear, direct, self-aware, able to criticize herself and praise herself as well, with an eye for detail and more than a little touch of humor.

Locked in a barren marriage to Grand Duke Peter, Catherine found herself at one point trying to explain to his irate mother Empress Elizabeth why she had failed to bear an heir. (This was a problem since Peter refused to touch her, indeed, seemed unclear on the concept of sex, and preferred to play with his toy soldiers. Not something to try to spell out to an angry monarch.)

“I could not save myself by flight,” Catherine wrote in her memoirs, “because I had my back against a door and she was directly in front of me. Then I remembered Madam Krause’s advice and I said to her, ‘I beg your pardon, Little Mother,’ and she was appeased.”

Still only a teenager, and still new to Russia, still new even to her name and her religion — she had been born Sophia Augusta Fredericka, the daughter of a minor German prince, and was re-named Catherine upon her conversion to the Russian Orthodox Church — she reacted in a typically adolescent manner.

“I went to my bedroom, still crying and thinking that death was preferable to such a persecuted life,” she wrote. “I look a large knife and lay down on the sofa, intending to plunge it into my heart. Just then, one of my maids came in, threw herself on the knife, and stopped me.”

Neither wife nor mother

Writing about this years later, Catherine added the wry observation: “Actually, the knife was not very sharp and would not have penetrated my corset.”

For the first half of her life, Catherine, while bright and ambitious, lived on the outer edge of power. She was brought in as a baby-making machine for a man who turned out to have little or no interest in making babies. When she did give birth to a son — fathered most likely by the first of her many paramours — the baby was whisked away from her by Elizabeth. She rarely saw the child. She was neither wife nor mother.

At some point, it became clear to everyone that Peter and Catherine weren’t sleeping together. So, when she was pregnant (by another lover) in 1762 during her husband’s short reign as Peter III, she had to keep her condition hidden and gave birth in secret.

This she was able to do because her faithful valet Vasily Shkurin made sure that no one would come looking for her while she was in labor.

“Knowing that the emperor loved fires,” Massie writes, “Shkurin waited until Catherine’s contractions became severe and then set fire to his own house in the city, trusting that Peter and many in the court would rush to watch the blaze.”

“Set fire to his own house” — now there’s a testament of loyalty. It says something about the woman, doesn’t it?

The right person for the job

To be sure, less than 90 days later, Catherine was empress, having taken part in a coup that ousted her feckless spouse. But Massie shows that, from her arrival in Russia and all the way up to almost the last minute of Peter III’s rule, Catherine had no great expectation of gaining the throne.

She was in the right place at the right time. She had impressed the right people, and they gathered around her. And she was the right person for the job.

Once in power, Catherine never let go. Those who had helped her were showered with honors and money, but found themselves in the role of advisors. Those who sought to get close to her, even her succession of bed partners, never wielded more authority than she was willing to grant them — which wasn’t much.

Other writers have caricatured Catherine as over-sexed. Yet, as portrayed by Massie, she comes across as earthily honest and forthright about her desires for pleasure, affection and love.

If she had been a man, the long string of boy toys would hardly be noticed. At least, she didn’t bollix up her nation a la Henry VIII by feeling the need to marry them.

Catherine charmed Voltaire and entertained Diderot. She made one of her lovers the king of Poland and, later, erased Poland from the map.

She hated the idea of serfdom but could do little to eliminate it. She loved the principles of the Enlightenment but despised its offspring, the French Revolution. “They are capable of hanging their king from a lamppost!” she said of Parisians four years before they guillotined Louis XVI.

She was one interesting human being.

Homey and modest

A few years before her death, Catherine wrote her own epitaph. It was surprisingly homey and modest. It concluded this way:

When she came to the throne of Russia, she wished to do what was good for her country and tried to bring happiness, liberty, and prosperity to her subjects.

She forgave easily and hated no one. She was good-natured, easy-going, tolerant, understanding, and of a happy disposition. She had a republican spirit and a kind heart.

She was sociable by nature.

She made many friends.

She took pleasure in her work.

She loved the arts.

After reading Massie’s magisterial biography, I’d have to say she was right on the mark.

Patrick T. Reardon

1 Comment

  • Ian Kane
    Posted January 28, 2017 at 5:13 pm

    Very heartening in these difficult days

Leave a comment