Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman

Pulitzer Prize winner Massie offers the tale of a princess who went to Russia at 14 and became one of the most powerful women in history. Born into minor German nobility, she transformed herself into an empress by sheer determination. Possessing a brilliant, curious mind, she devoured the works of Enlightenment philosophers, and reaching the throne, tried using their princ...

Title:Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman
Author:
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ISBN:0679456724
Edition Language:English
Number of Pages:625 pages

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman Reviews

  • Tatiana

    Like probably every woman of note in history, open about and unashamed of her sexuality, Catherine the Great is primarily remembered as a power- and man-hungry, salacious, perverted woman. Try googling her name and see how high on the list of the results is the ever-pressing question -

    Does anyone care about her accomplishments in politics, art and science? Not really. But her sexual exploits? Oh, YES!

    That's why I appreciate

    's

    Like probably every woman of note in history, open about and unashamed of her sexuality, Catherine the Great is primarily remembered as a power- and man-hungry, salacious, perverted woman. Try googling her name and see how high on the list of the results is the ever-pressing question -

    Does anyone care about her accomplishments in politics, art and science? Not really. But her sexual exploits? Oh, YES!

    That's why I appreciate

    's

    so much. It is an honest, frank, compassionate account of this superbly intelligent and deeply dedicated to her adoptive country woman's life.

    As expected from a biography of a monarch, this work is pretty heavy on historical details. I won't lie, I skimmed over a good quarter of the book, not desiring to read much about domestic and foreign policies, wars, legislation and reforms.

    Thankfully, the details of Catherine's personal life had me glued to the pages of this hefty work. She was brought to Russia at the age of 14, married to a man unable to rid her of her virginity for years (just like Marie Antoinette) and thus encouraged to take a lover and get pregnant by him to finally produce an heir to the Russian throne (which made me think - how many kings, emperors and princes who were assumed to belong to various royal dynasties had actual blood/DNA claim to them? not many methinks), deposed her own husband and usurped the power. And, of course, all those lovers - oh my, 12 in total throughout her life, by Massie's count. Ironically, her husband was not one of the 12.

    It is easy to sensationalize these facts of Catherine's life and use them to condemn her. But the reality is, most of what she did was motivated by Catherine's desire to serve Russia, be that by producing a very necessary heir when her husband was unable to do so due to psychological or physical issues, or by removing the same incapable husband from the throne. As for the lovers, as a woman of high intellect and high power, Catherine was never able to find a man emotionally, politically and intellectually equal to her. Thus can be explained her "harem" of young favorites she settled for in the later years of her life, to quench her loneliness mostly.

    I finished this biography feeling a lot of respect for Catherine, a progressive, smart, responsible woman. But I felt sad on her behalf too. She might have succeeded as a monarch, but her personal desires of being a mother and having a dedicated life partner were never completely fulfilled.

  • Grace Tjan

    First things first: that wasn’t my

    name. The Empress Elizabeth, who was Peter the Great’s daughter (now, that is a man who truly deserves “the Great” after his name!), changed my name to Ekaterina when she converted me into the Russian Orthodox religion. As for that superfluous title that follows my new name, it was prematurely bestowed on me by the Legislative Commission that I convened to give Russia a more enlightened legal code (more on this later)

    First things first: that wasn’t my

    name. The Empress Elizabeth, who was Peter the Great’s daughter (now, that is a man who truly deserves “the Great” after his name!), changed my name to Ekaterina when she converted me into the Russian Orthodox religion. As for that superfluous title that follows my new name, it was prematurely bestowed on me by the Legislative Commission that I convened to give Russia a more enlightened legal code (more on this later). I brought them together to study laws, and they were busy discussing my virtues instead. Imagine that! I still blush with embarrassment whenever I recall the incident, although I cannot say that I’m thoroughly displeased with it.

    My real name is Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg. Yes --- I was a German import. Many Romanov royals, including my future husband Tsar Peter III, are actually

    , specifically Prussians. This caused some awkwardness later when we went to war against Prussia in my reign --- but that was still far in the future. Papa was the ruler of the Anhalt-Zerbst principality. Some people would call him a minor aristocrat, but he was still a prince,

    ? Mama was formerly a princess of the house of Holstein-Gottorp (yes, that’s where those lovely cows come from), whose late brother was affianced to the young Empress Elizabeth. He died of smallpox before the wedding, but Elizabeth never forgot him, and when it was time to look for a spouse for the Tsarevich, she naturally turned toward his family.

    I was all of 14 years old when Elizabeth summoned Mama and me to Russia to marry Peter III. I was just a tiny slip of a girl then! The entirety of my trousseau consisted of three old dresses, a dozen chemises, a few pair of stockings and a few handkerchiefs. You see, Mama had spent all of the money that the empress sent for me on her own wardrobe. That’s Mama for you. Soon after my wedding, Elizabeth unceremoniously sent her back home for being a meddlesome mother-in-law and a clumsy Prussian secret agent. I never saw her again for the rest of my life.

    That’s my husband. As you can see, he’s not much of a catch, but he’s still Peter the Great’s only surviving grandson, and that’s

    I married --- the future Tsar of all the Russias. Peter was a sickly man-child who would rather play with his toy soldiers on our marital bed than with me. He was not allowed to play with them during the day, so they were hidden under the bed. As soon as we were both in bed, Madame Krause, our nanny/supervisor, would come in and brought out the toy soldiers. I couldn’t even move in the bed --- they were so many of them! Peter played with them until well after midnight, and every time someone knocked at the door to check on us, we had to scramble to hide the toys under the blanket. It was farcical: a newly married couple constantly on guard lest they be caught playing with toys. But the Empress Elizabeth was not amused when, years into our marriage, we had not produced the heir that she was expecting from us.

    The fact is that my husband never touched me for the first nine years of our marriage. There was a lot of speculation as to the reason why. He openly told me that he was in love with another woman --- one of my ladies in waiting --- but it seemed that the relationship was similarly unconsummated. Others speculated that he was just simply too physically and mentally immature to father a child. Some of our learned doctors even diagnosed him with

    (

    ). Sergei Saltykov, the first of my twelve lovers (oh, how handsome he was!), convinced him to have an operation to correct the condition. You see, once Sergei was involved with me, he became anxious of his own safety. What if I got pregnant? But if Peter had been known to be able to consummate our marriage, who could say that Sergei was responsible? It turned out that my paramour was unnecessarily worried: the empress

    had instructed her minions to provide me with a more reliable male for the purposes of begetting an heir --- and Sergei was one of those considered! Anyway, I soon fell pregnant, resulting in Paul, the long-awaited Romanov heir.

    Many people claimed to see a marked resemblance between my son and my husband, not just in looks, but also in their shared hobby of playing soldier. But whenever I wanted to needle my son, I always said that Sergei Saltykov was his father. We never got on well, Paul and I, perhaps because I rarely saw him during his childhood. The Empress Elizabeth whisked him away right after he was born, smothered him with frustrated maternal love and casted me aside. When my first grandson was born, I contemplated bypassing Paul altogether and make him Tsar Alexander I, but it was not to happen.

    After the empress passed way, Peter briefly got to be Tsar, before he was forcibly deposed by the army, who made me empress instead. Peter idolized Frederick II, the Prussian king who was at war with us, and wanted to make peace with him. The patriotic Russian people hated this radical change in foreign policy and casted their lot with me instead. My then boyfriend, Grigory Orlov (that’s him below, by the way --- isn’t he dashing?), and his brother made sure that Peter was mysteriously dispatched soon after, and I got to gloriously rally the Russian people on horseback wearing the uniform of a colonel of the Preobrazhensky Regiment.

    Boyfriend#3

    The reign of Catherine II officially begins!

    I believed in the strong Russian motherland and added many territories, 520,000 km2 in all, to Peter the Great’s empire. When he was only able to gain a toehold in the south, I completed his conquest by defeating the ailing Turks (and gaining a warm water port, so crucial for Russia, in the process). The former Ottoman territories around the Black Sea, the Ukraine, and Crimea (which the love of my life, Grigory Potemkin, administered as my Viceroy) became Russian possessions. I also partitioned Poland, after putting my second lover, Stanislaus Poniatowski, on the throne of that country (poor sweetie, he actually

    want to be king, imagine that!).

    Boyfriend#2

    On the home front, I tried my best to drag Russia into the modern age. Eighteen years of boredom and loneliness as an unhappily married woman gave me the opportunity to read many books. I imbibed the best ideas of the

    through the writings of M. Montesquieu (whose ideas I pillaged for the

    , the new legal code that I envisioned for Russia), Mr. John Locke (what is more important than our children’s education, especially our girls?) and Signore Beccaria (torture is barbaric!). I corresponded with the best minds in France, including M. Voltaire (he called me “The Star of the North” --- such a sweet man!) and M. Diderot, whose work on his

    I supported, and whose library I purchased --- on the condition that he got to keep it during his lifetime as I thought that it would be so cruel to separate a scholar from his books. M. Diderot actually visited me in St. Petersburg to express his gratitude, the poor sickly man. Unfortunately, many of these progressive ideas proved to be far too advanced for the country, and I had to reassert my absolute powers as the autocrat of all the Russias to prevent the total collapse of the social order, particularly during the savage Pugachev rebellion. That rough Cossack pretended to be my long dead husband --- what insolence!

    The Benevolent Despot in action

    Finally, I must say for myself that as a sovereign I wanted nothing other than what was good for my country, and that I had employed all the powers on my disposal to bring happiness, liberty and prosperity for my subjects. I am aware, however, that I have a number of detractors, who do not hesitate to concoct lies and outright fabrications to sully my good name. They alleged, for example, that the so-called “Potemkin Villages” deceived me during my visit to the Crimea in 1787. My darling Grigory (below --- mwah, mwah!) might have put some fresh paint on some of the settlements that we passed through, but he

    construct whole made-up villages for my benefit. And even if he did, do you think that they could have fooled me, and my whole entourage, which included courtiers, foreign diplomats and even Emperor Joseph II?

    Boyfriend#5

    And as for that unspeakable, much more egregious fabrication--- let us just say that some men were troubled by the fact that there was an accomplished, powerful woman on the throne and would stop at nothing to slander her. Besides, I had had

    handsome young men at my beck and call --- what would I need a horse for?

  • Matt

    Firstly, to answer your most pressing question regarding Catherine the Great, the Empress of Russia from 1762 to 1796:

    Moreover, if you have an abiding interest in the origins of this rumor, Robert K. Massie’s

    will not satiate your deviant interest (it certainly didn't satisfy mine). Massie refuses to engage the slander – born during her own lifetime – at any level.

    Thus, there is not one sentence of horse sex in

    Firstly, to answer your most pressing question regarding Catherine the Great, the Empress of Russia from 1762 to 1796:

    Moreover, if you have an abiding interest in the origins of this rumor, Robert K. Massie’s

    will not satiate your deviant interest (it certainly didn't satisfy mine). Massie refuses to engage the slander – born during her own lifetime – at any level.

    Thus, there is not one sentence of horse sex in nearly 600 pages of text.

    Of other sexual encounters, though, there are many.

    The story of Catherine the Great is filled with sex. There are enough romantic entanglements, sordid liaisons, and passionate affairs to fuel several television seasons on premium cable. There are also dozens of the betrayals, murders, coups, plots and palace secrets that underlie so much of Russia’s imperial history. Massie gives life to them all in a book that balances the literal hugeness of Russia – a stage 1/8 the size of Earth – with an intimate, warts-and-all portrayal of her leaders.

    Born Sophia Augusta Fredericka, a minor German princess, Catherine eventually traveled to Russia to be the wife of Peter III, the future tsar. Her early years in Russia were extremely difficult. She had a volatile relationship with the reigning Russian monarch, Empress Elizabeth, a relationship that actually looks much better in relation to her husband, Peter III, an immature boy of few gifts who treated Catherine horribly. (Massie supports the theory that Peter’s mood, as well as Catherine’s and Peter’s inability to consummate the marriage, stemmed from Peter’s phimosis, a condition marked by a painful tightening of the foreskin).

    In 1762, Empress Elizabeth died and Peter ascended the throne, where he performed as poorly as expected. Just six months into his rein, an alienated Imperial Guard revolted and proclaimed Catherine the Empress. Seizing the moment, Catherine had her husband arrested; Peter III was killed by Alexei Orlov just eight days later, while imprisoned. (Massie finds no evidence that Catherine was involved in ordering Peter’s death).

    Catherine reigned until 1796 in a manner best described as the personification of Montesquieu’s “benevolent despot.” She liked to compare herself to Peter the Great, and she worked to further modernize/Europeanize Russia. She was a patron of the arts and literature; she believed in the value of education; she paid service to enlightenment values and even carried on a lengthy correspondence with Voltaire. During her 34 year reign, she dealt with wars, rebellions, and the fallout of the French Revolution.

    Despite her dalliances with liberalism, though, she was deeply pragmatic. She made some changes to Russia’s serf laws, but left serfdom – a pretty way of saying slavery – firmly in place.

    Massie tells this sweeping story from the ground, through the eyes of those who lived it. This is first and foremost a story about people. The narrative belies the Tolstoyan view of history as an impersonal force. Instead, it focuses on how history is shaped and shifted by ordinary folks with recognizably human abilities and failings, ambitions and desires.

    I am a huge fan of Massie’s books, and I have always appreciated this about him. For this same reason, he his disliked by academics and “serious” students of Russia. After all, Massie is a writer, not a researcher. He relies on secondary sources and translations in crafting his books. He does not write scholarly works.

    For the most part, I think the criticism is generated by Massie’s success. He has amassed an enviable career without ever having to worry about tenure, which certainly must aggravate his critics. But that is not to say that Massie is beyond reproach. Certainly, his lack of facility with primary sources (he uses 4 different translations of Catherine’s

    ) gives me pause.

    More importantly, I question Massie’s objectivity in dealing with his subjects. He tends to be less a biographer than a booster. This is a failing in all of his books. In

    , Massie delights in telling of Peter capering about Europe incognito, but glosses over the Tsar’s order to torture his own son. Similarly, in

    , Massie provides an overly-sympathetic portrait of Nicholas as an inherently decent man in over his depth, rather than the anti-Semitic blunderer he actually was.

    Here, too, Catherine is given the benefit of every doubt. If Massie is required to make a historical judgment call, you can be certain that it will inure to Catherine’s advantage.

    These concerns, however, are a bit esoteric, and are overwhelmed by the sheer joy of being in the hands of an absurdly good storyteller. Quite simply, Massie is on a very short list of authors who have that rare gift of giving life to history. You finish this book with a sense not only of what these famous people have done, but what these famous people were like.

    Massie’s writing style is engaging and graceful, if not elegant. Like Robert Caro, he does not simply focus on his subject, but gives ample time to all the people in his subject’s life. As such,

    treats the reader to fascinating mini-biographies of Johanna, Catherine’s scheming, petty, small-minded mother; Empress Elizabeth, the mother-in-law from hell; and Gregory Potemkin, the greatest of all Catherine’s lovers, who for many years was the most powerful man in Russia.

    The result of Massie’s focus on intertwining personalities is a sense of history unfolding as it happens, rather than a discrete event that happened long ago. The larger perspective tends to get lost, but that’s okay. If I have to choose between a more formal and rigid survey of Catherine’s reign or a detailed recounting of the soap operatic machinations of Catherine’s court, I’m choosing the latter.

    As I said before, this is a book of sex and violence (but no horse sex or horse violence). It provides all the prurient joys of the trashiest novel, yet comes cloaked in the respectability of a weighty tome by a respected author. I don’t know about you, but this is a win-win for me. I’m always on the lookout for a way to satisfy both my lowbrow instincts and my highbrow pretensions. Robert K. Massie’s

    does both.

  • Dem

    Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K Massie is the extraordinary story of an obscure young German princess who travelled to Russia at the tender age of fourteen and rose to become one of

    the most powerful, and captivating women in history.

    I had previously read Massie's

    which was wonderful and I was really interested in reading about Catherine the Great.

    Massie did extensive research on this book. It is Catherine’s detailed and excellent memoirs and letters f

    Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K Massie is the extraordinary story of an obscure young German princess who travelled to Russia at the tender age of fourteen and rose to become one of

    the most powerful, and captivating women in history.

    I had previously read Massie's

    which was wonderful and I was really interested in reading about Catherine the Great.

    Massie did extensive research on this book. It is Catherine’s detailed and excellent memoirs and letters from which Massie quotes liberally which make it possible for him to write such a wonderful detailed portrait of this Woman and her time in history. Mr. Massie writes elegantly and knows how to get the readers attention and I found myself totally invested in this story and its characters.

    I loved reading this book and really learned so much. I spent a lot of time googing places and palaces in Russia that I was totally side-tracked for much of the novel. I did finish the book feeling some compassion for Catherine and her life at court, but I was stunned at the opulence and behaviour of those within the Russian court.

    Lovers of history will not be disappointed with this extensively researched and easy to read story that flows from beginning to end.

  • Matt

    My ongoing exploration of biographies has pushed into yet another realm; women of power. What better way to begin than with a woman who held much power in her time and about whom I know very little? Bring on Catherine the Great of Russia! Robert K. Massie does a sensational job of pulling out a strong and well-rounded story of this most interesting Empress of Russia. She faced hurdles and impediments throughout her life, but always found a way to succeed. While Massie offers the reader numerous

    My ongoing exploration of biographies has pushed into yet another realm; women of power. What better way to begin than with a woman who held much power in her time and about whom I know very little? Bring on Catherine the Great of Russia! Robert K. Massie does a sensational job of pulling out a strong and well-rounded story of this most interesting Empress of Russia. She faced hurdles and impediments throughout her life, but always found a way to succeed. While Massie offers the reader numerous parts to the biography, for the purposes of review, the reader can see her upbringing, marriage, and eventual reign as three key areas worthy of discussion below, all of which interconnect to make her the woman remembered by many in history. Massie's effective arguments and thorough research are a treat for the curious reader, even if little is known about this woman before beginning the journey.

    Born into a somewhat noble (though by no means powerful) family, Sophia Augusta Fredericka of Anhalt-Zerbst was the first-born and yet shunned by her parents. In an era when male heirs were prized, Sophia was forced to live in the shadow of her younger brother, whose health was precarious at the best of times. Sophia was deemed plain and on the verge of ugly by her mother, something that Massie does not refute strongly in his narrative. As was the norm in the era, she would have to be married off in order to bring some wealth and prominence to her family, as Anhalt-Zerbst was by no means significant. Answering a call from Empress Elizabeth in Russia, Sophia and her mother traveled to court. There, negotiations began to join Sophia to the Grand Duke Peter, himself a teenager. While at court, Sophia tried her best to fit in and studied Russian, as well as commencing a conversion from the Lutheran Church to Orthodoxy, the state religion of Russia and long practiced by the Romanovs. While this would surely dilute her ancestral roots, Sophia was willing to do all she could to earn favour with the Empress and Grand Duke. After her conversion, Sophia became Catherine and her future as Empress Consort began.

    Marrying Peter, a man whom she did not love or even particularly care about, was the least of her worries. Catherine's husband had little interest in bringing forth is own heir, as Massie explores, choosing instead to have little Prussian toy soldiers brought to the bed after he and Catherine retired (I cannot refrain from saying that it brings a whole new meaning to 'toys in the bedroom'). Catherine suffered both physical and emotional pains at this flagrant insult to her person, a matrimonial virginity that lasted upwards of nine years. Such rejection took its toll, as well as a number of miscarriages after Peter did consummate the marriage. Both the Grand Duke and Duchess turned elsewhere for their physical needs, with Catherine having at least three men in her life who proved to be significant lovers. Massie goes so far as to stress the depth of these affairs by presenting the reader with the fact that Catherine eventually had children with all three. When Catherine finally bore Peter an heir, they named him Paul and the little one received all the protection due someone in the line of succession. An interesting fact in Russia, the Throne was not passed along by a firm family tree (the tradition of primogeniture). The reigning sovereign was able to choose their successor, as Peter the Great had established when he negated past rules of succession. Elizabeth had chosen her nephew, though she did deeply admire Catherine as well. When Elizabeth died, Peter ascended to the Throne, though he was little known and even less liked by the people. Massie describes Peter III as being belligerent and highly pompous, poor traits for an emperor. He would not engage in conversations and sought to overturn all the major decisions within the state that had been established by Elizabeth. Catherine saw this and knew that she could not remain subservient to a man who treated her so poorly. Massie lays the groundwork for the proverbial last straw when Peter tried to shame his wife at a public banquet. Thereafter, Catherine took matters into her own hands.

    Catherine's formal ascension to the Russian Throne proved interesting and is in line with her hold on power for the length of her reign. Catherine, still stinging from the rebuke in front of so many, organized a coup that overthrew Peter III and saw her take his place. Massie offers a strong narrative for the reader to understand the nuances of this and how Catherine was able to sway the support of the military to her favour before assuming power. Peter III was banished and lost his fight to regain his position, leaving Catherine to begin her lengthy reign. Peter III had only reigned a few months, which made the coup all the more surprising to the outside world. Catherine wasted no time in solidifying her strength both within Russia and on an international scale. Moves to secularise the Church and make priests bureaucrats of the state proved to be a means of lessening the control (and deflating competition) over the population, without banishing religion entirely. Some speculate this was Catherine seeking to give Protestantism a new strength in the country, though this is not entirely supported. She revisited the idea of serfs and the nobility, in an era when slavery remained rampant around the world (especially in the soon to be created United States), though these were not subjugated people of a different culture or ethnicity. On a grander scale, Massie speaks of Catherine's desire to continue ruling as an autocrat, but still have the input of the people who so loved her. Catherine formed a loose advisory board, where representatives could meet and debate various issues of importance to Russia. However, when representatives got caught up in the minutiae, nothing was forthcoming and the collective dissolved with little to show for itself. (It was at this gathering that Catherine was given the title 'The Great', which might indicate that they did something that pleased the Empress!) Surely concerned with her subjects, Massie explores how Catherine handled many health crises within Russia, from smallpox to the plague and many other situations in between. She was by no means wanting to ignore those under her, but did remain isolated so as not to catch what was in the air. On the international front, Catherine returned to her roots and solidified an alliance with Prussia and its monarchy, as Massie seems to insinuate that Anhalt-Zerbst falls under or close to the Prussian lands. Europe was still teetering between a number of alliances, which could turn a single fallen domino into a full-blown war. Russia kept things peaceable and forged ahead with Prussia, turning to small Poland and carving out chunks to strengthen their respective empires. Catherine remained ruler in all but name of Poland, choosing its kings and keeping a close eye on the situation there. While she kept Russian land interests in mind and the military strong, Catherine made sure her people did not forget other Romanov rulers who had helped make Mother Russia strong, erecting monuments and statues of those who came before her. The waning years of Catherine's reign seemed to be a time to remember others and prepare for the end of her own life. It had surely been a full and remarkable reign, which Massie asserts was by no means bland.

    As I entered this biography, I could not have told you much about Catherine or what she did for Russia. Massie helps with his attention to detail and significant research on both the region and its ruler. While I remain flummoxed by the number of names, geographic regions, military campaigns, and even historical alliances, Massie uses a detailed narrative to navigate through all this and help me see Catherine's place. That this Empress was a significant figure in Russian history is not lost on me, nor is that she was the last female ruler of the country (after her son, Paul, reinstated primogeniture). Much like some of the other strong females I hope to discover in my biography journey, Catherine leaves an indelible mark on history. Massie is also a biographer to which I will surely return, as his interest in Russia is one that will prove very telling in these trying political times.

    Kudos, Mr. Massie for bringing Sophia Augusta Fredericka of Anhalt-Zerbst to life for me. You have a wonderful way with words and prove that European history is full of intricate details that can be compared effectively to the modern political scene. This book solidifies that Catherine surely earned her moniker, while the current autocratic ruler of the country is anything but formidable.

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