Review: Catherine the Great by Robert K. Massie

The Thinker by Rodin

Some books you cannot put down, some you plod through half heartedly, some you put down after a few pages and some you read for a while, put down for a long time, then strangely pick up again and actually finish. Catherine the Great by Robert K. Massie fell into the last category for me.

This was in part because the book was a gift. My wife knows that I like histories, and as usual this came from a recommendation by one of her friends. I’ve plodded through all sorts of unlikely histories. I enjoy the occasional history about a famous woman, such as my review of a book on Queen Elizabeth I. Catherine the Great came along about a hundred and fifty years after Queen Elizabeth I. She ultimately does make for an interesting read through the pen of historian Massie. First you must plod through a whole lot of backstory, and I got stuck in the middle of it.

Catherine ruled Russia from 1762 to 1796, a remarkably long span of time for a monarch of her age. Her story is interesting because she was an unlikely monarch. To start with, she wasn’t even Russian. She was born in Prussia, now Germany, as Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg. She did have noble blood in her, but just barely. In many ways by today’s standards her upbringing was quite middle class. Her second cousin was Peter III, a man she widely detested but was convinced to marry. This was because Prussian Emperor Frederick II needed a more lasting alliance, of the biological kind, between Prussian and Russia. Peter was distantly related to Empress Elizabeth and Catherine to Frederick II. Her conniving aunt helped arrange the marriage.

Catherine at least knew to make the most of opportunities. Married to Peter there was at least the prospect that she would become an empress. If not, living a life in a Russian court beat being married to some minor nobleman back in Prussia. She and Peter, who she barely knew, moved to Russia at Empress Elizabeth’s urging and her aunt’s insistence. Empress Elizabeth, the successor and daughter of Peter the Great, made sure they quickly were married. Her goal was grandchildren, but in that sense Peter III was a failure. He was completely clueless on how to consummate a marriage, and Catherine remained clueless as well. Moreover, Catherine detested Peter, who drank heavily, bore pox marks, hated Russia but admired the Prussian military. Upon reaching Russia, Catherine went right to work learning Russian, reading widely, and making friends at court. Catherine was not only unusually intelligent but she was socially gifted as well, agile enough to keep out of the way of the domineering Empress Elizabeth, but clever enough to make the contacts and demonstrate a key grasp of affairs and to win admirers in Elizabeth’s court.

Nonetheless, her primary value was not intelligence but her breeding value. Both she and Peter eventually had to be taught by others how to make love. It’s unlikely that she and Peter actually ever had sex, but she produced an heir nonetheless, courtesy of one of the many lovers during her life.

Those who like a sexy historical romance will find plenty to enjoy in this biography. For once Catherine learned the art of love, she quickly mastered the art of lovemaking. Her royal status allowed her to be quite particular with her lovers. As empress, she had a steady stream of favorites. Her favorites were men who were basically her exclusive lovers. Screwing the empress was not necessarily as fun as it sounded since in addition to putting out like a stud, you basically served as her constant companion as well. Having lovers was by no means scandalous. She was hardly alone among European royalty. In fact, most of the monarchs, male or female, had a steady stream of favorites and consorts that amused them and provided bedroom delights. These lovers also produced children, children she bore and largely did not see.

What had me stop reading the book for many months were the many pages devoted to her husband Peter III. He was, to say it kindly, a most unusual man. Mostly he was a very annoying person: insensitive, thoughtless, ugly, persecuted and incurious but given his backstory and the cruel way he was raised, it was not surprising. You get to see him through Catherine’s eyes and the view is not pretty. Their life, such as it was together, is hard to read. When Empress Elizabeth finally died of a stroke, Peter III ascended to the throne, but only for about six months. He was so detested that his suspicious death after Catherine took over as monarch in a coup was likely from poison. His death was also completely understandable, as he seemed interested in surrendering Russia to the Prussia he felt at home in. Catherine at least knew how to govern as a Russian and work in the best interest of the state.

For her time, Catherine was amazingly progressive. She believed in monarchy but many things about Russian society appalled her, including the conditions of serfs, who were basically slaves. She tried quite hard to institute a constitutional government in Russia by calling together all classes of Russian society to draft such a document. It proved futile and certain things like the relationship between nobility and serfs proved institutionally impossible to change. In most other ways though she governed with amazing aptitude. Russia expanded its territory in wars against Prussia and Turkey. She did not believe in capital punishment, although one exception was made for a traitor. During her reign Russia became about as enlightened as the rest of Europe, a major feat. She opened hospitals in a country that had virtually none, staffed them, set up a system to take care of homeless mothers and orphans, and through trusted aids like Grigory Potemkin managed to turn large parts of Russia, which resembled the Wild West, into peaceful and prosperous territories. She even won Russia a warm water port on the Black Sea.

And yet she was a passionate woman, not just in bed, but also in temperament. She worked long hours, liked to hear differences of opinion and ruled with unusual enlightenment for her time. She wrote of her own foibles to intimates. She was also not infatuated with herself. This was probably due in part to her humble upbringing, and the way that it grounded her in real life.

Catherine turned out to be the last empress Russia would ever have. Many did not approve of Peter the Great’s decision that each monarch could choose their own successor. That is how his daughter Empress Elizabeth got the crown. The men who would follow her, including those who were assassinated like her son, would prove generally inept in a way she was not.

Readers can be forgiven if they skip over many of the chapters involving Catherine’s husband Peter III. If you like history though this is informative. This is my first exposure in any significant depth to Russian history. If the rest of Russian history is as interesting as Catherine’s life and her time as monarch, I’d gladly become a Russian history enthusiast. Moreover, if you are fascinated by examples of great women in power, it is hard to find a better example of a wise and beneficent ruler than Catherine the Great.