Saturday, January 7, 2012
Review of Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert Massie
After reading Robert Massie’s biography of Empress Catherine II of Russia, all I can say is ‘Wow!’ At a whopping 574 pages, Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman is a fantastic and captivating read into one of the most powerful women in history. He dismisses the myths surrounding her sudden rise to power and her thirty-five year reign. No storming the palace with soldiers riding horseback through the corridors as she deposes her husband, Peter III. No wanton duchess seducing military officers to support her and her coup. No unnatural love of horses.
Massive shows a woman, a benevolent monarch, who ruled her massive kingdom through long periods of peace, but when provoked, who could raise a formidable army to quash her foes.
He also shows a woman desperate for love and to be loved. She arrives in Russia at the tender age of fourteen to be betrothed to the future emperor who is cold and indifferent to her. To his credit, Peter III was raised in a series of unfortunate circumstances that left him incapable of love. He basically becomes a pawn by his aunt, Empress Elizabeth, to secure the Romanov line for the throne, but has no interest in ruling Russia.
Catherine has beauty, intelligence and wit, which make her immensely popular with the Russian people. She uses those talents to her benefit. Eventually, she sees that she is more capable, more qualified and more passionate for the throne than Peter.
Once in place as monarch, she sets about making Russia a world power, bringing the country back to its glory days as it was under Peter the Great, her husband’s grandfather.
She became one of the preeminent art collectors in the world. She helped advance medicine, including the smallpox inoculation, and hospital care in Russia. She absolutely detested torture and refused its implementation in interrogation even in extreme cases. Although reluctant to enter war, she massed a considerable army with shrewd military leaders who put down a Cossack revolt and thwarted Turkish advancement. She politely refused King George III’s persistent entreaties to aid England in their war against its American colonies.
Despite her magnificence in ruling a country, she had her flaws. By taking handsome men much younger than her as lovers, she scandalized European courts who thought nothing of a male monarch with young women as mistresses.
I’ve read Massie’s The Romanovs: The Final Chapter (twice) and he treat Catherine the Great with the same respect, candor and warmth as Nicholas and Alexandria.
Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman is a must-read for all students of history.