Sophia Augusta Fredericka was not joyfully welcomed into the world by her parents, Johanna and Christian Augustus. Instead, she was an instant disappointment by virtue of being female. Her father, a mid-level German prince, had been hoping for an heir. Nevertheless, by age thirty-three, Sophia had converted to Eastern Orthodoxy, had become both a mother and a widow, had changed her name, and had been crowned Catherine II, empress of Russia.
Robert K. Massie's thorough and readable biography, Catherine the Great, draws a complex portrait of the often-misunderstood empress. Relying on primary sources (including Catherine's diaries and letters) and firsthand accounts, Massie unveils the personal and private sides of one of Russia's strongest leaders. This fascinating and accessible narrative transports us to heart of the eighteenth-century Russian court, providing an intimate look at the people, places, and events important to Catherine during her half-century tenure in her adopted country.
From a young age, Catherine focused her keen mind and desire to learn on her dream of becoming powerful. Thus, after a lifetime of being manipulated and used by those who should have most loved and protected her, Catherine didn't hesitate when she finally saw her chance to imprison her husband and claim the throne in her own right, pushing aside her young son.
Despite her selfish rise to power, Catherine was generous to her supporters and was slow to entangle her country in war. In addition, thanks to her intellectual curiosity, she corresponded with and met some of the prominent Enlightenment thinkers of her time and collected the art that formed the core of The Hermitage Museum. Although the realities of governing a diverse country brought her thoughts of freeing the serfs to a halt, she was able to make improvements in healthcare and modernized many towns and cities, bettering the lives of at least some of her subjects.
Even though it's clear that Massie has a high regard for Catherine the Great, he presents a balanced account. Some of her less admirable facets are the following: (1) She could be stubborn, vengeful, and incredibly vain. (2) She was not a nurturing parent. (3) And in an interesting twist of irony, she thwarted her granddaughter's marriage to the future king of Sweden because she refused to permit the girl to become Lutheran, conveniently forgetting that she herself was forced to convert from the Lutheran church to Orthodoxy against the wishes of her own parents before she could marry the future emperor of Russia.
I would be remiss if I didn't comment on two aspects of Catherine's life that I wish Massie had addressed. The first has to do with Catherine's reputation for having an insatiable sex drive. While Massie did name and describe all twelve or so of the empress's lovers, he did not discuss how or why her reputation was tarnished over the years. Catherine was not promiscuous and practiced serial monogamy. Her affairs were not secrets, and in fact, her first extra-marital relationship was encouraged by Empress Elizabeth in an effort to produce an heir. I'm left wondering how, why, and when public opinion of Catherine's sexual life morphed from accepted (or at least tolerated) court behavior to becoming the butt of rude jokes.
The second issue is how few pages were devoted to the American Revolution. In fact neither the American Revolution nor the United States appears in the index. Surly Catherine, a student of the Enlightenment, must have had strong feelings about the birth of the new nation. I understand that the French Revolution (which has its own chapter) had a more direct and personal impact on Catherine, but again, I am left wondering.
Despite these two personal disappointments, I applaud Massie's skills. Catherine the Great was a multidimensional, complex woman who lived and ruled at time when the political and cultural atmosphere of Europe was radically changing. Massie unravels the tangled threads, creating a clear and fascinating story of a woman who would be empress.
Audio note: I both read and listened to Catherine the Great. The unabridged audio edition (Random House Audio; 23 hr, 52 min) was read by Mark Deakins. Deakins's pacing and inflections were well matched to the biography, and I appreciated the way he subtly changed his tone to signal quotations and extracts. In addition, he seemed to handle the pronunciation of Russian, Latin, French, and German with ease. Highly recommended.
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