Pre-twentieth century Russian History. It sounds daunting and, at first glance, the 625-page tome appears to be so.
Massie has a way of sifting through all available information and reshaping the facts he gleans from it into a unique piece of literature. As the blurb sums up both Massie and this biography far better than I could, I’ll leave my usual waffle-y bit out.
All that remains to be said is this: ‘Perhaps the best description of her is that she is a woman as well as an empress’.
The Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Peter the Great, Nicholas and Alexandra, and The Romanovs returns with another masterpiece of narrative biography, the extraordinary story of an obscure young German princess who travelled to Russia at fourteen and rose to become one of the most remarkable, powerful, and captivating women in history.
Born into a minor noble family, Catherine transformed herself into Empress of Russia by sheer determination. Possessing a brilliant mind and an insatiable curiosity as a young woman, she devoured the works of Enlightenment philosophers and, when she reached the throne, attempted to use their principles to guide her rule of the vast and backward Russian empire. She knew or corresponded with the preeminent historical figures of her time: Voltaire, Diderot, Frederick the Great, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria and Marie Antoinette.
Reaching the throne fired by Enlightenment philosophy and determined to become the embodiment of the “benevolent despot” idealized by Montesquieu, she found herself always contending with the deeply ingrained realities of Russian life, including serfdom. She persevered, and for thirty-four years the government, foreign policy, cultural development, and welfare of the Russian people were in her hands. She dealt with domestic rebellion, foreign wars, and the tidal wave of political change and violence churned up by the French Revolution that swept across Europe. Her reputation depended entirely on the perspective of the speaker. She was praised by Voltaire as the equal of the greatest of classical philosophers; she was condemned by her enemies, mostly foreign, as “the Messalina of the north.”
The story is superbly told. All the special qualities that Robert K. Massie brought to Nicholas and Alexandra and Peter the Great are present here: historical accuracy, depth of understanding, felicity of style, mastery of detail, ability to shatter myth, and a rare genius for finding and expressing the human drama in extraordinary lives.
History offers few stories richer in drama than that of Catherine the Great. In this book, this eternally fascinating woman is returned to life.
One mistake that is sometimes made when writing a historical biography is referring to events without contextualizing them. No chance of that here: Massie draws different threads such as Catherine’s feelings/ beliefs, foreign interests, Russian Court intrigues and issues in contemporary Russia together, weighing their impact and the impact of events on these different elements. As a result, one cannot help but have respect for Catherine’s strength of will and her statesmanship, even on occasions when she shows ‘complete misunderstanding’ of a situation, such as when she writes and publishes a pamphlet calling for the release of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette after their second arrest.
At times, Massie goes one step further showing for example, Catherine’s evolving opinion of serf freedom and then going on to say that they had to wait until her grandson’s ascension before they were granted it. The most mind-boggling example of the impact of Catherine’s actions was the partitioning of Poland in 1795. Poland only regained self-governance in 1918 (although I’m willing to debate that point with people), 123 years later. The only mark of my ever having been here in 123 years time will probably be a few dozen plastic bags, rotting in a pile of toxic waste somewhere. Verdict It is a long book, packed with facts and (relevant) anecdotes. Not afraid of taking an extra page or two to describe other noteworthy characters, including John Paul Jones, a Captain in the American Navy during the Revolutionary War. This adds to the rich illustration of Catherine’s life, character and surroundings whilst remaining engaging until the end.
Thank you, Massie for re-introducing me to History! I’m off to find a copy of his ‘Peter the Great’.
Wild Night in: Win!
NB: Read for the European Reading challenge as hosted by rosecityreader