Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Catherine The Great

Catherine The Great: Portrait of a Woman
 by Robert K. Massie, Random House, November 2011

Massie really can write history that reads like fiction.

Massie has taken the well know story of Catherine and written a highly readable Russian history. Catherine, whose baptismal name was Sophie was a teenager when she was brought to Russia by Empress Elizabeth to become the wife of Grand Duke Peter, heir to the Russian throne. When Sophie arrived she was unable to speak Russian, knew nothing of the customs and was directed to convert to the Orthodox religion from her German Lutheranism. She took the Russian name Caterina. Catherine’s marriage was deeply unhappy and the union remained unconsummated for 10 years. During that time she educated herself in all things Russian and worked to give herself a classical education corresponding with Voltaire, Grimm and Diderot. Catherine did produce a son but no one thought that Peter was the father. Evidently this was an unimportant detail in 18th century Russia. Her son Paul was recognized as a member of the royal family and in line for the throne.

When Peter finally came to the throne his reign was short and dysfunctional. In a coup he was removed from the throne and Catherine declared Empress. In 1762 she began her 35 year rule of Russia. She reigned with compassion and intelligence. She worked to improve medicine in Russia, becoming the first to be inoculated against smallpox and ensuring the vaccine was available in Russia. She amassed a collection of European art that even today is unrivaled. She instituted a legal code and extended the boundaries of the empire to borders that stood until 1991. She built schools and orphanages and developed curricula that provided for a broad education for those lucky enough to get schooling.

Catherine’s personal life was also fascinating. Massie identifies over 10 men who were her lovers. She was passionate in all aspects of her personal life. In addition to ensuring her lovers had a pretty face she looked for intellectual stimulation. She was serially monogamous. Her most serious and long standing relationship was with Gregory Potemkin. Massie postulates but doesn’t prove that Catherine and Potemkin were married. They remained lifelong friends and allies. She enabled him to essentially rule southern Russia, developing the city of Odessa to give Russia a port on the Black Sea.

This 600 page story flew by for me. Massie really can write history that reads like fiction. Strongly recommended for those who love history!

I read a copy of this novel supplied by the Amazon Vine program


Anonymous said...

I have read Massie's books on the Romanovs and loved them, so I am definitely interested in this one!

Zibilee said...

I have this book, and am eager to get to it. I know so little about Catherine, and have heard really great reports on this one, so I am excited. It seems like you really loved it as well! Great review!