Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman

In these days of Occupy Wall Street, when it seems the long-suffering serfs of the Western world are finally rising against the corporate monarchy, it is either dislocating or highly serendipitous to be given the consummate biography of a woman who ruled over earth’s largest empire in the eighteenth century. Catherine the Great commanded unimaginable wealth and power. Her world is both far from ours, an impossible fiction, and right next to it.

She was the daughter of a German prince and an ambitious mother with slender strands of connection to the Russian throne that were reeled in with steely determination. When, in 1744, Sophia Augusta Fredericka was fourteen, her mother’s efforts finally engineered a summons to bring the girl to Russia as a potential bride for Grand Duke Peter Ulrich, the heir of Empress Elizabeth — that is to say, as an incubator for the next heir. This bizarre fact, from an ever-higher tower of incredible details, is what gives Robert K. Massie’s expansive life of Catherine its particular power: it is a “portrait of a woman” rather than “of an empress” because the eminent, Pulitzer-winning historian of Russian royalty (Peter the Great and Nicholas and Alexandra) understands that what is most fascinating is not the story even of passing strange institutions but that of the very human individuals who became captive to them. And so we are offered the full menu of feminine concerns, including but not limited to sexual liaisons (Catherine had twelve lovers, her husband the least of them) and matters of dress (at her wedding she wore a “horribly heavy” crown that gave her a headache but which she was forbidden to remove, and a silver brocade gown encrusted with silver roses; the person inside this tinseled affair was further festooned with sparkling earrings, bracelets, brooches, and rings). She would not have lasted longer than any other female ruler of the empire — from 1762 until her death in 1796 — if she had not used both intellect and wiles to make of herself something more than a simple end user, however.
It begins as a byzantine story of lineage. As the author says of the situation after the death of Peter the Great in 1725, he could equally say of the whole complex of European nobility: every death and every marriage “plunged the already complicated Russian succession into greater confusion.” For the modern reader already in need of a flowchart, the habit of changing names when exchanging crowns additionally complicates the complicated. One day in 1705, Martha of Latvia became Catherine I; Sophia would follow the trend to become Catherine II.

For an incipient empress, Massie demonstrates, life is not all diamonds and caviar, though there are exorbitant amounts of those. There are life-squelching demands for conformity: the teenage girl was forced to renounce her Lutheran faith in favor of Orthodoxy upon her arrival in Moscow, where she was to be groomed as a mate for an odd and unappealing young man (Peter was brutalized by his tutor, so he in turn tormented whoever he could, including small animals). She also paid for her wealth and promise of power with years of intense loneliness. Her friends were chosen for her and banished at the empress’s will; her husband came to hate her and preferred playing with toy soldiers to giving her the pregnancy she was blamed for not achieving. Later still, the cost of ascending the throne was having to learn who she needed to eliminate before they had a chance to eliminate her. There was no reclining, figuratively at least, on silken divans. Perhaps most cruelly, she lived through what amounted to the kidnapping of her three children; she had been brought to court as a royal brood mare, an unsavory fact made plain when each baby in turn was taken from her immediately after birth. Still, she moved with grace through this most difficult obstacle course to become a largely beloved sovereign (though always in danger from those who favored a native son) as well as a thoughtful student of Voltaire, Diderot, and Montesquieu.

The lonely years served her well, for she used them to read. One wonders if Machiavelli was among the authors she surveyed: she came to power after her inept husband wore the crown for only six months; he died within days of a bloodless coup d’état that left Catherine suspiciously blameless but in possession of that which her whole life, it appears in retrospect, had been directed toward. A trajectory this impressive makes well over 500 pages appear a condensed account.

In the end, this fascinating and self-created woman, who expanded the borders of her empire by some 200,000 square miles and reigned over what is considered the Golden Age of Russia, made substantive changes to the system of monarchy. She spent two years rewriting the Russian legal code. Her Nakaz of 1767, drawn from Enlightenment philosophy, was published to extraordinary acclaim. In the telling, Massie redresses what initially seemed a strange omission: a chapter devoted to the institution of serfdom. The presence of millions men and women in bondage is only a ghostly supposition in the first half of the book, with its recitation of ruble-heavy retainers, gifts of jewels and titles, banquets and the aforementioned finery, gown after gown. Just who had supplied all that capital in the first place?

The author has written a popular history in the sense that it is thoroughly engaging to read: this is People magazine for the educated set — those with a taste for summer palaces instead of Malibu, the pressures of governance over the distress of canceled series. It is a feat of magic to bring a person back from the distance of nearly 300 years in such vibrant specificity that we see her (“On the morning of Sunday, July 30, she drove through the streets to the Kremlin, sitting alone in a gilded carriage”) and know her. Reading such history is a peculiar pleasure all its own: the sensation of being drawn through time as if on a carnival ride; the complexities of factions and factors building layer upon layer; attaining the privileged view where one sees just how everything is connected, and where politics and personalities collide. History is, after all, made by people. Some of them are like some of us. Our time just waits for its own literate historian to show us who was great, and why.