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Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman

Robert K. Massie

(Random House; US: Nov 2011)

The last lines of Robert K. Massie’s book Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman refer to the life of Catherine the Great, but these lines could just as easily apply to the biography itself. Massie ends the approximately 570 page story by stating: “It was a long and remarkable journey that no one, not even she, could have imagined when, at fourteen, she set off for Russia across the snow.”


That’s part of the magic of this biography. Most readers probably know that Sophia Augusta Fredericka of Anhalt-Zerbst is going to become Catherine the Great or, as Massie notes, her preferred title: Catherine the second. Readers recognize (or read the book jacket and learn) that the child they meet in the opening section of the book is going to, at some point in time, rule Russia, become a major patron of the arts, correspond with Voltaire, Frederick the Great, Marie Antoinette and John Paul Jones, and just generally become one of the most powerful women in the world.


Still, at times, such as when Catherine’s mother Johanna proved troublesome or when Peter the III, her husband-to-be, contracted the measles and then smallpox, it seemed unlikely that Catherine would even marry into the royal family. And after the wedding, when the Empress Elizabeth (who was also now one of Catherine’s in-laws) “isolated” the young couple from almost all visitors, friends, and servants, forcing Catherine and Peter to spend all their time together in small quarters in hopes they would produce an heir, it seemed even less likely that Catherine would ever become “the Great.”  This is particularly true given some of Peter’s hobbies and eccentricities; for example, he liked to play with toy soldiers:


“The toys were hidden in and under the bed and Peter played with them only at night. After supper, Peter undressed and went to bed; Catherine followed. As soon as both were in bed, Madame Krause, who slept in the next room, came in, locked their door, and brought out so many toy soldiers dressed in blue Holstein uniforms that the bed was covered in them. Whereupon Madame Krause, then in her fifties, joined Peter in moving them around as he commanded.”


The magic also comes from Massie’s ability to transport his audience to another time and place. His description of Catherine having a tooth pulled was enough to make me set down the book and wish the image away. Massie’s description of a winter scene will most likely stay with readers for another (more pleasant) reason:


“In January in northern Russia, everything vanishes beneath a deep blanket of whiteness. Rivers, fields, trees, roads, and houses disappear, and the landscape becomes a white sea of mounds and hollows. On days when the sky is gray, it is hard to see where earth merges with air. On brilliant days when the sky is a rich blue, the sunlight is blinding, as if millions of diamonds were scattered on the snow, refracting light…”


Equally admirable are Massie’s astute and usually understated observations. He briefly leaves the 18th century during his examination of the guillotine and the French Revolution. Massie begins by explaining that the guillotine was designed with “the belief that the purpose of capital punishment was the ending of life rather than the inflicting of pain”. His discussion continues, as he notes that “Whether the guillotine was more humane than the axe, the noose, the electric chair, the firing squad, and lethal injection is a medical, as well as a political and moral, question.” He describes several instances that suggest the guillotine was not more humane before concluding: “What awareness, if any, a severed head might have is something that Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, Georges Danton, Maximilien Robespierre, and tens of thousands of others who died by the guillotine may have discovered. We cannot know.”


Another example of Massie’s unique perspective is when he discusses Catherine’s relationship and possible marriage to Gregory Potemkin. He proposes “If they were secretly married and still deeply cared for each other but had agreed on a modus vivendi, it could account for the for the unique authority wielded by Potemkin in Catherine’s Russia…During this time—over fifteen years—he received and returned Catherine’s devoted loyalty and affection. This was true even when both were sleeping with other people.”


If you read the book (and if you have any interest in Russia, Europe, history, women’s studies, or amazingly engaging well-written literature, I would highly recommend it), don’t skip the acknowledgments.  Massie’s final words say, I think, a great deal about him and about the type of literature he writes. He closes: “Finally, I must acknowledge the extraordinary pleasure I have had in the company of the remarkable woman who has been my subject. After eight years of having her a constant presence in my life, I shall miss her.”

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