Catherine II, “the Great,” Empress of all the Russias from 1762 to 1796 is a favourite subject for biographers. Scholars such as Isabel de Madariaga, author of Russia in the Age of Catherine the Great and Catherine the Great: A Short History, and Simon Dixon, author of Catherine The Great have written about Catherine as a political figure who reformed the Russian code of laws, increased her empire’s stature on the world stage, engaged with eighteenth century intellectual trends in an attempt to rule as an “enlightened despot” and expanded European influence over Russian society according to her predecessor Peter the Great’s ideals.
Popular writers such as Virginia Rounding, author of Catherine the Great: Love, Sex, and Power and Simon Sebag Montefiore, author of Potemkin: Catherine the Great’s Imperial Partner are fascinated by Catherine’s intimate life, particularly her love affairs with prominent Russian courtiers, military men, and a future King of Poland, during a period when the personal lives of most royal women were carefully circumscribed.
In Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, Pulitzer Prize winning historian Robert K. Massie, the author of Peter the Great: His Life and World and Nicholas and Alexandra: The Classic Account of the Fall of the Romanov Dynasty, synthesizes all this recent interest in Catherine’s life and reign into a beautifully written biography that brings Catherine alive as both a political figure and an passionate personality. The first half of the book, which covers Catherine’s unlikely rise to power from her origins as an obscure princess of the tiny German state of Analt-Zerbst, through her marriage to Peter the Great’s grandson, the future Peter III, to the coup that overthrew her husband and brought her to the throne is particularly fascinating.
While portrayals of the Empress in popular culture, most recently films starring Julia Ormond and Catherine Zeta-Jonesshow Catherine triumphing over Peter III soon after her arrival in Russia, Massie is careful to note that her unhappy relationship with her husband lasted eighteen long years before she achieved her political and personal ambitions. Her extensive reading of Enlightenment thinkers and cultivation of prominent courtiers during this period would have a profound influence over her activities and ideology as Empress.
Although Massie uses the famous Memoirs of Catherine the Greatas a central source for his discussion of Catherine’s rise to power, his interpretation is distinct from that of previous popular biographers for his critical analysis of her account. While Peter III has been vilified by Catherine’s previous biographers as boorish and immature on the basis of her depiction of him in her Memoirs , Massie is careful to present a balanced interpretation of his personality and motives, using accounts by foreign diplomats and courtiers who observed the unhappy marriage. Massie even identifies a key moment when Catherine unwittingly transformed an initially friendly relationship with her fiance into the antagonism that would characterize their marriage.
The second half of the book, which details Catherine’s reign skillfully captures the tensions between the Empress’s ideals as a daughter of the Enlightenment, and the realities of governing Russia as an autocrat of dubious legitimacy, dependent on the support of the nobility. Massie analyzes Catherine’s perceived involvement in the double regicide of Peter III and Ivan VI, the partition of Poland, the hopes raised by her interest in legal reform, and the brutal aftermath of the Pugachev rebellion. Massie also attempts to refute some longstanding myths about Catherine, turning a critical eye to accounts of the number of her love affairs and the supposed “Potemkin villages” that were said that to have been built for her tour of the Crimea.
Since Catherine’s relationships with Peter III and his predecessor Empress Elizabeth are discussed in such compelling detail in the first half of Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, I would have been interested to learn more about her troubled relationship with her son Paul and influence over her grandsons, Alexander and Constantine, in the second half of the book. Otherwise, I found Massie’s work to be one of the most fascinating and readable accounts of Catherine the Great’s life and reign. Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman is filled with incisive analysis and dramatic details that capture the famous Empress’s personality and achievements.