John's Reviews > Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman

Catherine the Great by Robert K. Massie
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's review
Jul 02, 12

Read from June 19 to July 02, 2012

Catherine, born Sophia in second-tier German nobility, certainly didn't seem destined for greatness. She was brought to Russia at age 14 by the Empress Elizabeth for the sole purpose of marrying Elizabeth's nephew Peter, the designated next tsar, and bearing a future heir to the throne.
Peter was the grandson of Peter the Great, but this Peter was not so great. He was infantile and sometimes sadistic -- not a good combination, particularly in someone wielding a certain amount of power. The only thing he did in bed, or at least in bed with Catherine, was play with toy soldiers. When she finally had a child, Peter was not the father.
When Elizabeth died and Peter became Peter III, he quickly managed to offend two major constituencies: the military and the church. And the military, at least, realized he was not fit to rule and that Catherine was much better-suited. So the military, and particularly the four Orlov brothers, engineered a coup, making Catherine the new empress.
Even more unlikely, given her family background and lack of preparation, was how brilliantly Catherine ruled Russia for close to 40 years. She was remarkably enlightened, writing her "Nakas" ("Instruction") before the U.S. Constitution, even before the Declaration of Independence. The ideas weren't original with her by any means, and even much of the content was borrowed. (Catherine never claimed originality.) But for an 18th century monarch to embrace and even champion such liberal ideas was amazing. Among other things, she rejected torture in general and particularly as a means of obtaining confessions.
"What right can give anyone authority to inflict torture upon a citizen when it is still unknown whether he is innocent or guilty?" she wrote. "By law, every person is innocent until his crime is proved."
Ascending to the throne at a time of national want, Catherine put the needs of her country ahead of her own interests, as Massie points out:
On her fourth day as empress, she was present at a session of the Senate which began with reports that the treasury was empty and that the price of grain had doubled. Catherine replied that her imperial allowance, amounting to one-thirteenth of the national income, should be used by the government. "Belonging herself to the nation," she said, she considered that everything she possessed belonged to the nation.
She addressed the grain shortage by banning export of grain; the price came down within two months.
Catherine's personality went far beyond being an astute ruler. She loved good conversation and she loved to laugh. She declined the ceremonial niceties to which she was entitled. She was pen pals with Voltaire, and she became Europe's foremost art collector.
As with Massie's portraits of Peter the Great and Nicholas and Alexandra, "Catherine the Great" is thorough to the point of occasionally getting a bit tedious. That's particularly true when it comes to the accounts of Catherine's dozen lovers, including the capable by annoying Gregory Potemkin.
Overall, though, it's a splendid biography, and it left me convinced that Catherine must have been one of history's greatest rulers.
And I have to add that if there's an award for book cover design, I hope the person who designed this book's cover gets it.
Kudos to the publisher for that, but the book could have benefited from more maps and from a timeline for easy reference.

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