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

Catherine the Great by Robert K. Massie
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it was amazing

I raved about Robert Massie's biography on last Russian tsar and tsarina, Nicholas and Alexandra, and it was one of my favourite reads last year. In it, Massie briefly mentioned that Peter the Great had abolished the law of primogeniture, which required succession of the throne to be male only, starting with the first-born son. As a result, Russia had three empresses in succession: Anna Ioannovna, Elizabeth Petrovna, and Catherine II. The latter two rose to become autocrat through seizing power from weaker rulers (Elizabeth took the throne from Empress Anna, and Catherine took it from her husband Peter III). Catherine the Great's son Paul apparently hated his mother so much that when he inherited the throne after her death, he abolished Peter the Great's law, and once more the Russian throne only went to male heirs. Had the Pauline Laws not been established, Russian history might look a bit different.

After reading Massie's note, I became curious about the relationship between Catherine II and her son Paul, as well as about the Empress herself. I knew very little about Catherine II outwith the nonsense view of history that scorned her for openly taking lovers and depicted her as nothing more than a sexually perverted woman with silly penis furniture, and claimed she died while having sex with a horse. Good grief.

Just like Nicholas and Alexandra, Massie's Portrait of a Woman is a meticulously researched and sensitively written account of a philosopher Empress, whose wit and intellect far exceeded those among the Russian court. She came to Russia to marry Peter III, an impulsive, childish buffoon (Dura!, Peter. Dura!) who emotionally neglected her on his best days and publicly humiliated her on his worst. Catherine's early years in Russia are full of isolation and loneliness, and she sought small moments of comfort and intimacy with several lovers, a few of whom fathered her children, and one of whom was instrumental in the eventual coup d'etat against her universally loathed husband.

As Empress, Catherine was forced to realise that all of the Enlightenment philosophies she believed in on paper were impossible to implement in real-life Russia. She constantly tread a fine line with those in her court who believed her a usurper who murdered her husband to seize power. If she implemented too much change, she risked a revolt, and these limitations were a constant source of dissatisfaction. She wrote the Nakaz, her lawbook intended to transform Russia into a culture run by Enlightenment principles, only to have that precious work torn apart by religious leaders and nobles who cared only about maintaining the status quo.

Yet despite these limitations, she transformed Russia. She was a great lover of the arts, of modern medicine, and philosophy. Massie also depicted her as a woman who was, ultimately, very lonely, too. She was so devoted to running her beloved adopted country that her own health and happiness always came second. She took lovers in a meagre attempt to bring some happiness to her own personal life -- in those few hours she had to herself during the night. And yet her lovers were never satisfied because Catherine the Great's first and true love was always, until her death, Russia.

Like Nicholas and Alexandra I highly recommend this. Perhaps it's less dramatic, but certainly no less interesting.
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Reading Progress

July 11, 2017 – Started Reading
July 11, 2017 – Shelved
July 11, 2017 – Finished Reading

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