Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, by Robert K. Massie

Today I'm looking at a biography of Catherine the Great, by far the most powerful and influential female ruler of the eighteenth century. Catherine was born a minor German princess with only the opportunities presented by marriage to improve her lot and satisfy her own ambitions. Married to the heir of the Russian Empire, Catherine embraced her adopted country including its language and religion, earning the respect and admiration of the Russian people. Just three months into her husband Peter's reign, members of the Russian nobility and army gathered around Catherine and supported her coup, establishing her as tsarina of Russia in her own right, and she ruled for over thirty years.

Like all historical figures, Catherine is complicated and not wholly good or bad as a person. In her younger years Catherine embraced the ideals of the Enlightenment and the theory of enlightened despotism, and Catherine actually sought to reform Russia's legal system as well as entertained ideas about the gradual abolition of serfdom. However as Catherine got older, dealt with the frustrations of running Russia, and witnessed the bloody beginnings of the French Revolution, Catherine became increasingly conservative and an even strong proponent of absolute monarchies. The result is a woman as complex as any other person in history.

Overall I think this biography was very good. Catherine was engaged in correspondence with many people at the time so we have a large number of primary sources to draw upon for research and Massie makes use of that. Not only Catherine's own correspondence, but writings from figures such as Voltaire, Frederick the Great, Diderot, and foreign ambassadors to Russia. We get an intimate look at Catherine and her life not only as a monarch but also as a person.

This book does spend considerable time talking about people and subjects other than Catherine, if only to provide necessary context. I remember there were rather lengthy bits talking about the life of her husband, Peter, and the French Revolution just to name a couple topics. Although this does take us away from the narrative of Catherine and her life story, I feel like Massie does make them tie to the life of Catherine so they feel relevant rather than additional information to pad out the book.

Overall I thought this biography was fairly well done. It criticizes Catherine, perhaps a little unfairly when it comes to her lovers, but it doesn't become too hagiographic in its praise either. What we see is a woman, trying to do the best for her country in the eighteenth century. She isn't always successful, but she tries pretty hard and definitely seems worthy of the moniker ''the Great''. If you're looking to learn more about Russian history or Catherine in specific (especially after watching the Extra History videos about Catherine) this is definitely a good book to read.

- Kalpar

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