Jim Cullen: Review of Robert K. Massie's "Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman" (Random House, 2011)


Jim Cullen, who teaches at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York, is a book review editor at HNN. He is completing a study of Hollywood actors as historians slated for publication by Oxford University Press later this year. Cullen blogs at American History Now.

As someone with little knowledge of 18th century Russian history, I picked up (more accurately, I downloaded) this 600-page book for two reasons. The first is that I wanted to experience the work of a master popular historian at the height of his (octogenarian) powers. The second is that I wanted to gain a better grasp of American history by having a fuller sense of global context. I was rewarded on both counts.

Robert K. Massie first rose to fame a half-century ago on the strength of his Pulitzer-Prize winning dual biography Nicholas and Alexandra (1966), the basis of a successful 1971 movie. Amid other projects, he followed it up with a biography of Peter the Great in 1980. He has now filled in an important piece of the Romanov dynasty with Catherine the Great, who does indeed come off impressively in an account luxuriant with period detail.

As befitting his role of biographer writing for a general audience, Massie focuses a great deal on the circumstances of Catherine's personal life: her origins as a lowly German princess; a childhood at the hands of a passive father and pushy, ambitious mother; a painful (and probably sexless) marriage to Peter III, which ended with a palace coup that placed her on the throne; and a 34-year reign in which she collected a series of courtiers who provided her with advice and companionship (not necessarily in that order).

Given my lack of knowledge of European court politics, I found some surprising currents running through this story. The first was the relative strength of women in 18th century ruling elites. Catherine's own mentor was the Empress Elizabeth, a formidable figure in her own right who survived considerable palace intrigue to rule Russia for two decades. One of Catherine's rivals was Maria Theresa, the wily ruler of the vast Hapsburg dominions. Women, even royal women,  had all kinds of disadvantages in eighteenth century European politics, but their success showed what was possible. At the same time, it's striking to consider that no woman ruled either empire after their deaths.

Catherine governed Russia as an enlightened despot -- enlightened in some literal sense, in that she enjoyed a lively correspondence with figures like Voltaire, Diderot, and other intellectual giants of the age. But the Cossack uprising known as Pugachev's Rebellion in 1773-74, combined with the French Revolution 15 years later, cooled her republican sensibilities. She nevertheless launched an ambitious attempt to reform Russia's legal code and made an effort, ultimately unsuccessful, to improve the status of serfs in the empire. Which is a second surprise: the degree to which even an autocrat could find herself shackled by public opinion and powerful minority constituencies, limits Catherine acutely perceived. Yet she was also the beneficiary of such forces, and exploited them to good effect. The sincerity of her devotion to her adopted country and Orthodox faith was evident to all those who knew her, and played a significant role in the willingness of key players in the Romanov regime to dump her husband in her favor.

Though it's a secondary theme of the book, Massie also makes clear that Catherine's reign coincided with a significant expansion of the Russian empire, both in terms of territory (at the expense of the Turks and Poles), as well as its prestige in European and even global affairs. King George III earnestly sought, without avail, Catherine's military assistance in quelling the American Revolution, and she later hired naval hero John Paul Jones to serve as an admiral on the Black Sea. Navigating her way through alliances with Prussia, Austria, and England, she established a long-sought warm water port for the empire, thanks to the efforts of her adviser and paramour Grigory Potemkin. Massie assertively debunks the belief that Potemkin's rapid development of the region was merely cosmetic, as the commonly used phrase "Potemkin Village" suggests.

I lived with Catherine the Great very comfortably over a period of weeks. Both subject and author are inspiring in the strength of their work ethic and longevity. We should all be so talented and fortunate.

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