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



It is tempting to hurl the usual plaudits at Robert Massie, the closest thing we have to an official biographer of Russian royalty, and be done with it. “Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman,’’ which fills the gap between Massie’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Peter the Great’’ and his books about the end of the Romanov dynasty, is exhaustively researched and dramatically narrated, bridging the complexity of 18th-century geopolitics and the nuance of personal relationships. And yet the book’s very thoroughness serves at times to undermine the claims Massie seeks to make. Catherine certainly makes an entrancing subject. Born Sophia into a minor German noble family, she rose to become Russia’s great Catherine, one of the most powerful rulers of her time. As empress she commanded political and military matters with a firm hand, patronized the arts and letters to grand effect, and consorted with a dozen handsome courtiers and military men to boot. Add famously disputed questions - Who really fathered her children? How much responsibility did she bear for the coup that ended her husband’s brief reign and placed her on the throne, not to mention his subsequent assassination? What about the horse? - and you have the makings of a biographical blockbuster. Massie approaches this material definitively. He presents Catherine as a woman driven by the cruel neglect of her mother, Princess Johanna Elizabeth, who was beautiful, aspirational, “shallow,’’ and cursed with “irritability’’ and a “quick temper.’’ Johanna’s disappointment at bearing a daughter was underscored by her dramatic preference for the son who came next. According to Massie, Catherine’s “rejection as a child helps to explain her constant search as a woman for what she had missed’’ - that is, “the elemental creature warmth’’ and approval her mother failed to provide, which she sought in platonic relationships with thinkers like Voltaire and Diderot and decidedly non-platonic relationships with those dozen lovers, including, most famously, Gregory Potemkin. If Massie presents Catherine as permanently wounded, he also promotes her as exemplary. Plain as a child but increasingly attractive, highly intelligent from the earliest age, a voracious reader as she got older, “a cheerful child’’ and “a natural leader,’’ Catherine is set on an inevitable trajectory toward greatness, and Massie’s enthusiasm hardly flags, even as the events he describes do not always fit his arguments. Brought to Russia as a teenager and married off by the Empress Elizabeth Petrovna to her awkward, unattractive, and increasingly bizarre nephew and heir, Peter (who trained dogs in his private apartments, organized his servants into military parades, and refused to consummate the marriage), Catherine was at first enchanting and anxious to please: the ideal princess bride. But as her marriage disintegrated and she fell out of favor with Elizabeth, she became increasingly independent, strategically cultivating political alliances and taking the lovers Massie asserts fathered her children, though other biographers find the historical record more ambiguous. ...

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