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Book Review: Catherine the Great

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman

by Robert K. Massie

Random House, 2011

Right at the half-way mark in Robert Massie’s supple, fantastic new life of Catherine the Great, his subject’s life changes forever:

She sat on the throne of Peter the Great and ruled an empire, the largest on earth. Her signature, inscribed on a decree, was law and, if she chose, could mean life or death for any one of her twenty million subjects. She was intelligent, well read, and a shrewd judge of character. During the coup, she had shown determination and courage; once on the throne, she displayed an open mind, willingness to forgive, and a political morality founded on rationality and practical efficiency. She softened imperial presence with a sense of humor and a quick tongue; indeed, with Catherine more than with any other monarch of her day, there was always a wide latitude for humor. There was also a line not to be crossed, even by friends.

Fans of Massie’s previous books – his phenomenal Nicholas and Alexandra, his Pulitzer Prize-winning Peter the Great, or his massive, enthralling study of Europe in the run-up to the First World War, Dreadnought, will recognize immediately in that paragraph the hallmarks of Massie’s easy, consummate skill. Catherine the Great (despite its dippy sub-title) is full of that skill, that dramatist’s eye, and that raconteur’s feel for the balance of narrative and quip.

Catherine, a Prussian bride to a Russian prince, is a rich source of such quips despite having led a mostly miserable life until a palace coup put her on the throne in 1762, and Massie deploys them with self-evident glee, as when Catherine received an intemperate ultimatum from Gustavus III of Sweden, demanding back certain territories annexed by Peter the Great – Catherine rather plaintively asked, “What have I done that God should choose to chastise me with such a feeble instrument as the King of Sweden?”

Massie is as thorough as ever (this biography completely supplants Henri Troyat’s Catherine La Grande from 1977, even in terms of its strongest point, its readability), covering all the signal events, including scientific advances, plague, diplomacy, the tedium of imperial paperwork, and a positively unladylike swarm of wars, border disputes, and invasions. But the strongest element of the book is the author’s unabashed humanism and his eager willingness to keep Catherine the human being squarely before our eyes.He paints a picture of her court that will confound Cold War readers who’ve convinced themselves that despots can’t be happy; proceedings (once her ogre of a husband had been couped at Catherine’s court, when evoked by the right author, still have the power to excite envy (in a way that her contemporary George Washington’s ice-cold Presidential levies certainly could not) – as when Massie describes the atmosphere of the private dinners Kathering would hold at her beloved Hermitage:

During these gatherings, her long-standing rules remained in force: formality was banned; it was forbidden to rise when the empress stood; everyone talked freely; bad tempers were not tolerated; laughter was required.

Like any really good storyteller, Massie is easily capable of distracting himself along the course of his long narrative. Positively everything about the period interests him, from the manufacture of soap to the distribution of free food to the bubonic plague that struck Russia during Catherine’s reign – he even spares a couple of pages to ruminate on that scariest of all historical digressions: whether or not people who’ve been decapitated retain consciousness just long enough to know what just happened to them:

… was death by guillotine so instantaneous as to be truly painless? Some believe not. They argue that because the blade, cutting rapidly through the neck and spinal column, had relatively little impact on the head encasing the brain, there may not have been immediate unconsciousness. If this is true, should one believe that some victims were aware of what was happening? Witnesses of guillotining have described blinking eyelids and movements of the eyes, lips and mouth. … But in that flicker of time, was there consciousness?

He eventually concedes that we will never know the answer, but it hardly matters: the fun comes from watching him unfold the question.

But of course the main presence here is Catherine herself – a ruler of immense power and formidable dignity. Throughout his writing career, Massie has specialized in showing us the flesh-and-blood humans behind the marble icons, and in this regard, Catherine the Great is easily his best book since Peter the Great. Lovers, courtiers, statesmen – all have their roles to play, and all are describe well and treated fairly, but none is so eagerly defended as the lady on the throne. In her Memoirs, she writes, “I couldn’t live for a day without love,” and lines like that have made her the favorite rumor-magnet of the ages. But Massie not only strictly re-sizes those rumors, he time and again makes the case for the woman beneath the rumors:

Love has many forms, however, and she did not mean sexual love alone, but also companionship, warmth, support, intelligence, and, if possible, humor. And also respect – not just the respect automatically due an empress, but the admiration a man gives an attractive woman. As she grew older, she wanted assurance that she could still attract a man and keep his love. … When Catherine dismissed lovers, it was not because they lacked virility but because they bored her.

(Massie somewhat debonairly adds, “One need not be an empress to find it impossible to talk in the morning to a person with whom one has spent the night)

Catherine the Great has been rolled out by Random House in a beautiful, understated hardcover clearly designed to be stacked on the front tables of the nation’s bookstores under a sign that says ‘Great Gift Ideas for the Holidays.’ This approach may very well be heartless capitalism at its most opportunistic, but in this case, it’s to be commended. Anything that brings this luminous book to its widest possible audience is to be commended.