Catherine the Great, 1729-1796: Great-ish.

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman
Robert K. Massie,  574 pages, Random House

They don’t make biographers like this anymore. Usually these days the ability to write clear English is much less and the tendency to promulgate unsupported speculation is much greater, than in the last decades of the twentieth century. That was when Massie published the bestseller which made his name, Nicholas and Alexandra.

The same qualities that propelled Massie to the top then are evident in his prose now. He may not be a great writer of lyrical sentences. Consider his description of the day that Catherine usurped the crown of Russia from her husband Peter III: “That afternoon at Peterhof was warm and sunny, and the lesser members of Peter’s entourage remained on the terraces near the cool spray of the fountains or wandered through the gardens under the cloudless summer sky.”

But what Massie lacks in originality or suppleness as a writer, he makes up for in narrative flow. There are few non-fiction writers out there now who know how to maintain pacing with researched material half so well as Massie does. He taughtens the rope of his story or slackens it as the attention of his readership rises or falls. This at a time when – courtesy e books statistics- it’s apparent that most readers of non-fiction abandon books in only a few chapters.

Massie is a pro, trained in world of journalism, and once he has hooked a reader, he never lets go. That in itself is admirable.

What about Massie the historian? Well, he himself says that he made an awful lot of use of the archives at Sterling memorial Library at Yale. The first part of the book would be lost without The Memoirs of Catherine the Great.  Hard to avoid this, but if there’s a cavil, it may be that Massie here does not trouble to consider for long the opposite side of the Catherine coin.  He pretty much validates Catherine’s passport to posterity with the legitimate enlightened ruler stamp, and that may not be entirely fair. Even handed as Catherine usually was with political opponents, she was, or people in her faction were, murderously ruthless to rival claimants to the throne. Her overthrown spouse Peter III survived his wife’s accession by…seven days.

(Compare this to the pathetic Ivan VI, locked up from infancy by his own mother, Catherine’s predecessor, Elizabeth. Ivan survived his mother and Peter (who released him on compassionate grounds), but survived only two years under Catherine.  His guards, heretofore mere custodians, ran him through eight times. “The ways of God are wonderful beyond prediction,” said the relieved Empress when she heard what had happened to this helpless rival and legitimate heir to the throne. Diction can be a remarkably flexible medium for human thought.)

It also seems probable that the Romanov line ends with Peter III and Ivan VI. Catherine’s son, the Emperor Paul was most likely the bastard son of Catherine by her  lover Sergei Saltykov, a likelihood that Massie acknowledges but does not stress. Nor does he make much of the fact that, having overthrown her husband, Catherine made no move to become the more respectable and expected regent until her son’s majority.

Catherine ruled an empire with a population of twenty million, half of whom were serfs. De facto slaves owned by the landowners whose property they worked. They were not a centuries old tradition, but only bound to the land by Boris Godunov in legal reforms of 1649. But as with many fundamentally unjust but economically advantageous institutions, serfdom was enthusiastically endorsed by those who profited from it, among whom at the time, the Russian Orthodox Church was one, owning, according to Massie, approximately a million serfs. Catherine, the enlightened correspondent of Diderot and Voltaire funked the slavery issue in Russia in a way her murdered husband did not.* They were not liberated until Catherine’s great grandson Alexander II in 1861, a handy four years before the United States did the same for her slaves.

So what to make of this woman?  It’s hard to say, but considering some of her behavior, well, if this is benevolence and enlightenment, one would hate to think what constitutes cruelty. And if one didn’t know better, some of these actions might belong to a villainess – but then, successful usurpers do tend to get the last word on their own conduct.  At least, in their own lifetimes….

*Peter III also abolished the secret police, declared freedom of religion, permitted the aristocracy to travel abroad, made court proceedings public, abolished mandatory military service of the aristocracy – directives that Catherine reversed.

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