Sunday, November 18, 2012

Catherine the Great

By Robert K. Massie

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert K. Massie has produced a masterful biography of one of the greatest political leaders of the eighteenth century, a century of great empires and powerful leaders.

We witness Catherine’s convoluted ascent from obscure German nobility onto the world stage as Matushka, mother of all Russia. Drawing on extensive memoirs and letters, Massie provides insights into the Empress’s thinking as she schemes and manipulates friends, lovers, and adversaries.

Intensely ambitious and intelligent, Catherine applied her brilliant diplomatic and political skills to making Russia a great power, also amassing one of the world’s great art collections. She embraced the Age of Enlightenment, developing friendships with Voltaire and Diderot. She spent two years creating a new code of laws for Russia, inspired by the writings of Montesquieu. She even considered freeing the serfs, but fears raised by the French Revolution and the Pugachev rebellion in Russia quickly ended such thoughts.

In various ways Catherine’s lovers strongly influenced her reign. In collusion with Prussia’s Frederick the Great, she manipulated her former lover, Stanislaw August Poniatowski, first installing him as King of Poland-Lithuania, later dismantling his realm, which completely disappeared for more than a century, enlarging her own empire in the process. Grigory Orlov, an influential military officer, was instrumental in the overthrow of Catherine’s estranged and mad husband, Emperor Peter III, who reigned for only six months, and in her accession as absolute monarch.

Grigory Potemkin, her lover and principal advisor for 17 years, put down the Pugachev rebellion, and in military action against the Ottoman Turkish Empire, secured the Crimea and Black Sea coast as Russian territory.

In a review in the New York Times, Kathryn Harrison described Massie as “a biographer with the instincts of a novelist.” I certainly found his book to be a page-turner.

- D’Arcy McGee

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