Robert K. Massie, Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman (New York: Random House, 2011), 656 pp., $35.00.
THE SUBTITLE of Robert K. Massie’s biography announces the book’s keynote: it is to be a “portrait of a woman,” perhaps with a nod to Henry James. The epigraph, in the words of the Earl of Buckinghamshire, the British ambassador to Russia in the first years of Catherine’s reign, concurs: “Perhaps the best description of her is that she is a woman as well as an empress.” Massie’s focus is on Catherine’s personal life. More than half the book’s pages are devoted to the period before her accession. Describing Catherine as a woman allows him to exercise the formidable perceptive and stylistic gifts that have distinguished his previous biographies, Nicholas and Alexandra: The Classic Account of the Fall of the Romanov Dynasty and Peter the Great: His Life and World, works that bring Russian rulers and their courts to life and give the reader a sense of witnessing scenes from the past.
Massie evokes Catherine’s personal life and the figures she knew with great skill and in telling detail. But the separation of Catherine as woman from Catherine as empress introduces a misleading duality to our understanding of her personality and her historical significance. Catherine’s personal life served her political goals and unfolded within the context of her status as absolute monarch who played multiple roles in exercising authority to advance the enlightenment and power of Russia. By narrowing his focus, the author diminishes her person and provides only a limited sense of Catherine’s dedicated efforts as an enlightener, lawgiver and reformer of state institutions.
Catherine the Great is particularly well suited to Massie’s talents. Possessing great intellectual gifts, extraordinary ambition and irresistible charm, she combined the charisma of power with a seemingly insatiable sexual appetite. Catherine comes to life in part through Massie’s frequent citation of her memoirs, which chart the course of her personal life in often absorbing detail. Catherine tells us of a neglected and emotionally deprived childhood, a cold and rigid father, and a mother whose affections were for her afflicted older brother, who died at age twelve. Catherine felt disregarded, unloved and homely. Massie concludes that
her rejection as a child helps to explain her constant search as a woman for what she had missed. Even as Empress Catherine, at the height of her autocratic power, she wished not only to be admired for her extraordinary mind and obeyed as an empress, but also to find the elemental creature warmth that her brother—but not she—had been given by her mother.
Catherine’s rise from the neglected daughter of a minor German prince to the throne of the Russian Empire is indeed an amazing one, combining the pathos of a Cinderella tale with an epic narrative of triumph. With the encouragement of Frederick the Great, who sought diplomatic advantages for Prussia, Empress Elizabeth of Russia (the daughter of Peter the Great) brought the fourteen-year-old Princess Sophia of Anhalt-Zerbst to St. Petersburg to prepare her to wed Peter’s grandson, Grand Duke Peter of Holstein-Gottorp, then fifteen years old. In the absence of a law of hereditary succession, Elizabeth had designated young Peter heir to the throne. This was expedient because in 1722, Peter the Great had replaced the customary practice of hereditary succession based on primogeniture with designation by the ruling monarch.
Peter’s decree both complicated the practice of succession and introduced a new requirement of merit. He promulgated his decree in contravention of the statutes of the first decades of the eighteenth century issued by European monarchs. Those had established permanent, fundamental laws of hereditary succession, but Peter the Great openly repudiated the premise of these laws and asserted the supremacy of the monarch’s will to all regulation, even that of a succession law, which in Europe was considered the fundamental law of all monarchies. The decree openly subordinated the principle of heredity to the well-being of the realm, determined by the untrammeled will of the rational legislator. Heredity had produced a feeble-minded half brother and a recalcitrant son. He decreed that the ruling czar always would have the freedom to designate whom he wished and to remove the one who had been designated. In declaring this prerogative, he claimed to act as defender of “the integrity of the state.”
Peter’s law aroused serious misgivings in Russia and Europe. In subsequent decades, it sowed doubts about succession that led to crises resolved only with the intervention of the principal regiments of the Imperial Russian Guards. The Guards helped ensure the accession of the empresses Anna Ioannovna and Elizabeth as well as Catherine the Great. Elizabeth and Catherine subsequently took command of the Guards. After seizing power, both women appeared in the uniform of the Preobrazhensky Guard, the oldest and most prestigious of the regiments. The destabilizing consequences of Peter’s decree gave rise to a number of projects to create a more established and predictable order of succession. Elizabeth, who had participated in the writing of such projects, hoped to bring an end to these succession crises by designating Peter of Holstein heir, marrying him off at an early age and encouraging the birth of a son.
This explains the drama of the boudoir that unfolded after the sixteen-year-old Princess Sophia, renamed Catherine after Peter the Great’s spouse, wed Grand Duke Peter Fedorovich in 1745 at a lavish celebration publicized across Europe. Catherine’s memoirs detailed the tragic-comedic dilemmas and the chagrin of her apparently unconsummated marriage to the heir. As children, they got along well enough, but Peter felt no attraction to his assigned bedmate. Catherine, willing enough to undergo this trial for the title of empress, was again subject to painful rejection. Massie describes Elizabeth’s efforts as she appointed women of different temperaments to watch over the couple and devise various schemes to get them to mate. All was to no avail. Eventually, Serge Saltykov, a deft and charming seducer, was introduced to the scene and succeeded in impregnating the grand duchess. He was the likely father of the grand duke and future heir and emperor, Paul Petrovich. But the paternity of Paul has long been subject to controversy, and due to the effort to preserve a semblance of dynastic continuity, it cannot be established conclusively. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Almanach de Gotha, a royal genealogical directory, referred to the dynasty as “Holstein-Gottorp-Romanov” to give official sanction to Paul Petrovich’s dubious paternity.
Not only did Catherine’s husband seem infertile or impotent, he also acted in an erratic and infantile manner. In Catherine’s rendering, he was cruel and witless, occupying himself by parading soldiers, playing with toys, carousing and taking dubious mistresses. All of this naturally heightened Catherine’s sense of worthlessness and helplessness, which Massie evokes with great skill. But if the grand duke was witless, the grand duchess showed a sure understanding of what to do and whom to approach, which grew more formidable as her situation deteriorated. Unlike her husband, she took an active interest in the Enlightenment thought of the time. She befriended foreign ambassadors at the Russian court and influenced officials responsible for Russian foreign policy. Massie gives detailed and vivid accounts of the shifting alliances and attachments formed under the empress’s hand, and his sections on the dynastic politics of the era are among the most impressive in the book. He conveys Catherine’s formidable powers of seduction, dominating through love. Her unremitting sexual appetites became a way to acquire intelligent and energetic devotees upon whom she could rely in the snake pit of the Russian court. Such lovers as Stanislaus Poniatowski, Grigory Potemkin and Grigory Orlov served the purposes of Empress Catherine. Her boudoir became a source of charisma that would enable her to find reliable agents of her will once she ascended the throne.
The death of Empress Elizabeth brought the young Peter to the throne as Emperor Peter III and enabled him to unleash his worst intentions. Massie describes how he prepared to divorce Catherine and marry his mistress, Elizabeth Vorontsova. In this respect, he would break with the practice introduced by Peter the Great of marrying children of the ruling emperor to foreign royalty rather than to members of Russian noble families, as had been the practice of seventeenth-century czars. He antagonized the Orthodox Church by ordering the confiscation of monastery lands, and he upset the Guards’ regiments by introducing Prussian uniforms and discipline, following the example of his idol, Frederick the Great of Prussia. Finally, he spared Frederick defeat in the Seven Years’ War by withdrawing the Russian armies, which were approaching Berlin, and suing for peace. Despite Frederick the Great’s admonition, he even failed to announce plans for a coronation, a ceremony that would have consecrated his accession in the eyes of the elite. At this point, Catherine allied herself with the Guards and organized her assault on power.
Massie describes the drama of the coup with especial flair, bringing out Catherine’s brilliant strategy and tactics designed to isolate, remove and incarcerate her husband. Like Elizabeth, she made herself the leader of the rough and ambitious members of the Imperial Guards, wore the Preobrazhensky uniform, rode astride rather than side saddle, and led the Guards in their capture of the emperor at Peterhof. Then, at their head, she proceeded to Petersburg, where she received their oath of allegiance. Though she let fly some rumors that she would be acting as regent for her son, Paul, these were soon quashed, and she ascended the throne as Catherine II, empress of Russia.
Her coup was very much in the spirit of Peter the Great; she subordinated hereditary right to the welfare of the realm and consecrated her rule by a show of heroic and violent conquest. Paintings executed to her order show her girded with sword, astride a white horse, departing Peterhof with the Guards behind her and receiving their oath on the steps of the Kazan Cathedral. Her accession manifesto of July 6, 1762, presented the seizure of power in the rhetoric of rebirth by conquest that legitimized her coup and painted Peter III’s reign in the darkest colors. Though Petersburg remained tense and quiet in the aftermath of the coup, official rhetoric described the joyous acclaim of the people.
THUS, CATHERINE brought down the curtain on the reign of her predecessor. Like Peter the Great, she cast the immediate past into oblivion. For the historian, the question remains: How much of her memoirs and those of her contemporaries are to be believed? Massie’s smooth account avoids the kind of doubts that frequently assail the professional historian. Where does he find sparkling descriptions of the figures when he describes their appearance, manners, charms and shortcomings? We feel we know Catherine, but how much of the portrait is the product only of expert and cunning artifice? Footnotes attribute quotations, but the narrative is not annotated and seems to be drawn principally from the same works as the quotations: a legion of popular biographies of Catherine, none of which are annotated. Footnotes are irksome and often distracting in scholarly history, but they do indicate a certain tribute to veracity. They show that the author is not engaging in invention and perhaps leaving truth at the mercy of a well-meaning imagination.
Massie does draw upon a few scholarly works and primary sources, including the memoirs and letters of Catherine and her contemporaries, but they cannot be readily taken as innocent reproductions of the truth. After Catherine’s accession, she saw to the destruction of nearly all the documents remaining from Peter III’s six-month reign. The only memoirs of her earlier years to appear after her accession were works of those loyal to her. “Catherine’s suppression of the publication of anything positive about Peter III contributed to the remarkable conformity of the literary record with the official point of view,” writes historian Carol S. Leonard in her book Reform and Regicide: The Reign of Peter III of Russia. She adduces reforms later developed by Catherine that originated in the reign of her presumably addled spouse: the emancipation of the nobility from service, the confiscation of church lands and the liberalization of commercial regulation to encourage grain trade. Peter III and his officials even began to reevaluate the Petrine legal system on the basis of Enlightenment principles. Could Catherine have wreaked revenge for her bedroom suffering not only by humiliating and eliminating her husband but also by purging him from the historical record?
Nevertheless, Massie’s account seems a fair, if not flawless, approximation of historical reality, and his narrative charm may seem worth suspending judgment and enjoying the story. In addition, it introduces a welcome note of approval of Catherine, in this respect sharing the positive valuation of her reign elaborated by Isabel de Madariaga and other recent historians. My principal discomfort arises not from the inevitable methodological transgressions of popular biography but from the author’s initial premise of a sharp distinction between the woman and the empress, which I find anachronistic and questionable. The personal ties so important to our contemporary post-Freudian sensibility—the affective bonds with parents, husband, lovers and son—were hardly Catherine’s chief preoccupation. Massie acknowledges as much. He writes that Catherine “could not remain simply a loving mistress. She was empress of Russia.” She rose early in the morning and worked fifteen hours a day, leaving at best an hour before she fell asleep. “This was all the time she could spare to be a man’s plaything.”
Catherine was hardly her lovers’ plaything. Rather, they played central roles in her exercise of power. Massie describes the stiff regimen they took on—accompanying her when she wished and appearing at her side at court. The designation brought with it untold emoluments, estates, gifts and high standing, at least for the duration of the romance. But missing is the larger symbolic and political context of absolute monarchy in eighteenth-century Russia and Catherine’s effort to enhance monarchical power by pursuing a grand design of transforming Russia into an enlightened European state. Her lovers were agents of this design. Her displays of romantic conquest emulated those of the exemplar of absolute monarchy, Louis XIV, who rode about Versailles with his various mistresses, whose names were mentioned slyly in publications such as La Gazette de France and Le Mercure. Like his, her shows of amorous prowess present her as a semblance of a pagan deity wielding power over mere mortals and unbridled by biblical prescription. Louis designed Versailles to instruct the French nobility in the manners and tastes of high culture. Catherine too played the role of teacher. Massie alludes to such didactic intentions in regard to her lovers as if they were mere excuses for her romantic adventures. But however much they satisfied her physical needs, Catherine presented her paramours as paragons of civilized conduct who were at her side as she rode in her carriage in her outings at Tsarskoye Selo and elsewhere.
Catherine’s allure and intelligence were at the service of her political self. She was a ruler of implacable will, determined to transform the Russian nobility and state after the Western model in order to claim the cultural and political heritage of the empires of antiquity. The two sides of her personality were captured in the famous “mirror” portrait by the Danish artist Virgilius Eriksen, painted in the first years of Catherine’s reign. Catherine faces us before a mirror, the imperial crown on a table before it. The frontal view is of an elegant, sympathetic countenance with rosy cheeks. She is comely and inviting. The mirror image, in profile, shows a strong jaw, a face looking beyond the picture with determination and intelligence.
Indeed, Catherine commissioned her own portraits, which showed how she expected to be seen. The paintings made known the diverse representations of her protean self. After the coup, she appears as a conquering monarch on horseback. Baroque allegories present her as Minerva, the Roman goddess of war, hovering over the generals of her southern campaign, and as the lawgiver in the company of Minerva, holding a copy of her Nakaz, or “Instruction,” to the codification commission. She appears also as a sympathetic matron with a lap dog, and a modest traveler in her voyage to New Russia in the South. The constrictions of selfhood did not limit the absolute monarch inspired by the boundless perspectives of enlightened rule.
These perspectives are sketched only vaguely in Massie’s portrait, which seems to capture just one of her many selves. His brief chapter on the Enlightenment consists of accounts of her correspondence and interaction with the philosophes Voltaire, Diderot and Grimm. But it gives no notion of her intense engagement with the eighteenth-century ethos of rationalist absolute rule, introduced by Peter the Great, or of the vast scope of her activity as enlightener. Massie’s close-up portrait doesn’t capture the paternalist conviction that absolute monarchy was a means of advancing the state for the welfare of the population. Catherine, a usurper, had no other claim to rule than that of agent of the welfare of the Russian state. She inhabited a world of lofty visions of Russia that she was determined to realize through the devices of reason and enlightenment. She strove to transform Russian noblemen into educated and cultivated participants in her governmental projects. As “the philosophe on the throne,” she instructed the nobility in conduct, morals and taste but most of all in virtue. She wrote in many genres: history, journal articles, plays, operas and children’s books as well as memoirs, but Massie’s book gives no indication of the extent or variety of her literary work. Her collected works fill twelve volumes. Her intellectual efforts engendered the first rudimentary public sphere in Russia. Literary journals in the country had appeared in Empress Elizabeth’s reign, but Catherine went further, composing and publishing such journals herself as a way to address educated noblemen and school them in virtue.
For Catherine, virtue meant civic virtue: she strove to make noblemen genteel and active citizens—to show them how to conduct themselves like educated Europeans and to devote themselves, as she did, to the common weal. Education of the nobility was the goal of the journal she founded in 1769, All Sorts of Things (Vsiakaia Vsiachina), which engaged in the eighteenth-century ridicule of vices with didactic intent. Like many contemporary European journals, it followed the example of two English publications, Joseph Addison’s Spectator and Samuel Johnson’s Idler. All Sorts of Things showed the nobility how to act—not to stuff their rooms with too much furniture, not to speak in too loud a voice, not to drink too much coffee. Through it, Catherine told them how to manage their estates and instructed them to treat their peasants humanely. She satirized ladies of the salon for their superficiality and freethinkers for their cynicism and disrespect as well as their bigotry and intolerance. She encouraged what she called her journal’s “children,” and within a year after the first issue, six new journals printing the same type of satirical banter had appeared. She introduced the principle of intellectual tolerance to the practice of Russian monarchy, and though she and her successors often observed it more in its omission, it remained an ideal for the intellectual elite.
The most important of the new journals, the Drone (1769–70), satirized the ignorance of the serf-holding gentry. While All Sorts of Things satirized treatment of the serfs in muted tones, the Drone was outright in its condemnation and suggested that the serfs should have the right to own property. The Drone also derided the exaggeratedly French behavior of the upper levels of the imperial court. In 1770, the debate became sharper, and Catherine closed the journal. But Nikolay Novikov, the Drone’s editor, then proceeded to found other publications, and he later was empowered to establish the first nongovernmental printing establishment in Russia.
Catherine was the first Russian ruler to practice a principle of tolerance, and her policies brought into being a small but important educated public—intellectuals, poets and playwrights—who also satirized noble conduct and preached civic virtue. But tolerance in an absolute monarchy has its limits, and the French Revolution caused Catherine to reach the limits of her own tolerance. Novikov was dispatched to Schlusselberg prison, presumably for engaging in a plot to place the heir, Paul, on the throne. Alexander Radishchev, the only member of the Catherinian intelligentsia to appear in Massie’s book, was sent into penal exile for his polemical survey of Russia’s problems, Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow. Massie makes clear that the punishment was relatively mild, but he doesn’t capture the magnitude of the intellectual milieu Catherine created.
IF CATHERINE as writer played the role of instructor of virtue and manners, Catherine as lawgiver strove to instruct the officials of government and the members of the estates in the principles of law. In 1767, she established a legislative commission comprising representatives of the different estates, noblemen, townspeople, clergy and even peasants. The purpose was to codify Russian laws. Massie makes clear that her Nakaz, written as instructions to the commission and culled from writings of Montesquieu and Beccaria, aimed to acquaint the deputies with the principles of law. But it was also intended to play a didactic role—to show them their importance in creating an enlightened citizenship. Article 15 proclaimed that the intention and end of monarchy was “the Glory of the Citizens, of the State, and of the Sovereign,” and Article 16 added that
from this Glory, a Sense of Liberty arises in a People governed by a Monarch; which may produce in these States as much Energy in transacting the most important Affairs, and may contribute as much to the Happiness of the Subjects, as even Liberty itself.
Massie provides a concise discussion of the Nakaz and the assembly, as well as the assembly’s failure to compile a code. He credits Catherine with the effort and points out that it did succeed in collecting information about the empire that she would use in future decades. However, her efforts had more enduring results. They identified the monarchy with the advancement of law in Russia, acquainting the ruling elite with principles that the most progressive members, such as Novikov and Radishchev, would expect to realize. The Nakaz appeared in six editions between 1767 and 1771. Copies were placed in central and provincial offices, and on occasion its principles would provide the grounding for future administrative and judicial decisions. It was Catherine the Great who established legality (zakonnost’) as a central goal for future rulers and officials.
The Nakaz and the commission represented only the beginning of Catherine’s legislative activity. She continued to draft projects of reform and statutes with the aim of drawing the Russian nobility into state life and enhancing the power of the state in the provinces. Russia lacked a tradition of local self-government such as the noble estate governments of the principal monarchies of Europe. Following the example of the Baltic estate government in the empire, Catherine’s reform of 1775 (not mentioned in the book) brought the provincial and district nobles, who much preferred to serve in Petersburg, into elective offices in charge of police, fiscal and judicial matters. For the first time, courts were separated from administrative institutions. The preamble to the reform made clear that their service would also inculcate civic virtue. It would instill in those holding office a love for justice and virtue and an aversion to “idle time spent in luxury and other vices corrupting to the morals.” They should regard with shame laziness, carelessness, and most of all “dereliction of duty and indifference to the general good.”
At the same time, Catherine’s reforms enhanced the power of governors of the provinces who supervised the branches of local government. She introduced the office of governor-general, an official who would assume authority over several provinces. A governor-general enjoyed access to the empress, attended the senate and appeared as her emissary in the provinces. His arrival in a provincial capital was the occasion for great balls and receptions that allowed the provincial nobility to participate in the life of celebration centered in the capital around the figure of the empress. She introduced a Muslim spiritual assembly, including Muslim holy men who helped defined the laws of Islam for the Tartar population and incorporated them into the confessional structure of the empire.
In 1785, Catherine’s “Charter to the Nobility” rewarded them with rights, the first instance in Russian history for an estate to be so favored. The charter confirmed their right to own serfs and landed property, their freedom from service, and the right to be tried by a court of their peers in cases involving loss of life, property or noble status. It vested noble assemblies with a corporate identity and empowered them to certify and register the members of their noble assemblies. Catherine continued to draft laws for the duration of her reign. In 1779, she began work on a law of hereditary succession. One incomplete draft asserted that the stability of the throne depended upon hereditary succession. “The first and fundamental law of this monarchical rule should be issued and drafted by Our Imperial hand—that is the steadfastness of the throne and stability in its inheritance.” The final version appeared as the fourth and largest section of her Nakaz of 1787, but it was not enacted. Her son Paul I promulgated a law of hereditary succession at his coronation in 1797, obviously to prevent a repetition of previous coups. (He was murdered by the leaders of his military in 1801.) All of the major provisions of his succession law repeated articles from Catherine’s projects.
These, of course, are only a few of Catherine’s achievements as enlightener. She also introduced educational reforms and sponsored scientific expeditions to study the physical and ethnographic variety of the empire. The expansion to the south under the aegis of Potemkin not only brought Russian culture and institutions to the shores of the Black Sea but also invigorated a feeling of kinship with Greek classical culture.
Catherine’s greatest failure was at the impossible task of improving the condition of the vast majority of the enserfed peasants. Indeed, under her rule the legal status of the serfs declined further. She granted thousands of serfs to her favorites, extended serfdom into western Ukraine and increased the authority of landlords over their serfs’ lives. Massie attributes this to the necessity to reward her supporters among the gentry, but there was a larger dynamic at work. The Petrine monarchy promoted Westernization at the expense of the serf population, much as Stalin later advanced industrialization by dispossessing the peasantry. Catherine’s successes in domestic and foreign policy helped consolidate the power of the landlords over the peasantry. Her successors would inherit a monarchy whose cultural ideals depended on a social system that increasingly contradicted the fundamental ethical principles of both the monarch and the educated elite that she helped foster.
Massie has written an engrossing and informative narrative describing Catherine’s personal life that satisfies our curiosity about her amours and entanglements. But the professional historian seeks more than an absorbing chronicle of the lives of personages of the court and boudoir. He seeks to understand these figures on a historical stage, fathoming the social and intellectual world they inhabited, the ideas and visions that inspired them, and their legacies, both beneficial and tragic. Catherine appeared in many personas: thinker, legislatrix, reformer, savior of Russia and conqueror of new territories. All the while she proved a firm and, when necessary, ruthless empress, strengthening the institutions of the state and furthering the subjugation of the masses. In these roles, she continues to bedazzle us—a prodigious, almost superhuman ruler who happened to be a woman.
Richard S. Wortman is the James Bryce Professor Emeritus of European Legal History at Columbia University. His latest book, Scenarios of Power: Myth and Ceremony in Russian Monarchy: From Peter the Great to the Abdication of Nicholas II (Princeton University Press, 2006), is a revised and abridged version of his previous volumes on Russian monarchy.Pullquote: Catherine’s rise from the neglected daughter of a minor German prince to the throne of the Russian Empire is indeed an amazing one, combining the pathos of a Cinderella tale with an epic narrative of triumph.Image: Essay Types: Book Review