Great Catherine's Many Dimensions

February 28, 2012 Topics: History Regions: Russia

Great Catherine's Many Dimensions

Mini Teaser: With his usual literary lilt, Robert K. Massie captures Catherine the Great's stirring story. But by focusing on her personal life, he slights her role as absolute monarch obsessed with the enlightenment and power of her adopted Russia.

by Author(s): Richard S. Wortman

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.

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