CATHERINE THE GREAT: Portrait of a Woman, by Robert Massie, 625 pp.
Admit it - what immediately crossed your mind when you saw the words "Catherine the Great?" Sex with a horse, right? Robert Massie has the taste and forbearing not to mention this. (Obviously, I don't!) Since he doesn't shy away from the specifics of Catherine's sex life, by omission he confirms that this is nothing more than an apocryphal legend.
With that out of the way, let me highly recommend this long, but very readable biography. We grew up with the USSR as our great rival, but before that failed experiment, Russia was a fascinating empire and Catherine, along with Peter the Great, one of its two greatest rulers.
Her ascent was far from inevitable. She began life as Princess Sophia, the eldest daughter of a minor German nobleman. Due to complicated family connections, he caught the eye of Elizabeth, Empress of Russia, as a possible bride for her nephew and heir, Peter. ( Sophia was the niece of Grand Duke Peter's guardian and also his second cousin). Peter was the only son of her sister, Anne, and grandson of Peter the Great, but a strange young man. He is described as "puny, sickly with protruding eyes, a weak chin, and little energy. The life he was forced to lead, the immense legacy he was forced to carry, were too great a burden".
Sophia was brought to St. Petersburg by her mother, Johanna, who was soon dismissed as meddlesome and sent back to Germany. But, Sophia was accepted by everyone, because of her quiet intelligence and her enthusiastic embrace of her adopted country and its Russian Orthodox religion. Sophia was baptized in her new religion as Ekaterina, or Catherine, and she and Peter were married.
Consummating the marriage was another problem. Shortly before the wedding both Peter and Catherine had contracted smallpox, but Peter was left horribly disfigured. Sensing her revulsion, Peter shut himself off sexually, although he and Catherine slept together for the first nine years of their marriage. Soon Elizabeth was forcing a surrogate, Sergei Saltykov, on Catherine in order that she bear an heir. Although still naive, Catherine soon found she enjoyed the attention and the physical pleasures: the legend of her sexual appetite was begun. Soon she did her royal duty and conceived a son, the future emperor Paul I. (Whether Saltykov or Peter was the father is, even now, in dispute.) In her lifetime Catherine had 12 "favorites," as the official lovers were known, three while Peter was alive, nine more over the last 34 years of her life. Considering her position as the most powerful woman in the world, that doesn't seem excessive, but was still scandalous in the 18th century.
Her various lovers were the least remarkable aspect of her life. For the 16 years she waited for Peter to succeed Elizabeth, Catherine was expected only to bear children and stay out of the way. Rather than waste her time with the frivolities of court, she educated herself and learned not only Russian, but French, the language of diplomacy and the intelligentsia of Europe.
When Peter came to the throne on Christmas Day, 1761, it was clear to all at court that this man/child was not prepared to rule an empire, but that his wife was. Objecting to Peter's fealty to Frederick the Great of Prussia, the Russian nobility soon began to plot his overthrow with Catherine's help. Within six months the coup was complete, and she was declared Empress Catherine II, Autocrat of All the Russias. Six days later Peter was dead as a result of a drunken brawl with his captors, led by Alexis Orlov, the brother of her current favorite, Gregory Orlov, who the father of her third child, .
Catherine was more than prepared to take his place. With an innate ability for organization and a diligence that made her better versed in all aspects of the empire than her advisors, Catherine grew to be respected by courtiers and the nobility. She even charmed and led the military.
One of the greatest influences on Elizabeth was her extensive correspondence with some of the thought leaders of Europe including Voltaire, Diderot and his protege, Friedrich Melchior von Grimm, who became a lifelong friend. They exposed her to Enlightenment philosophy and encouraged her liberal inclinations, including the freeing of the serfs, which she was not able to accomplish, and the Nakaz (Instruction), a guide for the reorganization and rationalization of Russian law, where she had more success.
After putting down the Pugachev peasant revolt, Catherine had many diplomatic and military victories including the occupation of the Crimea and the opening of Black Sea ports to the Russian fleet and three different partitions of Poland, where she had installed one of her first lovers, Count Stanislaus Poniatowski. Catherine even had an effect on our history, as she refused Great Britain's request for Russian troops to put down its colonial revolt.
Catherine's also fostered the educational and intellectual life of Russia, which directly led to the great Russian achievements in literature (Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky), music (Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky ) and the stage (Chekhov, Diaghilev).
Make no mistake about Catherine, however, she was no democrat. She firmly believed that an enlightened autocracy was the best, most efficient form of government. The progressive nature of her rule recoiled to the reactionary, as she became disgusted by the excesses of the French Revolution. She closed all private printing presses and established official censorship offices that presaged the kind of repression that became so insidious under her successors and eventually led to their overthrow. Ironically, those freedoms became even more restricted under the rule of Lenin and Stalin that followed.
To rule and change this vast land as much as she did, for all of her advances in war, in the arts, medicine and education, she earned her name: Catherine the Great. Let Massie take you through her life, filled with power struggles, court intrigue, sex and grand achievement. You will be fascinated, as well as entertained.