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Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman - Robert K. Massie This is a magnificent work, a phenomenal accomplishment, describing the reign of Catherine the Great, covering her own history and the future of her reign, including all major and minor players who participated in her march to greatness. The amount of research, as evidenced by the bibliography and footnotes, was massive. Perhaps the book, however, would be better served as the course material for a more in-depth study, to enable the reader to more fully understand the manipulations of the great monarchs of her time and the family histories that united and divided them.
Catherine is completely uncovered and explored and the reader will feel that they do know who she was, what she believed in and how she became this great woman of Russian and world history. However, what I didn’t know, and still do not, was how she learned to master the art of governing and the intricacies of government. She was untrained and her ascension to the throne was unexpected.
Catherine, born Sophie, is brought to Russia to marry Peter, the nephew of the Empress Elizabeth, who has handpicked him as the successor to her throne. She is mature beyond her years and is able to interpret situations for her own benefit, to enhance her standing, although young and virtually inexperienced. When brought to Russia, she woos the people and they begin to adore her.
Elizabeth is a tyrannical ruler and is often jealous and petty, lashing out unfairly at Catherine and many others around her. Catherine's movements and those of her husband Peter were carefully controlled. They seemed really to be prisoners of the monarch, existing at her will. Peter is immature and spoiled, emotionally scarred from a childhood dominated by a sadistic tutor and overseer and many illnesses. Often, I thought that the adults behaved more like children then the children. They occupied themselves with mundane and unnecessary chores and entertained themselves doing anything they wished, regardless of the effect of their behavior on others. Often the people associated with Catherine or Peter disappeared or were suddenly dismissed, sentenced to lives of exile because of a jealous Elizabeth who believed most events were contrived to unseat her from the throne, unsettle her monarchy or prevent Peter from ascending to the throne after her death.
With Elizabeth’s death, Peter became Emperor. Shortly after, it became more obvious how unfit he was to rule and Catherine was encouraged to assume the throne. Catherine had experienced a lonely and unfulfilled, rather abusive marriage to Peter. He alternately ignored and tormented her. He possessed little of her intelligence and behaved more like a recalcitrant child, which he remained, even as she matured more and more. Having been threatened by Peter with exile to a convent, Catherine finally agreed to ascend to the throne, and soon after Peter was killed in what are still questionable circumstances. From that point on, however, she manipulated those around her and managed to bring Russia into the Age of Enlightenment, increasing its borders, opening the country to the sea for better trade, building hospitals, developing a system of education for the masses, amassing a magnificent art collection and purchasing libraries of the famous works of masters.
She had patience and tremendous fortitude in her pursuit of power. She took lovers to produce a future heir, which was insisted upon by the Empress, Elizabeth, at a time when she, Catherine, was the Grand Duchess and Peter was unable to provide her with child.
The overall looseness of the court, when it came to matters of sex, astounded me. The taking of lovers was rampant and husbands and wives, often absent, were kept in the dark about the clandestine behavior of their spouses and consorts. Perhaps this resulted from arranged marriages in which the participants had no say or part in the decision and were often unhappy or unfulfilled. Everyone’s future rose and fell upon the whims or judgment of those influential in the Empress’s court and of course, upon those of the Empress herself. One never knew how long they would remain in her good graces. There were constant negotiations, and bargains were made. Justice meted out, was truly not justice, and no one was secure, not even Catherine. She always looked over her shoulder to see if someone was plotting against her.
All of her actions seemed relatively simple and heartfelt, at first glance, but on closer investigation, they were clever and masterful, judging from the results. Catherine made Russia great. She forged alliances with heads of state, created heroes, annexed countries, made new heads of state. Fortuitous marriages and conquering armies created dynasties over which she held dominion. The desires of those she conquered were insignificant, as she vanquished nation after nation.
The book is very long, not a page turner, but still engaging and very interesting. Because it is filled with so much information, it requires a slower and more thoughtful, steadier reading, in order to absorb it fully. Although non-fiction, it is surprisingly appealing. It reads like a novel, albeit a complicated one, with the action moving along at a steady pace, revealing well drawn characters and an intriguing background history of Europe and its monarchs. One issue I found confounding was the bouncing around of the time line and the locations. I sometimes felt that the chapters were uncoordinated or out of order, but the little gossip-like tidbits made the book feel as if the reader was conspiratorially involved with the conversation, plans and plots, always developing. Despite the minor imperfections I highlighted, if you want to know about Catherine the Great, this should be your book of choice. It is not a book about Catherine, alone, it is a book about the monarchy and all that is attached to it. How Russia prospered under Catherine’s rule is fully investigated and often it was overwhelming. In order to remember and relate to the many facts presented, the reader will have to pause in the reading and take a breath and a break, perhaps keeping a notepad beside them to jot down important events, characters and dates. The book is readable by the masses and scholars alike, because it reads almost like a novel and the personal documentation adds greatly to the material. However, I would have appreciated more background information for the less scholarly reader since the historic facts will elude some and make the book very difficult and less valuable than it should be. At times I found it tedious and overburdened with events, dates, places and names of characters, of which the facts surrounding their lives were unknown to me. Had Massie included a timeline and brief biography of the characters mentioned, in the front of the book, it would have been greatly enhanced.