Thursday, May 02, 2013

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman

Motivation for Reading:
I decided to read Robert K. Massie’s book Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman when Michelle of That's What She Read responded to my comment on her review of the book with:
You will love it as it definitely fits in with your theme of empowering women. Catherine was one amazing woman.
What is Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman about?
At almost 600 pages, Massie has written an all-encompassing biography of Catherine the Great beginning with her childhood in Germany and ending with her death at the age of 67.

My thoughts:
Since the book is so long, the thought of reading it seemed daunting, but Massie created such an engaging story I had no trouble finishing it. Prior to reading this book, I knew almost nothing about Catherine the Great or Russian history. I found every page to be fascinating – including the historical events and the politics of the time. Catherine’s story is remarkable:

If this book would have been fiction I’d have set it aside thinking it was implausible
Catherine, an obscure Russian princess, travels from her home in Germany to Russia with the intention of marrying Peter, the Russian heir to the throne. After their wedding her primary role was to produce a male heir. This ends up being impossible since her new husband refuses to touch her, preferring to play with his toy soldiers in their bed. This scenario continues for nine years. Finally, in order to produce an heir, Catherine has an affair with another man. Catherine bears a son whom the Empress names Paul. She then has the new baby taken from his mother and raises him as if he is her own. Once Peter becomes Emperor he ends the popular war with Prussia and institutes domestic policies that infuriate the military, the Orthodox Church and the Russian people. Catherine along with her current lover and his friends are able to overthrow Peter and Catherine becomes Empress. She reins until her death 34 years later. 
Why Catherine deserved the title of "Great:"
Elizabeth I of England was the only woman equal to Catherine on a European throne. In Russia's history, Catherine and Peter the Great tower in ability and achievement over all the other tsars and empresses of the Romanov dynasty. Catherine's accomplishments include two successful wars against the Ottoman Empire expanding Russia’s borders to the Black Sea and Central Europe. She was the first person in Russia to be inoculated against smallpox then persuaded others to do so.   She imported European moral, political, judicial philosophy, literature, art, architecture, sculpture, medicine, and education. She assembled the greatest art gallery in Europe, hospitals, schools, and orphanages. Peter made Russia a great power.  Catherine magnified this power and advanced the nation toward a culture that during the century that followed produced many of the artistic masters Russia is known for today.
What was her secret? How was she able to accomplish so much?

She was able to conceal her pride:
Her mother, not wanting her daughter to be arrogant or rebellious decided “to drive the devil of pride out of her.”
She was repeatedly told she was ugly and impertinent, forbidden to speak unless spoken to and made to kiss the hem of the skirts of all visiting women of rank. Later, concealment of pride in humility came to be recognized as a deliberate and useful tactic which Catherine used when confronting crisis and danger. (Pg. 9)
She used every opportunity to improve herself and her situation:
It did not take Catherine long to understand two underlying facts about her position in Russia:
First, that it was Elizabeth, not Peter whom she had to please: and, second if she wanted to succeed in this country she must learn its language and practice its religious faith. (Pg. 52) 

During the 17 years Catherine spent in Russia prior to Empress Elizabeth’s death, she spent her time reading. Assigned with the task of producing a male heir she spent much of this time ignored by or bored by her husband: books were her refuge. She always kept a book in her room and carried another in her pocket. She studied the great philosophers. Guided by her own curiosity, gradually she acquired a superior education. (Pg. 145)
She aligned herself with the right people:
Over the years Catherine made herself more popular than Peter with the Russian Courtiers and the Russian people. With the help of her lover Gregory Orlov and his brother Alexis, she won over the allegiance of the Russian Army giving her the support of the military. She made calculated moves when determining which countries to form alliances with and to support and which to not. I thought it interesting that she choose not to aid Great Britain in their war with the American colonies.

She understood who held the real power:
In a conversation V.S. Popov had with the Empress she explains the blind obedience with which her will was fulfilled everywhere, of the eagerness and zeal with which all tried to please her. It is not as easy as you think.” She replied. In the first place, my orders would not be carried out unless they were the kind of orders which could be carried out. You know with what prudence and circumspection I act in the promulgation of my laws. I examine the circumstanced, I take advice. I consult the enlightened part of the people, and in this way I find out what sort of effect my laws will have. And when I am already convinced in advance of good approval, then I issue my orders and have the pleasure of observing what you call blind obedience.

That is the foundation of unlimited power. But, believe me; they will not obey blindly when orders are not adapted to the opinion of the people.” (Pgs. 172-173)

Despite being a "great" ruler she was held to a double standard:
According to Massie, Catherine had 12 lovers during her reign who were referred to as favorites.  What shocked her contemporaries was not the number, but the age difference between Catherine and her lovers. She preferred increasingly younger men. She wanted assurance she could still attract and keep a man's love. In return the young men sought ambition, desire for prestige, wealth and power.  Hmm...weren't kings and their mistresses doing this exact thing for centuries?

Book club recommendation:
Massie informs us Elizabeth I of England used virginity and abstinence as prizes to tempt and manipulate powerful men.  Wouldn't reading a biography of Elizabeth make an excellent companion read?

Bottom Line:
I highly recommend Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman to anyone who wants to learn more about Catherine the Great, Russian history or to just read about an amazing self-built woman who was truly Great.

If you enjoyed this post you may also like:
Is a book about Marie Antoinette's fashion choices really a book every woman should read?
Coco Chanel: The Legend and The Life
Biography of Fannie Lou Hamer: A Study of Strength and Leadership

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  1. This sounds really interesting! 600 pages does seem incredibly daunting. I am not sure I would be able to do it. I want to keep this one in mind, though!

  2. Sounds like a great read! I'm a Queen Bess fan, but would love to know more about Catherine. :)

  3. Oh my- what an amazing book!! 600 pages DOES sound daunting... but apparently it was worth every page. I might be convinced it's worth my time as well! Thanks for your excellent summary! Stopping by from SITS! :)

  4. Will have to read this!

  5. Becca,
    I wonder if the reason I liked it so much was because I knew so little about Catherine to begin with. There was so much drama in her early life at court; seriously you couldn't make a story like that up.

  6. Crystal,
    I love that you call her Queen Bess, I've never heard that before. Also, you are making me want to read about her next. Thanks for stopping in.

  7. Chris,
    At least read the first half. Though it is also interesting to read how she tries to improve Russia. Thanks for stopping in.

  8. Thanks for the review! It's a bit sad that I first heard about Catherine the Great because of the false story about her being killed by having sex with a horse.

    I'm going to pick this up as plane reading for when I go off to Scotland.

  9. Thanks for the review. Always looking for good history and bio reads. Maybe on the next long train trip.

  10. Maria,
    I am glad I didn't come across that rumor until I finished the book. Massie doesn't mention it.

    Have a great time in Scotland and yes this would make a great book for the plane.

  11. Dennis,
    Also a great read for a long train trip. Would love to hear your thoughts. Also - always glad to see you pop in.

  12. Thanks, SWG. And I may have mentioned this to you before, but in this realm (reference intended) of books, I do recommend "Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire" by Amanda Foreman. From 1998.

  13. Thanks Dennis. Sounds like a great vacation read.

  14. Great Review! This makes me want to learn more about Catherine the Great!

    Thanks for linking up for #FlashbackFriday