My knowledge of Russian rulers comes in much later – right at the end in fact, with Nicholas and Alexandra. So going in, I knew basically nothing about Catherine the Great. But thanks to Massie’s impeccably researched, flawlessly executed biography of her, I feel like an expert too.
So much scandal! I think if there is one thing that surprised me about Catherine the Great, it’s that there was so much scandal around her. But no one ever really cared to do anything about it. She was married to the man who would become Peter III and for nine years after they got married, she stayed a virgin. They were so concerned with getting an heir that in the end, she was seduced by someone that wasn’t her husband and forever after there was speculation that perhaps her son, Paul, wasn’t her husband’s son (they did eventually officially consummate the marriage).
Also? Catherine got around. She had 12 lovers. Twelve. Delightfully called ‘Favourites’ – but the euphemism fooled no one. It paid well to be a ‘Favourite’ – she gave them all houses, titles and tons of money and when it was time to part ways, she never held onto any ill will. She even made one of her lovers the King of Poland. Obviously that benefitted her as well, but come on. One minute you are the lover of an Empress, the next a King in your own right?
I think a lot of people tend to dismiss Catherine the Great. There is the whole thing with the lovers and the fact that her useless husband died under rather mysterious circumstances right after she took the throne from him, but she actually contributed greatly to the arts and culture of her era, and to the history of Russia in particular. She was an avid art collector, a student of the Enlightenment (although in her later years she didn’t think that the regular people were capable of ruling themselves), a patron of the arts and made vast improvements to the architecture in and around Russia, most of which still stands today.
Massie won a Pulitzer for his book Peter the Great – I don’t need to tell you that this man is a talented writer. He manages to break down all the crazy happenings of Catherine’s lifetime – her crazy mother, the battles with Empress Elizabeth, the Pugachev uprising, the Revolution in France, Voltaire and the Enlightenment – into manageable, understandable, relatable nuggets of information. He doesn’t shy away from the brutality of the French Revolution, or seek to smooth out the imperfections that Catherine herself was very aware of and in so doing manages to create a book that is perfect in every single way.
It took me a while to get through it – this is a book that is 574 pages chock full of everything under the sun. But every minute spent with Catherine the Great is worth it and I’m going to kind of miss her.