Sunday, January 29, 2012

Book 5: Catherine the Great

Considering that I majored in both history and gender studies, I must say that I felt that my knowledge of Catherine the Great was rather lacking: I knew she was originally German, that she adored the French before the French Revolution, that she rebelled against her husband and became the ruler of Russia, and that she had love affairs.  I also vaguely remember seeing a movie or miniseries about her on TV in Germany when I was much younger though I only recall one or two scenes, and couldn't even tell you at this point if it was a German production, or simply dubbed from another country (while trying to research this I discovered two films about Catherine the Great made in the 90s that would possibly fit the time line, one with Catherine Zeta Jones, and one with Julia Ormond).  While I learned quite a bit more about Catherine, I'm not quite sure how I feel overall about the book.
It's a well-written book, and very informative - there's absolutely no question about that.  It is also very engaging, and not a dry history.  For the most part, I think Massie also realizes that his readers may not be as familiar with Russian history as other topics in Western history and gives sufficient context.  Sometimes I wish the current popular history books would actually use end notes more to cite their facts rather than just listing sources at the end of the book.  Personally, I would have appreciated a family tree somewhere at the beginning or end of the book, or possibly a lineage of succession since the throne seemed to go through quite a few people between Peter the Great and Catherine the Great.  I also could have used a footnote in the beginning to give some context to the sums of money that were mentioned - when Massie states that Catherine received 100,000 rubles as a gift, it sounds like a large number, but I really had no clue what that would compare to today, or even how that compared to an average man's income in Russia.  Those are minor quibbles.  Still, while I thoroughly enjoyed the beginning of the book about Catherine's struggles to rise to power, at the end I felt some ambivalence.  However, I'm not sure if my ambivalence was directed at the book or at Catherine - it's a bit hard to tell since this is a biography.  There were some things that Catherine did that I just didn't like that much, so I think in the end my issues are more with Catherine the person than this book about Catherine.
The first half of the book is a rather straight forward, linear narrative during which Massie chronicles the early life of Catherine, and gives context to some of the people that would play such important parts in her life, including her mother, the Russian empress Elizabeth, and her husband Peter.  Since Catherine wrote a memoir about this part of her life, Massie has some relatively intimate details to draw on, though of course they portray Catherine in a positive light.  Still, while I definitely felt sympathy for Catherine and her unhappy married life (her husband simply wasn't interested in her, even at the best of times, she was more of a companion than a marriage partner, making it rather impossible for her to produce an heir to the throne), Massie still managed to show a certain sympathy to the other people in her life, even as their actions affected Catherine in negative ways.  Elizabeth for example was erratic in her favor, but still had redeeming qualities though they come to light less as she gets older.  Catherine is always ambitious, and slowly learns to make the proper alliances, turning former enemies into allies, and using her spare time to improve herself intellectually.  While Massie certainly shows that Peter wasn't all bad, and in some cases was shaped by his early childhood, he definitely portrays him as a manchild that is in no way ready to lead a country, especially Russia given his hate of all things Russian and love of all things Prussian.
As a result, it is not a surprise that Catherine eventually took on a lover after nine years of marriage, and she and Massie both strongly imply that her son Paul is the offspring from that illicit relationship.  Her husband was wildly unpopular with the military, and with the help of another lover, Catherine gained the support of the military, allowing her to lead a coup d'etat against Peter, and become the ruler of Russia in her own right.  She didn't rule as a regent to her son - a German woman became the empress of Russia.  The fact that she was able to do this is rather impressive, but Russia had women rulers before her, so it's not as big a surprise in some ways as it may have been in other countries.
After this, the book focuses on themes in Catherine's rule.  Massie still tries to keep thing in chronological order, but given all the wars that were going on, he ends up talking about one at a time.  While this helps the reader keeps the wars and their battles straight, there is a disadvantage to this technique: many of these things were happening simultaneousley, so since Massie compartmentalizes these topics, it means the reader doesn't quite realize just how much was going on at any one point in the empire - the war with Turkey, rebellions in the east, the French revolution which severely frightened Catherine, especially given the rebellion she faced herself.  In the beginning of her reign, Catherine was idealistic, and began friendships with some of the most prominent philosophers of the period, to include Voltaire.  She even wanted to end serfdom.  By the end, she had become much harder, and feared the possibility of the serfs speaking out or fighting against their lot.  While this makes sense based on the Pugachev rebellion, it was a bit sad to see her become more jaded as time went.  Based on what Wikipedia says, there were more rebellions than this one, but Massie only briefly mentions one other incident with the serfs at the mines, and one ill-fated attempt to free a former chid tsar from imprisonment.
Her interactions with Poland especially struck me the wrong way - she first forced one of her former lovers to become the king, and then over the years, she along with the rulers of Prussia and Austria parcelled the country up between them.  Poniatowski never wanted to be king, and his last meeting with Catherine after over twenty years of separation was particularly sad to me.  He clearly stayed in love with her much longer than she remained interested in him, and her only reason for wanting him on the throne was that he woud be easy to manipulate.  While I think Massie focuses on showing how Catherine was rather just and lenient in the ways she governed, there were definitely a few occasions where I felt rather sorry for the way she reacted to people, Poniatowski being one of the big ones that comes to mind.
Catherine also made use of favorites like Russian emperors before her (well, empresses - when the rulers were male, the term mistresses was used).  Some of these helped her along politically.  Her first lover may or may not have been the one to get her pregnant with an heir, her third lover Orlov helped her gain the throne, and her fifth lover, Potemkin, was instrumental to Russia's success in the Crimean area.  Potemkin was possibly as ambitious as Catherine and their relationship was definitely odd, to say the least.  Massie portrays Catherine as someone that enjoyed having male companionship, and a series of men provided this to her as time went on.  She parted amicably with all of them, even the ones that cheated on her.
Catherine spent about half her life as the empress of Russia.  The book is basically evenly divided, spending about half its time on her thirty-three years before reaching the throne, and half on the thirty-four years as empress.  As I said, I quite liked the first half and felt it went into great detail.  However, I feel like maybe a larger percentage of the book could or should have been devoted to her time as empress since she had more responsibilities.  While Catherine certainly accomplished many things and became seen as an enlightened ruler of her time, I still would have liked to see a bit more analysis on why she acted the way she did in some cases.  She was an enthusiastic supporter of the arts, and bought many pieces that would become cornerstones of Russia's art collection, she communicated with philosophers and rulers of the time, reformed certain parts of Russia, and yet for some reason, I still felt like there was something missing in this description.  I can't quite put my fingers on it - maybe I heard too much about Catherine's favorites, but especially the last part of the book, I didn't really feel like she was real.  It seemed more like Catherine had made an image of herself that she presented to the public, and the book didn't get beyond that public persona.  It is only so noticeable because the first half of the book seems to offer a more intimate glance at the woman.  Despite that, I still enjoyed the book and am glad I read, finally filling in a gap in my knowledge of this woman.  I admit I probably wouldn't have even thought to pick up a book about Catherine the Great if this new biography hadn't been published recently, so I definitely think it was a good thing that Massie wrote this book instead of the market being saturated with yet another book about the Tudors.  Maybe this will lead me to a few more biographies on the subject that focus on different aspects of Catherine's rule.

4 comments: said...

Massie's book is awful: full ofsha errors, miserably written--he doesn't read Russian--and totaly derivative and idiotic! It is ridiculouslu overpraised and should embarrass the author, who has obviously lost it at 82! Hang it up, Massie! Call yourself a writer of fiction, and not very good at that! Addressed to an adolescent audience and not one original idea in the whole mess! John
t. Alexander, emeritus, Uni8versity of Kansas

Marlene Detierro said...
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Houston Local SEO said...

I will give Mr. Massie another chance, having already purchased Dreadnought but if it's on the same level as this one, I won't make it to the end.

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Robert Massie has given us a delightful biography of Catherine the Great that though well documented, reads with the ease of a very fluid novel. It is highly recommended.