Catherine the Great, by Robert K. Massie

After reading a good novel about Catherine the Great, I wanted to read a good biography to refresh my knowledge of her. Years ago I had a book called Elizabeth and Catherine by Robert Coughlan, a double biography both of Catherine and her predecessor Elizabeth. Judging by the look of the spine as I glance up at it on my shelf, it’s one I reread several times, which probably explains why when reading Massie’s recent biography of Catherine, the details of her life quickly began coming back to me. Catherine’s life is a great, epic story stretching across sixty-plus years, the vast Russian landscape, and a half-century of events in Europe including the Seven Years’ War and the French Revolution.

This biography is highly readable and engaging. It’s definitely written for the average, non-scholarly reader and there were times I wished Massie had dug a little deeper into his sources or given us more background. For example, Massie presents Catherine’s explanations for her own actions and motives in her Memoir (which covers her early years but was written much later) without much critique, whereas I think it would often be more interesting to explore why Catherine presented herself, or others, in a particular light — I suspect the Memoir tells us much more about the older Catherine who wrote it than it does about the young Catherine it describes.

Another oversight that frustrated me was that Massie alludes to some of the popular misconceptions about Catherine and her reign but doesn’t fully examine them. For example, in talking about the great tour undertaken by Catherine later in her reign he dismisses the idea of “Potemkin villages” and suggests that Gregory Potemkin did not, in fact, create fake villages full of happy peasants for Catherine to drive or sail through … but he doesn’t examine how the rumour got started or whether there was any grain of truth behind the falsehood. In describing Catherine’s death, he doesn’t make any reference to the most slanderous yet pervasive story about Catherine (go ahead, google “Catherine the Great” and see what search suggestion comes up next if you don’t believe me that it’s still widely circulated): that she died while attempting sexual congress with a horse. Obviously I wouldn’t expect a reputable biographer to give any credence to such a story (Catherine died of a stroke while going about her usual morning office work, btw), but it would have been interesting to allude to the story nonetheless, and to when and how it became popular, because the existence of such a slander says a lot about how Catherine and her female sexuality were viewed.

Although Catherine was undoubtedly a powerful woman, one of Russia’s two greatest rulers and certainly one of the great European monarchs of the 18th century, I will admit to being fascinated with her private life even  more than her public life, simply because of how it subverts our expectations of how women were “supposed” to behave. This was a woman who deposed her husband in order to reign as sovereign and then took a series of twelve lovers, three of whom fathered her children, some of whom played powerful roles in Russian politics, nearly all of whom were younger than she (significantly younger, as she got older), and one of whom, Gregory Potemkin, she may have been secretly married to. This seems incredible when you compare Catherine to other long-reigning female sovereigns in Europe. Elizabeth I of England, in an earlier era, based her power upon being “the Virgin Queen”: not only did she remain unmarried, but she was scrupulous in avoiding the appearance of sexual intimacy even with her several court “favourites.” In Catherine’s own time, Maria Theresa of Austria based her public imagine on being a virtuous Catholic wife, mother, and later widow — just as, later, Victoria of England did (minus the Catholic part of course). 

Yet there’s nothing at all unusual about Catherine’s sexual behavior if you apply it to a male monarch — the idea of a ruler having a series of mistresses, many younger than himself, all attractive, some more casual liasons and some long-term committments, and some allowing the mistress to wield significant political power — well, that applies to virtually every male ruler of every European country ever (with ver few exceptions). Yet conventional wisdom tells us that a woman couldn’t get away with that kind of behavior: it simply wouldn’t be accepted. 

But Catherine did — and, to some extent, her predecessor Elizabeth (the Russian one, not the English Elizabeth) did too — both were very open about the sexual nature of their affairs with various favourites. Neither was safe from criticism either within or outside Russia — hence the horse story, one of many slanders suggesting Catherine’s sexual appetites were not merely healthy and normal, but depraved and unnatural. Yet they got away with it — and we think it’s unusual only because they were women. I don’t know what all this means; I just think it’s very intriguing.

All in all, Massie’s biography of Catherine is very good despite omissions, and I’d recommend it to anyone who wants to know more about Russian history and about the fascinating, towering figure of Catherine the Great.

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