Catherine the Great

Robert K. Massie’s massive one-volume life of the greatest empress of Russia took me the better part of a month to work my way through, coming at it as I did: in small chunks each evening. I came at it nearly every evening, though, because the story and the characters in it were fascinating – often larger than life in their dramas and dalliances and decisions.

German princess, Russian empress

Catherine began her life as Sophia, the daughter of minor German nobles when Germany was still a patchwork quilt of small nations. She ended her days ruler of a successfully expansionary Russia, having achieved far more of her aims in life than most (or all) of her peers. Her path took her through subservience to a mercurial empress and a loveless marriage to a boy who never became a man, before leading her to ascend the throne and rule with increasing measures of diplomatic skill and imperiousness. Early sympathies for the rights of the people eventually gave way to the necessities of realpolitik. A half dozen affairs seem never to have quite sated the hunger in her heart for real love and affection. Catherine loved deeply and passionately and joyously, but also grew bored of men who stood always in her shadow, or tired of their attempts to exert dominance.

The book fascinates, because Massie managed something quite difficult but utterly essential for good biography: he let Catherine for herself through her words and actions whenever possible. A figure as compelling as Catherine the Great needs no embellishment to stir interest; she simply needs to be seen just as she was, in all her intricacies, contradictions, and mysteries. Every human being is interesting when shown truly and clearly; remarkable people are all the more so, and too many biographers make the mistake of thinking their own tics are more interesting than the person whose sketch they are painting – as though Leonardo were to insert himself into the Mona Lisa. By and large, Massie simply gets out of the way and lets the reader see Catherine herself, uninterpreted. (The subtitle of the book, appropriately, is “Portrait of a Woman”.)

The volume is full of excerpts from the empress’ personal journal (until its abrupt end relatively early in her life) and her many letters. With recipients ranging from lovers to Enlightenment philosophers like Voltaire, the latter provides enormous insight into Catherein’s interests, motives, and plans throuhgout her life. The former, by contrast, provides a glimpse of the woman underneath the plots and politics: a woman who missed her father terribly, chafed under her mother’s excessive self-interest, saw power as essential and move skillfully to take it, thought hard and felt passionately, and tolerated far more abuse and nonsense than most of us would find bearable.

Catherine’s actions, too, paint a fascinating portrait. From her early political maneuverings – and non-political friendships – to her mid-life efforts to reform Russia, to her late-life expansionary wars, Catherine was usually decisive, rarely catty, and often brilliant. She rarely picked the wrong side in a fight, whether in the Russian court or on the world stage, and she matched conservatism in some areas with generous liberalism in others.

Perhaps most interesting of all was her early idealism, with its concomitant aims at changing the entire societal structure of Russia. The empire remained almost entirely feudal in structure, with a vast underclass of peasants (the serfs) serving to ensure the comfort of the nobility. This arrangement seemed increasingly backwards in light of Enlightenment writers’ approach to human rights and the breakdown of the compact on which feudalism depended. The era of nobility ended the moment the professional army was invented, though it took a few more centuries to gasp out its dying breaths. In Russia, feudalism hung on until the October Revolution in 1917 – a token of the unique cultural, political and especially economic forces at work in the nation. Catherine sought, in the mid 18th century, to overturn all of this, or at least to shake it up a bit.


Unfortunately, her attempts failed, meeting both stubborn resistance from the nobility and the obstacle of ignorance among the serfs. The nobles, of course, wanted nothing to do with reforms that would see their own comforts and stature diminish. The peasants, largely uneducated and almost entirely illiterate, had little framework for the modern ideas Catherine trumpeted, though greater freedom and hope certainly appealed to them. When, a few years after these efforts began, a massive peasant rebellion broke out, Catherine crushed it mercilessly and left off her effforts to bring change. The Russian character, she said, simply would not tolerate modern ideals. Over the rest of her life, she cemented the authority of the nobility and especially the imperial seat. Though she opened the door in many ways for reforms that would come later – the freeing of the serfs in the mid 19th century, though not a direct product of her rule, was certainly a consequence of her liberalism – she also solidified the inequalities that would make Marxist so appealing a century and a half later.

The single great tragedy of Catherine’s life is that she repeated the same familial mistakes that she had endured. Her mother was distant and emotionally unengaged – to say nothing of loving – with her from childhood on. With her own children, especially her eldest son, she was much the same: disconnected and manipulative. Likewise, just as her predecessor Empress Elizabeth had taken her eldest son to groom as heir to the thrown (part of the cause for Catherine’s distance form him), Catherine took her first grandson almost entirely away from her son and daughter-in-law, leaving them little time together. The same manipulations and pain she endured, she inflicted on others.

Though Catherine ended her life far more cynically than she began it, and certainly still lonely, she never seems to have become bitter; she was happy at what she accomplished in life and considered hserself to be leaving a good legacy.

Readers will note I’ve said little of Catherine’s religion; it seems she had little. She participated in the pomp of the Russian Orthodox church regularly after her conversion from Lutheranism (a political move if ever there was one), and yet she was always doubtful about Christianity and religion in general. It was a useful tool, and she paid lip service to its tenets, but there is little to suggest it ever touched her heart in any way. I wonder how different her life might have been had it been shaped by Christ over and above Enlightenment humanism or realpolitik.

A mirror of the human soul

Catherine’s life, on reflection, seems something of a microcosm for the human experience as a whole. She inflicted on others the same harms she endured. She began in idealistic liberalism and ended in cynical conservatism (and note that I am using the words not in the modern political sense but in their original meaning: openness to change and a love of freedom versus resistance to change). She found herself in a loveless marriage, and made the most of it. She used men and they used her. She accomplished many great things and nearly all of them are forgotten today. Like all of us, she ultimately died alone with the choices she had made and faced the living God.

If there is a lesson for us here, it is this: our lives, however great, are little things. Even a woman so magnificent and accomplished as to be remembered and noted centuries later is but a footnote, her legacy little felt and even less appreciated by those who come after. There are other lessons, too, subtler and worth savoring just as deeply – on the necessity of love and the power of parents to shape their children’s live, on the way one small decision here can work great good or wreak great havok over there, on the profound need of love in every person’s life, on the ways reality impinges on every ideal.

If the book has a failing, it is the failing of nearly all portraits: it paints it subject in too kind a light, smoothing over blemishes or excusing faults. Massie takes a long look at Catherine’s life, but not a particularly stern one; her failings are excused far more than they are critiqued. Still, Massie’s work is excellent, most of all because it captures the human experience so well. I highly recommend it.

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