Saturday, November 5, 2011


I have to admit I don't really know much about Prince William and Kate Middleton (not sure if she's called a "Princess" or not). They seem like nice people, and she's very pretty and classy and I hope she's really as down to earth as she appears. It can't be easy living with that much attention – it seemed especially difficult for Princess Diana. Of course, Diana didn't seem to have much support from a husband who appeared stiff and anything but warm. But again, these are just the impressions I have from what I've seen in the media – I haven't gone out of my way to actually learn anything about them. But I couldn't help but think that the lives such people live isn't as charmed as it sometimes appears while I read Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie.

Sophia Augusta Fredericka (later renamed Catherine) was born in 1729, the daughter of a minor noble in a minor German kingdom. She was chosen at age fourteen by Elizabeth, Empress of Russia, to be the bride of her son Peter and travelled to Russia with her determined and scheming mother. But in a Russian court full of ambition and jealousies, Sophia managed to maneuver herself onto the throne in 1762 through her charm and intelligence (and a generally bloodless coup). Once there, and inspired by the enlightenment philosophies of Voltaire, Diderot, and others, she sought to institute many changes in a society considered backward and primitive by other European countries and rulers. And while her sweeping and lofty reforms were rejected, she managed to leave her imprint on Russia in so many other ways throughout her 34 years as ruler – so much so that her people called her “Great.”

Mr. Massie writes an engaging and fascinating biography of Catherine II, and makes her intensely (and sometimes uncomfortably) human in the process. He brings her to life as a young woman in a foreign court faced with earning acceptance from the Empress, her future husband, power-hungry courtiers, and the Russian people. In her first few years on the throne she tried to gradually eliminate serfdom (slavery) but was opposed by the nobility (to which she owed in large degree her ascension to power). Interestingly, she also found that the serfs themselves were not progressive thinking enough to imagine such freedom – a rather rude awakening for her enlightenment beliefs – instead being more concerned about broken fences and small grievances like that. Later her views on emancipating the serfs turned completely around when she saw the violence and chaos of the French Revolution and the parallels to the Pugachev Rebellion she herself had faced. Another aspect of her life that was explained in a way that made her a sympathetic character was the different "favorites" (lovers) she had and her deep-seated desire just to be loved.

With excerpts from Catherine's own writings this bio offers a very insightful look into the politics and intrigue and the lives of European rulers and nobles during the latter half of the 1700s, and for being such a long book (nearly 600 pages before the index and bibliography) it's incredibly interesting. I thought pedigree charts explaining the relationships of the characters would have been helpful (mine was an advance copy from Amazon Vine, so perhaps the final book has them) and it would have been nice if a little more background had been given on nations outside Russia (only Poland and the French Revolution are explained in much detail, but little on Prussia, Germany, and Austria). Still, this was a remarkable book and didn't often show life as a princess or queen in a very charming manner. I'll definitely be looking to add Mr. Massie’s other books on the Romanovs and Russian history to my reading list.

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