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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

“Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman”, by Robert K. Massie

656 pages, Random House, ISBN-13: 978-0679456728

Robert K. Massie is one of those rare authors whose books I buy on the reputation of the writer first and on the subject matter second. Thus was the case with Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman. On its own, it’s not a bad book by any means; once again Massie does a great job portraying Catherine’s personality and character, aided as he was by the memoirs and numerous personal letters Catherine left behind. Massie makes excellent use of this material, quoting freely and revealingly from Catherine's writings, and the image that emerges is of a strong, practical, witty, opinionated, and rather acerbic woman of the world. What’s interesting about Catherine is she had the strength and self-confidence to seize the throne of an empire, yet she was never a self-centered egomaniac like so many rulers. She had a pretty clear-headed view of her own strengths and weaknesses and didn’t lose sight of that, even after ruling for some 30-odd years. I certainly can’t approve of many of her policies as empress, however there’s little doubt she was a highly unusual and interesting person.

With all that said, I was left with several unanswered questions. First and foremost, I wanted more information on Catherine as a mother. Massie tells us a lot about Catherine as a wife and lover, but little about her and her children. He relates the births of her two officially acknowledged children, Paul and Anna, and tells us that Empress Elizabeth essentially stole both children from Catherine; we then hear almost nothing further about Paul, Catherine’s heir, until page 400 or so, nor much about the rumors that he may in fact have been the son of Sergei Saltykov. There is no discussion of how Catherine felt about the loss of her children or what her limited relationship with them was like. Massie also provides little to no information about Catherine’s relationship (if any) with her illegitimate son, Count Bobrinsky.

Another area that falls quite a bit short is the general social and historical context of Catherine’s time. Massie did much, much better with this in Peter the Great, as in that book he really described all the sectors of Russian society in Peter's time – peasants, aristocrats, priests – so you could feel and understand the world Peter was from; in that book he also did a better job of describing the relative character and power of other major European powers, so you understood the political context of Peter’s time. Not so here. While Massie provides a section on the serfs (focusing overmuch on lurid sexual details) he offers no corresponding section on the Russian gentry/aristocracy. There is a decent discussion of the French Revolution, but more information was needed on the significance of Prussia and Frederick the Great, as well as Austria. Massie spends too much time on figures like Voltaire and John Paul Jones (I didn't need to know the life story of each) and not enough on more important people in Catherine’s life. In general, the book could have used a stronger editorial hand; certain areas receive too much emphasis, others not enough. And the second half of the book suffers from a rather episodic, disjointed quality.

Over all I was left disappointed in three things: Massie’s simplified scholarship; his attempts at psychological profiling; and his “dumbing down” of the content. The book is written with a lot of repetition (at some points I had to flip back a couple pages to see if I had accidentally gone backwards instead of forwards as the material was repeated, almost verbatim) and though I was interested in the story it often felt over-simplified with the major events of the time being glossed over; this bothered me and left the scholarship of the book feeling lackadaisical and unprofessional. All this is not to say I didn’t learn something reading it because I did; I enjoyed picking up new information about Catherine, her life as seen through her eyes (so to speak, the book is not in first person). And ultimately I didn't give up on it despite the drawbacks. But I expect more from Massie.

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