Catherine the Great: biography at its best

catherine the greatShe convened the first representative assembly in Russia’s history, anticipating the creation of the ill-fated Duma a century and a half later.

A contemporary of Montesquieu and Jefferson and loyal correspondent with Voltaire and Diderot, she took the first few steps toward reform of her country’s peculiar form of slavery, serfdom.


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

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Equaling the military success of Peter the Great more than half a century before her, and his opening to Europe with the establishment of St. Petersburg, she extended Russia’s span of control to the Black Sea, humbling the Turkish empire and building Crimea’s two great ports, Odessa and Sebastopol.

She amassed the nearly 4,000 works of art that formed the foundation of the legendary Hermitage Museum and sponsored the creation of Falconet’s towering masterpiece, the equestrian statue of Peter the Great that dominates St. Petersburg.

She had been a minor German princess yanked from childhood at the age of 14 to marry the future tsar of Russia. The then 17-year-old Peter, grandson of Peter the Great, was a boorish fool disfigured by smallpox and obsessed with toy soldiers who slept with her for eight years without once touching her. Virtually imprisoned by his side, she took the time to read every book her friends could sneak to her. The result was an admirably wide-ranging education.

Vorontsova-Dashkova

Catherine II, Empress of Russia

In the course of her 67 years, the Empress Catherine II of Russia took a dozen lovers, giving birth to three children, none of them by the one man who was indisputably married to her. The greatest love of her life and possibly her second husband, Gregory Potemkin, was a temperamental genius who elevated her reign with breakthroughs as a military leader, a city-builder, and a master showman.

In an age of celebrated monarchs — Frederick II of Prussia, Maria Theresa of Austria, George III of Britain — she was arguably the greatest. She was, in any case, the richest. More importantly, she displayed consummate skill in moderating the rapidly shifting currents of domestic Russian politics, in evaluating military strategy, and in maneuvering through the shoals of European diplomacy. In short, Catherine the Great was a brilliant exemplar of leadership.

This extraordinary woman is the subject of Robert K. Massie’s brilliant biography, Catherine the Great. Her 33-year reign (1762-96), contemporaneous with the American and French Revolutions, began with a rush of enthusiasm for the principles of the Enlightenment and ended in disillusionment after a succession of tragedies and disappointments.

About the author

Nearly half a century ago, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Robert K. Massie gained wide recognition with the publication of Nicholas and Alexandra (1967), a biography of the last tsar and his family, who perished at the hands of Lenin’s Bolshevik soldiers. Tsar Nicholas II was Catherine’s great-great-great-great-grandson, the last of a long line of direct descendants that constituted both the high and the low points of the Romanov Dynasty.

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