Saturday, February 11, 2012
Massie's Catherine the Great
Yesterday I finished reading Robert K. Massie's excellent new biography, Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, a wonderful Christmas gift from my parents and a worthy successor to Nicholas & Alexandra (the book that changed my life when I was twelve) and Peter the Great. While I'd read about Catherine (1729-1796) before, I learned a lot from this book, which like all of Massie's writing brings its subject to life so that the reader comes to feel like he actually knows her, a remote historical figure no longer.
I don't think I'd realized quite how serious the Pugachev rebellion was, or known much about the strange relationship between Catherine and her former lover Stanislaus Poniatowski (1732-1798) who she made King of Poland mainly because she was tired of him and wanted to get him away from her, surely a unique method of getting an annoying ex out of the way. Massie provides excellent insights into how Catherine combined admiration for the Enlightenment with autocratic rule. The way he describes the difficulties with which she was confronted in implementing her ideals, her approach makes more sense and is more coherent than it might appear at first glance. Also I hadn't realized that the first (1772) Partition of Poland, far from being a pure greedy land grab, actually benefited the religious liberties of most of the people affected, with the territory Catherine took having an Orthodox majority and the territory Prussia's Frederick II took a large Protestant population. (The final partition in 1795 which erased Poland from the map completely, mainly because Catherine didn't like it that the Poles had adopted a new constitution replacing a weak elective monarchy with a strong hereditary one, might be harder to justify.) What emerges throughout however is Catherine's essential kindness and warmth, which she combined with dedication to Russia's potential cultural greatness, crucially setting the stage as Massie says for the incredible flowering of the 19th century.
I disagree with Massie on only one point, namely that he believes Catherine's first extramarital lover Sergei Saltykov (1726-1765) to have been the probable biological father of her son Paul I (1754-1801), whereas without denying the obvious failure of Peter and Catherine's marriage I still think that the notable similarities in both appearance and behavior of Paul to his official father Peter III (1728-1762) suggest that he actually was Peter's son, despite the young Catherine's (admittedly understandable) infidelity. I caught two minor editing slips: a date which from context clearly should be "1780" appears as "1789," and the word "Little" is at one point spelled "Litttle" with an extra "t." It would have been nice if a family tree had been included, though I had no trouble making my own.
Massie concludes the book with an excerpt from one of Catherine's last letters to author and confidante Friedrich Melchior Baron von Grimm (1723-1807), which I found rather moving. Fittingly it so happens that she apparently wrote this exactly 218 years ago, on today's date in 1794 (nearly three years before her death), when she was 64.
"'Day before yesterday, on February ninth, it was fifty years since I arrived with my mother in Moscow. I doubt if there are ten people living today in St. Petersburg who remember. There is still Betskoy, blind, decrepit, gaga, asking young couples whether they remember Peter the Great...There is one of my old maids, whom I still keep, though she forgets everything. These are proofs of old age and I am one of them. But in spite of this, I love as much as a five-year-old child to play blindman's bluff, and the young people, including my grandchildren, say that their games are never so merry as when I play with them. And I still love to laugh.'"
No wonder Massie concludes his Acknowledgements with:
"Finally, I must acknowledge the extraordinary pleasure I have had in the company of the remarkable woman who has been my subject. After eight years of having her a constant presence in my life, I shall miss her."
I am no feminist, but after reading this book I am more convinced than ever that Russia could use some female leadership once more. Long live Empress Maria Vladimirovna!