Catherine, the Great Human Being

Article excerpt

Byline: Owen Matthews

A new book depicts the Russian monarch as she really was: enlightened, insightful, and passionate.

The Russian empress Catherine the Great once described her lover Grigory Potemkin as "one of the great originals of the age." She was surely right about the empire-building Potemkin, but it was Catherine herself, an obscure German princess who rose through a combination of ruthlessness, energy, and imagination to become one of Russia's greatest rulers, who more properly deserves the title.

Catherine built, conquered, reformed, and organized--like all great monarchs of the 18th century. But what makes Catherine uniquely fascinating is her questing intellect, and the insight we have into it through her own writings. Thanks to her frank memoirs and letters, we see Catherine's lively mind struggling to reconcile her own enlightened principles with the dark, feudal realities of Russia. "She saw herself, a daughter of Europe coming to Russia 18 years after Peter [the Great's] death, as resuming his journey to civilization and greatness," writes Robert Massie, veteran biographer of Russian royalty, in his magisterial new biography, Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman.

Massie, a former Newsweek writer, has been in the business of bringing great Russian lives into vivid perspective for half a century. His Nicholas and Alexandra (1967) and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Peter the Great (1981) were groundbreaking works because at the time Soviet historians of the tsarist period "all had their marching orders; they had to follow a line," Massie said in an interview.

Catherine the Great is a different kind of book, written in different times, about a far more complex character than either Peter I or Nicholas II. Groundbreaking it is not; Massie cites no fewer than 12 English-language biographies of Catherine, four of them written since the end of communism. He quotes no original Russian sources. But Massie's book is nonetheless valuable because it brings a piercing human intelligence to its subject. More, it has every bit of the narrative brio of his earlier works, bowling along in magnificently ringing, almost Victorian, tones. "Traveling towards an unknown country, propelled by an empress's sentimentality, a mother's ambition, and the intrigues of the king of Prussia, an adolescent girl was launched on a great adventure," he writes of the journey of young Sophia von Anhalt-Zerbst (the future Catherine the Great) to St. Petersburg en route to marry the heir to the Russian Empire.

The portrait Massie paints for us of Catherine is intimate and alive. Above all she was a passionate woman lonely at the pinnacle of power she had seized for herself, looking for love in all the wrong places. "I would say about myself that I was a true gentleman with a mind more male than female," Catherine wrote. In "A Sincere Confession," a private account of her life and loves written for Potemkin, the greatest and most jealous of her lovers--and possibly her secret husband--she revealed: "The trouble is that my heart is loath to be without love for even a single hour--If you want to keep me forever, then show as much friendship as love, and more than anything else, love me and tell me the truth." Such psychological insight into any life from the period is almost unprecedented, let alone into the psyche of a monarch.

Massie's great talent is to create characters that seem sympathetic and understandable despite inhabiting a world that is almost unimaginably distant from our own. This world of 18th-century princely courts was ruled by an obsession with rank and marriage, the ever-present threat of disease and violent death, and (in Russia at least) a morbid religious fatalism. Russia was, like the newborn United States of America, a slave-owning society where serfs were personal property to be bought and sold.

Like America's Founding Fathers, Catherine quickly reconciled herself to the paradox between her Enlightenment enthusiasms and the ownership of slaves--assisted by the realization that her power depended on the support of Russia's serf-owning nobility. …