Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Catherine the Great

8. Catherine the Great by Robert K. Massie

This recent biography of Catherine the Great received a lot of attention and praise-and I'm not entirely sure it deserved the adulation. I was very much looking forward to it considering my interest in the subject and my recent reading of The Winter Palace. This is the first biography of Catherine the Great I have read, although I have read her Memoirs, upon which the first half of the biography is largely based.

I have two primary complaints with Massie's opus. The first and most problematic is that he is too ambitious in presenting her life from birth to death (in fact, from her parents' marriage to her son's ascension to the throne)and in attempting to demonstrate the scope of her reign. Massie writes what should have been, I believe, three separate books or at least two. I would have divided the book into three; Catherine's personal life before her reign, her personal life during her reign, and the state of Europe with a focus on Russia during Catherine's reign.

The first, most successful section is that based on her memoirs, from her birth to her elevation to the Russian throne. However, I must note that nearly all of what I learned from this section I had already learned-from The Winter Palace. This speaks more to the impeccable research that went into the novel than any lack on Massie's part; his telling is both exhaustive and engaging, but cannot compete with the intrigue, tension, and voluptuous imagery of the novel. In this case, reading the biography merely served to confirm information that I had already gained in a more interesting manner (Stachniak's novel) and from a more direct source (Catherine's Memoirs). Nevertheless, certainly recommended to those who prefer straight non-fiction and want to learn about the Enlightened Empress.

The second section of the book covers Catherine's reign and is less successful, because it tries to do so much. Massie covers Catherine's relationship with European philosophers, her wars with Poland, Sweden, and Turkey, her treaties with Prussia and Austria, Pugachev's Rebellion, and all the many events and social experiments of her reign. Not that all of this information is irrelevant, certainly it's all interesting and pertinent, HOWEVER, when Massie veers into discussing the decisions of her generals, the daily lives of her people, and the opinions of Frederick of Prussia, I can't help feeling he's a little off topic. I wanted a more personal biography of Catherine, and I feel that is what Massie is best equipped to provide. He is at his best when he discusses her feelings on the Enlightenment and her relationships with her lovers, and all of these wider topics could have been breached in the context of her personal life without being detailed to such a degree.

My second problem with Massie is his personal adoration of his subject. I understand it is hard not to get attached to the subject of one's biography, especially since a biographer spends so many years researching and becoming immersed in the subject's world. While Catherine is often criticized for her sexuality and tyranny, and it is refreshing to read a biography so defensive, it at times feels cloying. Massie asserts that Catherine, if given the chance, would have ended serfdom and given some amount of rule to the common people, but was too frightened in the wake of Pugachev's Rebellion and then the French Revolution. Yet even he admits that she had very firm opinions on the divine rights of monarchs. For every cruel, calculating decision, Massie has an excuse and continually insists on the Empress' kindness and benevolent intentions. While some of it is believable, or at least arguable, I don't think it can be denied that Catherine, for example, ruthlessly subdivided and eventually eliminated Poland as a country and sought to control her subjects through extensive use of military force.

For a complete biography of Catherine the Great, Massie is more than adequate and the casual reader will walk away well-informed. In terms of language, it's not hard to get through, although the chunks of facts may make one want to put it down every so often. However, for a real informative treat on Catherine's early years, I would more enthusiastically recommend The Winter Palace and while I cannot say for sure, I suspect other biographies may be more succinct and less pandering in their portrayal of a fascinating eighteenth century despot.

1 comment:

Marie said...

This is a great review. I haven't read it yet but I would like to, however you're making me wonder if I should read The Winter Palace first. Thanks for the awesome review.