'Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman' Review

Catherine The Great
Catherine the Great wrote, “Show as much friendship as love, and more than anything else, love me and tell me the truth.” Getty Images

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.

Catherine the Great, By Robert Massie, Random House, $35.

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. Yet at the same time she endlessly debated the rights of man in a semipublic correspondence with Voltaire and other giants of the European Enlightenment that were a masterpiece of public intellectual diplomacy. The French encyclopedist Denis Diderot was her guest in St. Petersburg for several months—and became so carried away during their conversations that Catherine had to place a table between them to stop the old man from painfully grabbing her knee for emphasis. By buying Diderot's library—as well as most of the important collections of Old Master paintings sold in Europe during her lifetime—she showed Europeans that "there were things in the East other than snow and wolves," writes Massie.

Massie is at his best when writing about Catherine's complex personal life—the subject for which she has been most slandered by history. Catherine had 12 lovers in her life, a few of them long, passionate, and faithful relationships with men of genius: among them was Grigory Orlov, the man who helped her depose and murder her unstable and emotionally damaged husband, Peter III, and Grigory Potemkin, who conquered swaths of South Russia from the Turks. The rest of her relationships with good-looking, witty but ephemeral young men were conducted with a no-nonsense frankness. But in the age of Catherine, the personal was political, and she used many of her lovers as lieutenants even after they had stopped being her intimates. One, Stanislaus Poniatowski, was made king of Poland and presided over the division and then disappearance of his homeland into the Russian Empire.

But this serial monogamy was not, says Massie, "due solely or even primarily to sensuality on Catherine's part. She wanted to love and to be loved. She had lived with an impossible husband in an emotional vacuum. To read her letters to Potemkin is to realize that, as much as physical satisfaction, she wanted intelligent, loving companionship." And small wonder that she craved it. Catherine had been brought to a foreign land as a 14-year-old, married at 16 to a psychologically crippled and physically blemished adolescent who did not touch her for nine years in their marriage bed. Her three children had been spirited away at the moment of birth by their obsessive and jealous great-aunt, the Empress Elizabeth of Russia. "As the years passed she became caught up in a search for the Fountain of Youth," writes Massie. "She attempted to preserve her youth by identifying it with the affection—simulated if necessary—of young men."

The book has flaws. The structure falters and lapses into confusion toward the end—something that the pedantic Catherine never allowed, despite her own radically varied panoply of interests and responsibilities. Sometimes, like the beam of a mighty but creaky Victorian lighthouse, Massie's attention gets stuck pointing in the wrong direction for a little too long. A long digression on the French Revolution, for instance, and a potted history of the guillotine are a little off message. Massie's great eye for detail also inexplicably misses some wonderful, well-known vignettes. For example, Massie mentions the eccentric attire of one of Catherine's great generals, Nikita Panin, who wore "a large French nightcap with pink ribbons" on campaign. But he regretfully omits the far more famously eccentric behavior of a much greater general, Alexander Suvorov, who was in the habit of turning naked somersaults in front of his troops on morning parade.

History should be written "horizontally as well as vertically," says Massie. "You can't just bore down through the dates in one country, you have to show the rest of the world around too." In a career of bringing Russian history alive to Western readers—and to Russian readers too, who read his works on the forbidden tsarist history in samizdat form—Massie has succeeded brilliantly in showing how Russia has always been intimately connected to Europe's political and cultural life, albeit usually a step or two behind the times. In Catherine the Great, Massie has created a sensitive and compelling portrait not just of a Russian titan, but also of a flesh-and-blood woman.