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On Russia: Robert Massie’s Catherine the Great

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A Russian friend once told me she always thought of her country as a motherland.   I wonder if the historical roots for such a view lie in the beginning of modern Russia — in the Romanov rulers after Peter the Great, several of whom were women — including Catherine II (the Great, born Sophia Frederica Augusta of Anhalt-Zerbst).

I knew a bit about Catherine from high school history: that she was a German princess originally who came to Russia as a child bride of Peter III of Russia, that she transformed Russia into a great European power (both continental and maritime) in the second half of the 18th century, and that she famously took many lovers, including Gregory Potemkin.  There were many curious legends about her sexual prowess.

Robert Massie’s book, Catherine the Great: A Portrait of a Woman, reveals her as complex, intelligent, well-cultured, and enlightened ruler, but also that she was an autocrat who depended on the nobility for her power.  Her younger years were spent reading and studying the Enlightenment thinkers and awaiting marriage, as a pawn of other’s ambitions.  Her later years as a mature Empress transformed her into a wise, benevolent, yet also ruthless autocrat and ruler.  Catherine was truly one of the greatest of early modern European rulers, influencing the 18th century as her counterpart Elizabeth I of England had the Renaissance.

She was a woman never allowed to mother her own biological children (her son, Paul I, was raised as a ward of the state); she did, however, find love and possibly even marriage with Potemkin. She wrote an ambitious treatise inspired by Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Becarria to guide her subjects closer to democratic rule of law (the Nakaz), and she was a patron of many artists, scientists, and thinkers of the time.  She also founded the first university for women (the Smolny Institute), and she was the first modern ruler to preside over a widely succesful national innoculation campaign against smallpox.

Readers will be interested to learn more about serfdom in Russia, which wasn’t a holdover from the Middle Ages or medieval times (as I previously thought), but an institution formalized in the 16th century — the Renaissance.  Serfdom had many parallels with American Slavery, and yet it differed as well.  There is also a detailed account of the Pugachev Rebellion, centering around a pretender to the Russian Throne and a long, brutal civil war, which Catherine ruthlessly fought and won.

I picked up a copy of Massie’s book after attending a reading he gave at the Miami International Book Fair last month.   The book has been favorably reviewed by the New York Times on Sunday, Nov. 16, 2011.

Lantana Public Library currently has Massie’s Peter the Great: his life and world (Call No. B Pet).  This earned Massie the Pulitzer Prize in 1981.

Written by lantanalister1

December 18, 2011 at 5:18 am