I’ve read Massie’s other book on Peter the Great and thought it was good, so I decided to check this one out as well.
It is well written and entertaining. The characters are well drawn and engaging, and the pages just seem to flow by. You end the book with a colourful impression of 18th century court life.
Nevertheless, I dont think it is quite as good as his Peter the Great biography. The main problem I felt, and this is just a personal quibble, is that this book focuses too much on the who and not the what. It devotes a huge amount of time to detailed analyses and histories of each of Catherine’s royal favourites, and relatively little to her policies or what was actualy going on in Russia at th time. I understand this choice, as her favourites are what she is most known for in popular culture, but if this was the only book I had read about her, it would have left me wondering: why is she so great after all?
This theme of focusing overmuch on personal relations at the expense of polciy is a probably my main disapointment overall. The balance was just wrong. The Peter the Great biography had a lot of personal detail and fascinating characters (not least Peter himself) but there was also long discussions of battles, of legal policy, of diplomacy, as well as economic and social history of Russia. With Catherine these descriptions are present, but substantially thinner.
When they are described, they are described well. Catherine’s coup against Peter III was a page-turner section. The Pugachev rebellion was described vividly and in depth. A whole chapter was devoted to Catherine’s (mostly) failed attempt at creating a parliament and promulgating more enlightened laws in the Nakaz, but after this one-off there was relatively little discussion of legal issues.
Massie generally has a flair for foreign policy and making the diplomacy of an age come alive, and that is on display here. However, the machinations of the late 18th century don’t form such a grand narrative as the Great Northern War, and many actions, such as the Partition of Poland paint Catherine more as a villain than a hero. The Russo-Ottoman wars are also treated fairly sparsely, mostly being mentioned in passing as a setting to Potemkin’s grand Crimean tour. Nevertheless, the diplomacy is, for me, the best part of the book.
One thing I found especially fascinating was how pervasive Frederick the Great’s fame was, even early on. I knew he was seen as legendary in his day, but I had assumed that the legend had grown from the victories. In fact, it seems to have been the other way around. His victories had grown from his legend. At his most famous victory: the conquest of Silesia, he was saved from destruction by Peter IIIs idolisation of him. Just goes to show what good PR will do for you, I suppose.
The whole early section, when Catherine is not yet empress is a fascinating portrayal of the opulence and frustration of 18th century court life. The unpleasantness and general childishness of Peter III is well drawn as is Emperss Ann’s jealousy, Catherine’s frustration and fear, and the battles they face with the procession of keepers they are assigned. I’m continually amazed at how many balls and parties the aristocracy all go to. You would think they weren’t busy running a country. Nevertheless, despite the constant partying, there is also constant boredom, and a general sense of fear underlying everything. Massie portrays this well.
One final complaint is that despiet the much greater focus on people and relationships here than in the Peter the Great biography, I still feel we get less of a sense of what Catherine really was like compared to Peter. As a young woman she was smart and headstrong, and chafed at the restrictions and boredom of court life, her need to avoid evoking the jealousy of Empress Ann, and her awful marriage with Peter III. But then once she becomes empress much of her character appears to vanish. We hear much more about how she reacted to events, or the people she surrounded herself with than who she became. Perhaps there is a message in that.
I think I’ve been overly harsh in this review. The book is good! It is definitely worth reading. Massie is a talented wordsmith and historian who can make an era come alive. It’s hard to compete with Peter, both in real life and on the page
One final note: This book made me so glad I live in the age of modern medicine. The amount of people who randomly come down with a fever and die within a few days is pretty astounding.