Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Book Review: Catherine the Great, by Robert K. Massie

4.5 stars out of 5. 

I read this book as part of a reading group recommendation, not because of some overweening compulsion to dive into Russian history. Massie is most famous for writing Nicholas and Alexandra (published in 1967 and made into a movie in 1971), the story of the last Romanovs who were exiled and killed after the 1917 Russian revolution. Massie, an American from Kentucky and educated at Yale and Oxford, has also written books on Peter the Great and other European history topics. This current volume is published in 2011; Massie has been around a long time.

Catherine the Great is a big book, approaching 600 pages including the must-read author interview in the back. She was born into a small Prussian principality in 1729, the daughter of a financially struggling duke and a socially ambitious mother who was only 16 years her senior. The story begins with Empress Elizabeth of Russia, the daughter of Peter the Great (reigned 1682-1721), who took the Russian throne in 1741 and her first order of business was to secure the succession of power by finding a wife for her nephew-- and Peter the Great’s grandson-- Peter III. Answering a summons, Catherine (known as Sophia as a child) and her mother moved from Prussia to St. Petersburg to be formally courted.

Catherine married the odd Grand Duke Peter, heir to the throne, at the age of 16, but did not conceive the desired offspring for seven years, when Paul I was born. The paternity of Paul has always been questioned and Massie makes the case that his father was one of the court members. Upon Elizabeth’s death in 1761, the power transferred to Peter III, who reigned for only 6 months before dying under suspicious circumstances. Catherine, an outgoing, attractive and intellectually curious woman, had made significant political connections during her decade and a half living in the Russian capital, and much intrigue has been entertained as to the cause of Peter’s death. Catherine grasped the throne with the help of the military and immediately assumed leadership with poise and skill.

Several themes emerge from her reign. Her long tenure (1762 to 1796) was marked by social reforms for serfs (analogous to slaves in the US), expansion of the Russian Empire, and incorporation of Enlightenment values into the Russian Orthodox rule of law. She was famous for keeping her compassionate pledge to never execute a Russian citizen during her tenure, and she made every effort to grant criminals--even revolutionaries-- their day in court.

Catherine navigated the troubled diplomatic environment between France and Britain, keeping Russia safe during the Seven Years’ War (1754-1763). Massie makes the point that this was actually the first world war with battles fought as far away as India and North America, where it was known as the French and Indian War. Britain was the considered winner, taking land from France, but alliances had been cast that partially set the stage for World War One fifty years later.

The Russian empire was the most populous in the world with over 100 million citizens and Catherine increased trade, land and military power over her nearly 40-year reign. She courted the ideas of the French philosophes, invited Diderot and others to spend time in St Petersburg, and corresponded with Voltaire for decades. French was the primary language spoken in the Russian capital. From these humanist values she broached the notion of freeing Russian serfs but was met with vehement opposition from the nobility whose wealth was directly related to ownership of serfs.

To say her reign was complex is an understatement. Catherine quelled populist uprisings as serfs fought for their freedom while appeasing the nobility by granting certain rights for those same serfs. The American Revolution in 1776 and French Revolution in 1789 tested Catherine’s dedication to humanist values and she walked back many of her Enlightenment values in favor of her notion that the best form of government was benign dictatorship. The unwashed masses, while deserving of a certain quality of life, were just too ignorant to be trusted with governance. 

Parenthetically, Massie makes the point that as sketchy as our view of Russian human rights might be, the fact remains that Russia in many respects led the move away from treating humans as chattel and eventually Catherine’s great-grandson formally freed all serfs two years *before* the US freed the slaves. He points out that our sense of moral superiority is misplaced, since 15 American presidents owned slaves, including the writer of Declaration of Independence.

Catherine is responsible for acquiring the Ukraine and Crimea (in the headlines today) from the Turkish Ottoman empire. She established, with the help of her consort and close adviser Grigory Potemkin, the strategically important seaports of Sevastopol and Odessa on the Black Sea. The derogatory term “Potemkin Village” comes from this era when Grigory built cities and towns along the Dneiper River after the bloody Turkish wars in order to show Empress Catherine the magnificence of her newly won territory as she traveled the river to the Crimea. Massie says that much of the disdain for these towns is misplaced, manufactured by his political enemies; the towns, while built quickly, eventually did become important centers of commerce and strategic military outposts.

Robert Massie is an excellent writer and no matter your desire to know Russian history, this book is highly recommended. His narrative is remarkable for presenting complex ideas about military strategy, human rights, advantages and disadvantages of women as leaders, and international alliances with ease. 

One note on the paperback Random House edition is that it fell apart quite easily; maybe the glue was not intended for the Arizona desert. Also, the book would have been improved with maps of the military adventures.

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