Catherine II of Russia was a woman whose reputation was mired in controversy. Legend has it, or so one my college professors once said, that she was so insatiable that it led to her death. As the story goes, she died when a stallion that had been harnessed to a hoist above her bed snapped the harness and fell on her. Another story was that when she married her young husband, he spent his time in bedroom with her, under the covers, playing with toy soldiers.
The story about the toy soldiers is true. The story about the horse, not true. Like all legends, it has is genesis in fact: she, like the empress Elizabeth before her, enjoyed men. Catherine had at least 12 lovers in her lifetime, and would probably have been diagnosed as promiscuous. But she, like so many fascinating women monarchs, was defined more by strength of character and resolve than by her sexuality.
Catherine The Great: Portrait of a Woman (Random House, 656 pages, Kindle edition $14.99) by 82 year old Robert K. Massie is a true surprise because historical biographies can be real snoozers. But Massie, 82, has surprised us before with books like Nicholas and Alexandra: An Intimate Account of the Last of the Romanovs and the Fall of Imperial Russia (1967) and Peter the Great: His Life and World (1980). Massie carries the credentials of an historian, and exercises care in documenting his work; but he has the instincts of a novelist. This makes reading him a joy as well as an education.
In Catherine, who was not born Catherine and was not Russian (she was born Sophia Augusta Frederika von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg to a minor Prussian nobleman and his wife),we encounter a truly fascinating personality. Her mother, Johanna was a self-aggrandizing woman who felt that she deserved better in life than to be harnessed to a man who, although respected and honored, was far from the royalty she longed for. Still, her husband was royalty enough to give Johanna an ace in the hole: a daughter who could be married to someone of promising rank and future who could make Johanna’s dreams of high station come true.
Massie tells the story of young Sophia, and of other young children who were pawns in dynastic games, with pathos and really makes you understand their station; how in order to be children and enjoy their young lives they had to steal moments of fun and frolic away from their “duties” and their “training” by martinet scholars who were grooming them for their roles as heirs and brood mares.
Through a series of fortuitous circumstances, Sophia is promised to another Prussian, Peter of Holstein, who was one of two surviving male heirs of Peter the Great. The empress Elizabeth of Russia, Peter’s aunt, had locked one of them away for life (something that would come back to haunt her). She could accept Peter because he would strengthen the ties between Russia and Prussia, and counter the influence of Austria (which was ruled by the indomitable Maria Therese). Get the idea? These kids were chess pieces in the hands of of a master politician.
The marriage of Sophia and Peter was, as you might expect, a disaster. He didn’t touch her for nine years. Her first child was, in all likelihood, sired by the first of her many lovers (with Peter’s knowledge and consent, to make things stranger). After the child was born, both Peter and Sophia—who had since taken the baptismal name Catherine when she converted from the Lutheran faith to Russian Orthodoxy—were marginalized. The empress Elizabeth, a beautiful, strong-willed, highly sexed, and much feared monarch and only surviving daughter of Peter the Great, whom she favored in spirit, had what she needed: a male heir.
Empress Elizabeth got something she hadn’t bargained for in her young princess. Catherine, unlike her probably alcoholic and perpetually adolescent husband Peter, took to her new country, with its new language and new religion, and made it a part of her character and personality. This endeared both noble and commoner to this young woman. After Elizabeth’s death, Catherine would mount a horse and lead the forces that toppled her ineffectual husband after only 6 months of a disastrous reign as Tsar Peter III. Watching her, in Massie’s skillful narrative, grow from a compliant and deferential young woman to a seductive, strong-willed, and truly intimidating sovereign is a thing of wonder.
It is truly amazing that we for so long held the opinion that women were inferior to men, because history tells us a very different story. In women like Isabella of Spain (who was called, in her time, a mujer varonil, a “manly woman”, the greatest compliment that men at the time could think of!), Elizabeth I of England, Marie-Therese of Austria, and Elizabeth and Catherine II of Russia, we saw very clearly that women could outthink, outride, outrun, and outman the most formidable male opponents, whether in the bedroom or in the field of battle. That in her later years she could be cruel and calculating simply meant that she had become so in order to survive, in order to become—as her familiar title suggests—Catherine the Great.
Copyright Isaac Morris 2012