"It was a long and remarkable journey that no one, not even she, could have imagined when, at fourteen, she set off for Russia across the snow."
Oh, nonfiction. I can't say I've read it in quite sometime. The last few attempts with the genre have ended in failure, so to have completed such a door stopper feels like a huge success. Massie certainly makes the list as one of my favorite biographers.
Before picking the work up, I'll admit I didn't know much about Catherine the Great. I was vaguely aware that she brought a new level of education and art appreciation to the great expanse of territory, but was ignorant of any other of her deeds, or her person. Fascinated by the Russian culture and such a successful female leader, I was immediately drawn to this when the release was announced. I plan to read Massie's other work on various members of the Russian monarchy, including Catherine's predecessor, Peter the Great, and the tragic story of Nicolas and Alexandra in the early 18th century.
600+ pages later I can say that I have a much better idea of the ways in which Catherine the Great ruled her nation and bed chamber.
The work talks about a lot of wars with Prussia. And Turkey. A lot, people. They are invading and then not invading and signing peace treaties and then disregarding those peace treaties. Headache. But Massie also stresses the fact that Catherine's husband, Peter III, was obsessed with the Prussian king, Frederick the Great. So much so, that he boldly flaunted a Prussian military uniform and marched manicured armies around for fun because he couldn't actually lead an army. The Russian people, well, they didn't like all that jazz because. they. weren't. Prussian. And he played with miniature figurines into his late twenties, in bed, while Catherine was trying to sleep. All in all, Massie paints Peter III as an idiot, unfit for rule, which is apparently what most of Russia also believed. After 10+ years of marriage (without ever doing the deed... if you know what I mean) Catherine marched on her husband, while he was vacationing, along with a pretty large army, and obtained the throne.
There's a lot of drama to go along with all the political mumbo jumbo. She travels from Germany as a young girl to find her betrothed pretty much completely uninterested in her, proceeds to promise to love him and the Russian nation, only to have him condemn her in public on many occasions for no reason at all. She has about 12 or 14 lovers; I lost count. She has children with many of them, and her son, Paul I, is definitely not the son of Peter III, but still grows up to be exactly like his "father."
Catherine is shown as determined, incredibly intelligent AND (this is the kicker) really opposed to torture. She's praised as a benevolent ruler who wanted to guide her subjects with love and care. While she never managed to abolish serfdom, a lifestyle worse than that of an abandoned pup, she did pave the way. Her love of the principles of the Enlightenment (she totally schmoozed with Voltaire, my hero), brought a love of education and art to the country, which had never really happened before. She also introduced maps. Shocker: Most of the nobility (those making the decisions) didn't even know what the whole of Russia looked like, an ignorance that had gone unquestioned since the birth of the state.
What right can give anyone authority to inflict torture upon a citizen when it is still unknown whether he is innocent or guilty? By law, every person is innocent until his crime is proved... The accused party on the rack, while in the agonies of torture, is not master enough of himself to be able to declare the truth...the sensation of pain may rise to such a height, that it will leave him no longer the liberty of producing any proper act of will, except what at that very instant he believes may release him from the pain [...] Then the judges will be uncertain whether they have an innocent or a guilty person before them.I really enjoyed this biography. I can't wait to read more of Massie's work. While I will say that he was a bit too informative on Catherine's everyday thought pattern (I was unaware that you could deduce so much through bits of letters) and a little too focused on her love life, I found it to be so much more intriguing than I had imagined. I learned more about this part of the world in relation to the rest of Europe during this period (Catherine was ruling at the same time the French were revolting and sending Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI to the guillotine). I was hesitant to return it to the library because I wasn't ready to leave Catherine's court. I have to declare that it's a must read for history lovers!
In the first place, my orders would not be carried out unless they were the kind of orders which could be carried out. You know with what prudence and circumspection I act in the promulgation of my laws. I take advice, I consult the enlightened part of the people, and in this way I ind out sort of effect my laws will have. And when I am already convinced in advance of good approval, then I issue my orders, and have the pleasure of observing what you call blind obedience. That is the foundation of unlimited power. But, believe me, they will not obey blindly when orders are not adapted to the opinion of the people.