She wrote diligently, to her lovers, to her diplomats, to friends, and left detailed memoirs, all put to good use by Robert K. Massie, biographer of the tsars, who brings great authority to this sweeping account of Catherine and her times. His story of this epic life is warm, sure and confiding, even when plowing through yet another war with the Turks.
Catherine was a 14-year-old small-town German princess named Sophia when she was summoned to Russia by Empress Elizabeth, daughter of Peter the Great, who was looking for a wife for her nephew, Peter’s grandson, Peter III.
The intelligent and fortuitously demure Sophia passed muster and soon married Peter, her second cousin and a difficult young man brought up in Germany (his mother had married a German prince, and both parents died when he was young) by a domineering tutor who managed to stunt him emotionally and intellectually. Sophia obligingly gave up her Lutheran faith, embraced Russian Orthodoxy, took the name Catherine, and worked hard at becoming Russian, a transformation of little interest to Peter. That proved his undoing.
The marriage was awful. Catherine said it was never consummated. She retreated to books, immersing herself in the works of the Enlightenment. Peter occupied himself with drilling soldiers and missing Germany. Both took lovers. After Elizabeth died, Peter was crowned but quickly made himself unpopular, and Catherine, considering herself better fit to rule, was receptive to a coup. Peter acquiesced without a fight, was imprisoned and killed a week later in shadowy circumstances.
“Hatred of foreigners was the chief factor in the whole affair,” Catherine herself wrote, “and Peter III passed for a foreigner.”
Massie bravely leads us through a great fretwork of minor and significant nobility, everyone related to everyone else, most of them German, with a few Swedes, Austrians, French and English thrown in. With so many dates, realms, princes, grand duchesses, emperors, wits, towering philosophers and valorous soldiers steadily occupying about 600 pages, the author pauses from time to time to repeat, stopping just short of repetitiveness.
He leaves us frustrated only once. Early on, Massie mentions the steely ambition that will propel Catherine through some of history’s most remarkable moments. Yet he never really plumbs it. We see, however, that she is curious, disciplined and orderly. She relishes laughter, and she needs to be loved. She is very much alive.