Further to my prior article
Peter the Great, I finished rereading Robert K. Massie’s Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman this past week. With the benefit of greater background knowledge, I enjoyed the second reading of Catherine the Great much more than my first.
Peter the Great and Catherine the Great were remarkable leaders. Peter provided Russia with a pathway to Europe through his building of Saint Petersburg and his acceptance of foreigners and their knowledge and technology. Moreover, he forced change upon his own people by updating some of their important customs and rituals and providing new governing institutions. And, one of his significant legacies to Russia was a powerful army and navy.
Catherine complimented and furthered Peter’s achievements. She provided another pathway to Europe through Crimea and the Black Sea. Through her reading and her correspondence with leaders of Enlightenment, she brought to Russia the best of Europe’s moral, political and judicial philosophy. Being a patron of the arts, she also brought literature, art, architecture, and sculpture. As an aside, if you attend any of the Bolshoi Ballet productions at your local theater, you should note that the introduction mentions that the theater was constructed during the reign of Catherine II or Catherine the Great. Furthermore, she assembled one of the largest and finest art collections in Europe, which is stored at the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg. Catherine helped advance medicine—she herself was one of the first to be inoculated against smallpox and then persuaded the noblemen to follow. She also constructed schools, hospitals, and orphanages. Catherine built on Peter’s legacy and created an even stronger, more diverse, and richer country.
As I read about Catherine, I was most impressed by her intelligence, strategic thinking and planning, and, perhaps most of all, determination. Born as Sophia Augusta Fredericka on April 21, 1729, she left Germany at age fourteen to marry Peter III in Russia, the grandson of Peter the Great. Peter III had been severely mistreated during his upbringing and that led to many problems, including his unhappy and difficult marriage. Catherine endured eighteen years of boredom and loneliness during her marriage, which provided her the opportunity to read many books. She utilized this knowledge during her reign to achieve her many accomplishments.
Unlike Peter the Great who spent much of his time outside of Russia, either learning from Europeans or fighting wars, as sovereign Catherine spent most of her time in Russia. Where Peter set the foundation for further growth and development, Catherine admired and capitalized on his achievements, and used her strengths to help further modernize Russia. As evidence of her admiration, she commissioned a heroic equestrian statue in bronze to sit on the riverbank of the Neva River, with the inscription: TO PETER THE FIRST, FROM CATHERINE THE SECOND.
While her achievements are numerous and significant, I was left with the impression that her life was difficult. As much as she enjoyed governing Russia, she also enjoyed her close friends. Unfortunately, after her unhappy marriage and the murder of her husband Peter III, she never succeeded in finding a lifelong partner to share her dreams and accomplishments. She went through a series of partners and is later thought to have married Gregory Potemkin, though unconfirmed. Even after their passions subsided and both found others, they continued to remain close.
Her relationship with her first child and heir, Paul, was strained throughout her life. Some suggest that as she was nearing the end, she was also preparing to disinherit Paul in favor of her grandson Alexander. She died, however, before putting her plan in place.
Although some of her personal aspirations were never satisfied, she along with Peter the Great were two of Russia’s greatest sovereigns.
Massie spent eight years researching and writing Catherine the Great. I am glad that he devoted so much effort, because his book is not only historical and educational but is also an absolute joy to read.