Catherine the Great: A Winter Book Review

Robert K. Massie’s recent bestseller, Catherine the Great, is a wonderfully engrossing tale of 18th century Russian History as experienced by one of the world’s dominant female rulers, Empress Catherine the Great.

We have been reading this book as we travel throughout New England from one frozen mountain to the next. This is certainly a winter book and as we stomp our feet in the frozen snow or curl up by a winter fire we empathize with the location of the characters of this grand book:  the frozen tundra of a winter Russia.  The backdrop for many adventures is the horse drawn sledge, pulled miles across frozen lakes and ice-covered roads.  Occupants bump about, averaging 12miles a day, as they lie huddled beneath bear furs. The winter winds rush across Russia with the same ferocity that we hear as the barren ice-covered branches of New England’s trees clack against one another and against our winter windows.

Young Catherine

In a word:  we are there.  Massie has created a portrait of Catherine the Great that provides us with a window into the very soul of Russian history.  He begins the tale when young Catherine is only 14 years old and becomes betrothed to the hapless, then adolescent, Peter III.  As a young wife, suffering under Russian Empress Elizabeth, Catherine is sequestered and prevented from loving contact with her friends and family.

Isolated, the young girl turns to books, and these become her true friends and allies. For a period of almost 12 years Catherine is prohibited from social interaction, and yet through her intellectual curiosity she is able to grow and develop and ultimately become one of the most knowledgeable and sophisticated leaders of her era.

A look at Catherine’s reading list should give us all inspiration.  Catherine read incessantly and describes herself as, “always having a book in my pocket…” Some books of particular note are the 10 volume edition of General History of Germany, and the Annals by Tacitus, a history of the Roman Empire through the reigns of Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero.  Tacitus emphasized the destruction of personal liberties by the cruelties imposed through aggressive rule. Catherine also read Montesquieu and was moved by his Enlightenment thinking.  This exposed Catherine to the ideas of a society ruled by rational thought, rather than pure power.  In addition, Voltaire was a favorite with his irreverent and witty modernistic philosophy.  As Catherine grew in intellectual and emotional maturity she was able to view some of the behaviors of the Russian court in the context of previous despotism and began to form her own more enlightened attitudes towards autocratic rule.

Massie intersperses Catherine’s own diaries throughout the book and in this way we come to know Catherine through her own voice as well as her actions.  Constant shifts in power impact Catherine and her life is filled with political upheavals, romance and desire for power.  Ultimately, through a series of astute machinations she becomes Empress Catherine and she now has the opportunity to put some of her enlightened thinking into action.  Regrettable she finds, as have so many leaders, that granting liberty and equality to the human masses is not as easy or as personally painless in practice as it is in theory.

Empress Catherine

As Empress Catherine’s power grows so does her political savvy. She begins to realize that she cannot free the Russian serfs, as she had once dreamed and that her future lies in continued actions of aggression against her neighbors.  Her motives are personal and political, tactical and geographic.  Russia needs to secure trade routes through the Baltic ocean, and therefore covets waterways and harbors belonging to other nations.  Catherine finds that her continued aggression in the region wins her foreign accolades as she is triumphant in battle after battle.

As reader we are placed in the uncomfortable position of watching an unchecked leader exercise total power over her hapless subjects despite her initial best attempts at Enlightenment Thinking.  At all costs, Catherine sees that she must protect herself and the ruling class.

Liberté, égalité, fraternité

This fascinating story of the late 1700’s is a tale which effects us all.  The revolutionary thinking of the times, beginning with our own American Revolution, the resulting French Revolution and ultimately the demise of the British throne had seeds which were sown in the great mistreatment and inequality of the vast majority of the proletariat.  Enlightenment thinking and satiric philosophers also paved the way for new thinking: Words do have the power to effect great change.

Catherine the Great covers each of these uprisings and we can understand them both from the perspective of the people as well as from the monarchies the people sought to overthrow.

Russia in 1725

One of the great joys of this book is to follow the action on a map and to see how the countries borders were constantly being redrawn.  It is fascinating to understand the diplomatic reasoning behind tactical acquisitions and to see how the ordinary person was constantly expected to realign themselves with a new governing body.

It is also interesting to see the way religious lines are drawn, almost by the map, as battle-lines are drawn between Lutheran, Catholic and Orthodox believers.  The late 1700’s were a time of deep faith among Christians, and yet that deep faith did not yield greater understanding, tolerance or Christian love for one another.

We really recommend this book to anyone who loves a great tale, enjoys romance and intrigue, is intellectually curious about the philosophers of the 18th century and loves history and geography.  Suggestion:  Read this book on a cold winter’s day by a warm fire while the snow is falling thickly and the logs are burning crisply.

Follow-up reading:  A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.  This intertwined tale of love, politics and social inequality, gives a unique insiders view to the guillotine and the French Revolution.

Let Me Count the Days:  Homeschooling is admitting that 300 years ago people were better educated than they are today.