Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie

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After seeing all episodes of Ekaterina available on Prime, I re-read Robert K. Massey’s marvellous Catherine the Great, which I’d read when it first came out. There were things in it that either didn’t make an impression then but do now or that I’d forgotten. The scandal of Catherine wasn’t that she had so many lovers — she was a very romantic person and it was a kind of serial monogamy with her — but that the ones she took in her later life were so much younger than herself, the men twenty-odd to her 50-odd. That Potemkin bedded his three nieces one after the other when they were in their teens garnered no censure. That Orlov seduced a thirteen year-old relative was used as an excuse to break up with him but no other problemo. And of course, John Paul Jones, the founder of the US navy was tried for having raped a 12-year old and this led to his leaving the Russian navy. I’d also forgotten that though serfs in theory were tied to the land, in practice their lot was one of slavery and they were bought and sold with no regard for kinship ties as African-American slaves were in the US. Serfs were emancipated in 1861. Slaves were freed in the US in 63. It also struck me that Catherine lived then as many gay men do now, with former lovers adding up to an extended family and support network.

Robert K. Massie’s book is a truly great popular biography, history as page turner, all 656 pages of it and i re-read it in what felt like one huge gulp. Her dangerous beginnings, the murder of her husband, Russian expansion into Poland and the Crimea, her correspondence with Voltaire and Diderot, her art collection, her palace building, her faiIure to free the serfs even as she vaunted the liberty of men, are all clearly written, based on enormous learning, and streamlined into a drama in which the central protagonist is made knowable and admirable. I highly recommend.

 

José Arroyo

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