Robert K. Massie – Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman
Every biographer must make a choice between focusing on the person, or the times they lived in. It is a spectrum, not a binary, but most biographies emphasize one or the other. Here, Massie tilts about as heavily towards the person as I’ve ever read in the biography. This makes for a very good read, and Massie gives an insightful character study. But even in a lengthy book, Massie pays only the barest attention to the major world events and larger context of Catherine’s reign (1762-1796).
Her early reign appeared at the peak of the Enlightenment, and Catherine was an active correspondent with thinkers such as Voltaire. She even imported Diderot, famous compiler of the Encyclopedie, for a short time, before he left on bad terms, feeling stifled and homesick.
Catherine’s situation had a little bit in common with the economist Turgot, her rough contemporary in France just before the French Revolution. Her liberalism did not fall on receptive ground, and in a sense there was nothing she could do. She drafted something of a liberal manifesto, the Nakaz, which she intended to lead to a new legal code. But nothing ever came of it—just as Turgot tried to reform France’s finances and economy in a more or less liberal direction, but ran into a political and cultural brick wall. Catherine, of course, was a monarch who jealously guarded her power, and her liberalism was more relative than absolute.
Massie is a superb biographer, an astute psychologist, a well-developed sense of empathy, and a gifted writer. I might have enjoyed more on Catherine’s circumstances in addition to Catherine as a person, but that may well have required Massie to add a second, even lengthier volume. As it is, this single volume is superb.