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Robert K. Massie talks about the inspiration for his blockbuster biography of Catherine the Great

In Praise of Strong Women

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"I have a tremendous admiration for strong women," Robert K. Massie said in a telephone conversation about his most recent biography, Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman. In the book, Massie treats the 18th century Russian empress not just as a subject but as an intimate, impressive and accomplished friend. In this spirit, Massie even thanks Catherine herself at the end of the book. After running through the customary list of editors, publishers, agents and family, Massie writes, "Finally, I must acknowledge the extraordinary pleasure I have had in the company of the remarkable woman who has been my subject. After eight years of having her as a constant presence in my life, I shall miss her."

Two years after the publication of Catherine the Great, Massie still finds her political example instructive, and he often notes parallels between Catherine's public reputation and the treatment of today's female leaders. Last year, in an essay for Politico, for example, he defended Catherine against "scurrilous attacks" on her character — attacks framed, as attacks on powerful women often are, in sexual terms. "Catherine stood at a summit on which, in the thousand-year history of European monarchy, only one other woman has stood: Elizabeth I of England," Massie wrote. "Yet the most that many people today know about this remarkable woman is one salacious story originally fabricated by Catherine's foreign enemies."

Instead, he argues, the Empress of Russia should be remembered for her striking political and cultural achievements: She personally rewrote the entire Russian legal code, abolished the use of torture, restricted capital punishment, and tried to do away with serfdom; she corresponded with the great French thinkers of the Enlightenment; she collected and assembled some 4,000 paintings for the Winter Palace (now the Hermitage museum); and she was a tremendous public-health advocate who established hospitals, medical schools and orphanages across the empire.

Of course, Catherine the Great's many achievements are standard fare for biographers, and there have been, Massie readily admits, hundreds of biographies written about her. What sets Massie's account apart is his particular affection and respect for the private Catherine. In a 2011 interview, Massie told Chapter 16 he came to write about Catherine somewhat reluctantly, and only at the behest of Bob Loomis, his longtime editor at Random House. Once he started reading Catherine's memoirs, however, he was hooked. "Her description of her childhood was, to me, just as interesting as what she achieved on the throne," Massie said. "I have six children, four of whom are daughters, and this whole story of how Catherine grew up, how she became what she eventually did become, was such an extraordinary revelation of character, especially for women. Women have to go through extra effort to get to the top, even today."

It is rare for male intellectuals to link their scholarly interests and achievements explicitly to family life, yet Massie, who grew up in Nashville, credits his career as a biographer to his eldest son's hemophilia. "I didn't feel ready to write about something so personal at the time," he said. "But in the course of doing research on the disease I became interested in the Tsarevitch Alexei, who was born with hemophilia as well." That interest in Alexei — the youngest child and only son of Nicholas II and Alexandra — led Massie to write Nicholas and Alexandra. The book spent 46 weeks as a New York Times best-seller and was translated into 17 languages. Massie's next Russian biography, Peter the Great, won the Pulitzer Prize. Last year, Catherine the Great was awarded the first Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction.

Massie's work has consistently managed the difficult balancing act of impressing academic historians while capturing the imagination of the public. Not only do his biographies become literary blockbusters, they also successfully make the jump to other media: The film based on Nicholas and Alexandra was nominated for nine Academy Awards, while Peter the Great became an Emmy Award-winning NBC miniseries starring some of the 20th century's greatest actors: Maximilian Schell, Vanessa Redgrave, Ursula Andress, Omar Sharif and Laurence Olivier. Massie has also written two books about the naval history of the First World War — Dreadnought: Britain, Germany, and the Coming of the Great War and Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea — and a memoir of his son's illness, Journey, which he co-authored with his first wife, Suzanne. When the Soviet Union fell and the bones of the Russian imperial family were exhumed, Massie wrote what he calls "a journalistic-type book" titled The Romanovs: The Final Chapter.

On Nov. 9, Massie will receive the 2013 Nashville Public Library Literary Award. (This is the award's 10th year; previous honorees include David Halberstam, John Updike, Billy Collins, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Margaret Atwood and John McPhee.) In conjunction with the award, he will give a public lecture. "I grew up in Nashville, but since I went away to college I haven't come back except to visit," Massie says. "My mother was another strong woman who had a great influence on my life, and in some ways she was like the Eleanor Roosevelt of Nashville." He plans in his Nashville lecture, he said, "to talk about her a bit, maybe in conjunction with Catherine, maybe in conjunction with my remarkable two wives and all four of my extraordinary daughters — strong, impressive, fascinating women. All these women have shaped me, and then I came to be shaped by my wonderful encounter with Catherine. I seem to relish the challenge — or, rather, the adventure — of dealing with these brilliant women."

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