In 1744, when she was 14 years old, a minor German princess named Sophia Augusta Fredericka was summoned to Moscow by Elizabeth, the childless daughter of Peter the Great, who needed a wife for her nephew and heir. Sophia (whose name was changed to Catherine when she converted to Orthodoxy), was handpicked as a kind of brood-mare, but the arranged marriage was a disaster, and the requisite baby failed to appear.
An astonishingly quick-witted and practical girl, Catherine managed, over the course of her long and fascinating life, to spin these inauspicious beginnings into pure gold. When her new husband, Peter III, preferred to play in bed with toy soldiers than to consummate their marriage, Catherine endured not only the behavior but also the subsequent blame when she failed to produce an heir. She charmed, humored, flattered and cajoled her way into Elizabeth's good graces even as she endeared herself to the Russian people by learning their language and adopting their faith. She stoically endured her own mother's indifference; she managed to manipulate the oppressively hierarchical, gossipy, back-stabbing minions who thronged the Russian court; and she ultimately gave birth to a son, Paul, who may or may not have been Peter's child, although Elizabeth accepted him as the heir. Finally, after Elizabeth's death, she triumphed by seizing power in a bloodless coup. (Peter, who was probably strangled by her supporters without her knowledge, was the only casualty.) At 33, she was crowned empress.
In his new biography, Catherine the Great, Portrait of a Woman, Robert K. Massie (author of the bestselling Nicholas and Alexandra and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Peter the Great) follows the monarch's splendid trajectory from powerless teenage girl to brilliant ruler. Massie, a former Nashville resident, recently spoke by phone about Catherine's fascinating life — and even more fascinating character.
When you write about a figure like Catherine the Great, who's not exactly obscure, how do you manage to accommodate readers who may know nothing about your subject, yet also stake a claim to original territory? How does a biographer carve out his own niche?
You're absolutely right — the story of Catherine has been written and rewritten. She died in 1796, and since then there's probably been a biography of some kind every 10 or 15 years. And they're of course varied — depending on the era, the style that's popular or prevalent then — but they're all dealing with the same subject. To be honest, I was not eager to do this book. It was my publisher and my editor's idea, and they were following a well-worn path, not only as far as the writer is concerned but as far as the public is concerned. You know, it's not a bad thing to sell books.
Of course not, and, thanks to you, Catherine is now on The New York Times bestseller list.
Well, yes, but that's because Catherine turned out to be much more interesting than I thought. Before I wrote the book, I didn't know much about her. When Bob Loomis, my editor, who just retired after 54 years at Random House, said, "I think that you ought to consider Catherine," I'd just finished 20 years in a totally different part of the world, writing about the British Navy and the First World War. And I said, "Oh, I don't think so, Bob." And he said, "Why not?" And I said, "Because she's been done so often." And then, because he's a wily old guy, leading me down his darned path, he said, "I know that, of course, but which book about her would you say was the best?"
I said something like, "Well, I haven't read that many." I don't think actually I'd read any, but I'd absorbed stuff from writing Peter the Great and Russian history in general. And he said, "OK, but which one was the best?" So then I said something arrogant. I said, "I don't think that many of them are that good," and he said, "Yes, I agree! You see!" And he put his finger on my chest and said, "So you would say, then, that there's room for another?" and I said, "I see what you're saying."
So then I went and got Catherine's memoirs. And I hadn't spent more than a few days with them before I knew that I had been absolutely wrong. This was an extraordinary story about an extraordinary person. Her description of her childhood was, to me, just as interesting as what she achieved on the throne. 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. And it was far more true in her day. I mean, how many great queens were there?
But reading about Catherine, I didn't feel as if she spent her youth fighting the yoke of male oppression. The figures who loomed largest in her life, in her early life at any rate, were Elizabeth and, to a lesser extent, her mother.
I think that her mother was more important than you think. The rejection that this little girl suffered! Elizabeth was an influence hot and cold. Elizabeth probably initially thought, "How lucky I am to get somebody who's bright and submissive." But then, you remember, there was the whole business about why there wasn't a baby. And Elizabeth blamed Catherine for that.
That's personal sexism. But there didn't seem to be an institutional prejudice against a woman on the throne. Elizabeth herself certainly felt comfortable wielding power.
Elizabeth was the daughter of Peter the Great, and Catherine wasn't the daughter of anyone. And Catherine wasn't Russian. So her whole standing depended absolutely on Elizabeth. Elizabeth brought her to Russia, married her off to poor Peter, and she had an objective that was not very great for Catherine: She just wanted a baby. Except that Elizabeth over the years found out what Catherine was made of. I really love that ultimate dialogue where Catherine finally outwits Elizabeth, and says "OK, send me home to Germany."
Yes, me too, and I wanted to ask you what you thought gave Catherine the courage, or the wit, to stand up to Elizabeth at that moment.
Well, I think she decided she would win either way. She did not want to go home — that was a bluff. She was, as you know, intensely ambitious from the beginning. I think two things helped her at this point: One, she realized the strength of her position as the mother of Paul, the heir, who was 5 or 6 years old. And two: Elizabeth was failing. She was overweight, she couldn't dance any more, she was spending hours with her toilette, and she was worried not only about dying but about the future of the dynasty. And Catherine was, by then, a growing part of that dynasty's future — especially as it was increasingly obvious that Peter was incompetent. So I think somehow this all helped her form her game plan. But I don't know! We don't know just what happened.
To read an uncut version of this interview — and more local book coverage — please visit Chapter16.org, an online publication of Humanities Tennessee.