Review: Catherine the Great
by Robert K. Massie
The current Queen of England celebrates her 60th anniversary on the British throne this year, achieving a milestone that very few women can claim. In fact, through history there are only a handful of women who ruled independently at all, much less for decades.
Among those would be Victoria (Queen of England for 63 years), Jeanne of Brabant (ruling for 50 years), Elizabeth I (Queen of England for 44 years), and of course Catherine II, who ruled Russia for an astounding 34 years.
Catherine the Great wasn't the first woman to rule Russia ― there were three women before her who held that honor ― but she was the last, the longest-ruling, and arguably one of the greatest of the rulers, male or female.
Robert Massie knows his Russian history. He is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Peter the Great, and also wrote Nicholas and Alexandra and The Romanovs. His insights into Russian politics, class systems, and history serve him well in Catherine the Great.
But this is no dry and dusty history book. Catherine comes to life on the pages (particularly in the first half of the book), putting aside the regalia and pomp to show a woman who was intelligent, bold, and ahead of her time. Her canny sense of strategy and the ability to take chances led her from her fairly rural upbringing as part of minor German royalty into a marriage with the heir to the Russian throne.
Handpicked by Empress Elizabeth, a strong female ruler in her own right, to marry Elizabeth's nephew Peter, Sophia Augusta Fredericka seized the chance for a new life, changing her name, her religion, her language, and her provincial views.
Unfortunately, Catherine found herself tied to a husband that was considered slow at best, and psychotic at worst. Peter was barely literate, childlike in his love of soldiers and military uniforms, and could be cruel when crossed. He also had no clue what was expected of him in fathering an heir early on, and later when he did understand the particulars, showed no inclination toward Catherine.
After nine long years, and in desperation to ensure there would be another heir, Empress Elizabeth pushed Catherine toward other lovers. Despite her upbringing, Catherine again saw opportunity and logic in the idea, and was soon pregnant.
Astonishingly, there was little complaint from the Russian aristocracy that seemed to not only have known of the deception but turned a blind eye to the lovers that both Catherine and Peter took.
After Elizabeth's death, Peter began to show his true colors to the world, displaying a love for Germany that sparked an about-face for Russia in the Seven Years' War, a move that was far too abrupt for most Russians. Peter was quickly ousted (and then strangled) to make way for Catherine to take the throne. Many thought she would merely hold the throne for her young son Paul, but Catherine had other ideas.
Having given herself an Enlightened education, and eagerly corresponded with great thinkers and writers of the day throughout Europe, Catherine made bold moves to change what she saw as backward thinking in Russia. Early on, she pushed through new laws to transform Russian politics and developed the Nakaz, a more modern law code.
And here is where the book begins to bog down a little. After painting such a vivid picture of a strong and vibrant woman, Massie gets mired more in the laws and political world of Russia, and moves the focus off of Catherine herself in a few chapters. But overall, this is a good read about a great woman.
Recipe: Russian Rye Bread
I've never been hugely fond of rye seeds, but this mellower version of rye bread is, well, great.
2 teaspoons dry yeast
2/3 cup water
1/4 cup plus 2 Tablespoons all-purpose flour
another 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
2 cups rye flour
2 teaspoons salt
1 cup water
To make a starter, dissolve yeast in bowl with 2/3 cup water. Leave for five minutes and then add 1/4 cup plus 2 Tablespoons of all-purpose flour until it makes a thick batter. Cover with a damp towel and let sit for 2 hours. To make the dough, mix remaining flour with the salt in a large bowl. Make a well in the center and pour the starter in. Also add half of the remaining water. Mix dough well, stirring in the rest of the water until you have a sticky dough. Dump the dough onto a floured work surface and begin to knead. It will take about 10 minutes until you have a smooth and elastic dough. Put the dough into a clean bowl and cover it with a towel. Allow it to rise until doubled, which will take about an hour. Punch it down and let it rest for 10 minutes. Divide dough into 2 pieces and form each into a long loaf that's about 12 inches long. Put them both on a lightly floured baking sheet and let rest for 5 minutes. Then cut about 4 long slashes across the loaves at equal lengths. Cover with a towel and let rise for 1 to 2 hours, or until they've doubled in size. Meanwhile, preheat oven to 400 degrees. Once the loaves have risen, bake in the oven for 45 minutes.