Catherine The Great – Robert K Massie
This is a masterful biography of Sophia Augusta Frederika of Anhalt-Zerbst, the daughter of a minor German aristocrat, who at the age of 14 was betrothed in an arranged marriage by her ambitious mother to the heir to the Russian throne, Peter. Prior to her marriage, she converted from Lutheranism to the Russian Orthodox church, being persuaded there was very little difference between the two, and tool on the name Catherine. Her marriage was unhappy, Peter being more content with playing with his toy soldiers than performing his conjugal duties. Eventually Peter assumed the throne when his aunt, the Empress Elizabeth died, but his pro-Prussian sympathies meant that he was deeply unpopular. A palace coup, led by the Orlovs, removed Peter – he was eventually assassinated – and Catherine was crowned Empress. Her rule (1762 to 1796) is generally regarded as one of the golden ages of Russian history. Catherine was a great advocate of the Enlightenment – she corresponded extensively with the likes of Diderot and Voltaire – and became the most pre-eminent collector of art, establishing the Hermitage in St Petersburg. Russia successfully expanded its territories during her reign, taking the Crimea and what is now the Ukraine from the Ottoman empire and, with Prussia and Austria, partitioning and absorbing much of Poland-Lithuania. Catherine was interested in public health and spearheaded the campaign for inoculation against smallpox by being inoculated herself.
Catherine had a succession of “favourites” but the most influential in her life were Grigory Orlov (who was one of five brothers who had leading roles in the coup) and Potemkin.
The book is a rip-roaring read, particularly in describing her early life and the events leading up to the coup and her accession to the throne. The second half takes a more thematic approach to her reign and loses a bit of impetus as a result.
Nonetheless, a hugely impressive and informative book and one I would thoroughly recommend.