It could be a fairy tale: a young German princess from a small principality is swept from obscurity to marry the heir to the Russian throne.
Crowned Grand Duchess of Russia, showered with gowns and jewels, 15-year-old Sophia is renamed Catherine and baptized in the Russian Orthodox church. Despite having no blood claim to the throne, she eventually rules Russia for more than 30 years, amassing a remarkable art collection, bringing advancements in medicine and science, winning important military victories and raising questions about slavery that few leaders at the time—in any country—were willing to confront.
Yet behind that glittering facade lay a lot of hard work and more than a little bit of luck. Pulitzer Prize winner Robert K. Massie chronicles this tooth-and-nail climb to power and the resulting achievements in mesmerizing detail in Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, his beautifully written biography of the much-maligned ruler. True to its subtitle, the book reveals Catherine the individual as well as Catherine the Empress.
“In writing biography, you want the reader to feel that he or she is standing at the elbow of the subject,” says Massie, who was reached by phone at his home in Islington, New York, where he lives with his wife, former literary agent Deborah Karl, and two of his children. “In other words, getting the full flavor of the person you’re writing about. I felt that way about Catherine.”
Catherine the Great is Massie’s first biography with a female subject as its main focus, and he relished the idea of telling a woman’s story. “I have six children, four of whom are daughters. I've been married twice, so some of them are grownups who have their own children, and some of them are still being homeschooled downstairs,” he says. “But all of them have been brought up, either by their education or their own searching, to read books about young girls becoming women. And here was a lesson about what it was like to be a brilliant—or at least very bright; exceptional might be a better word—young woman in a situation which didn't offer much opportunity for exceptional young women.”
And from an early age, Catherine the Great knew how to seize an opportunity. “Even as a little girl, in an obscure royal family, lower nobility, she was ambitious,” says Massie. Her willingness to be betrothed to Peter was not because of his stellar personality or good looks (he had neither), but because of his political position. As she wrote in her Memoirs, “the title of queen fell sweetly on my ears.”
“She was a woman who, by her own initiative, courage, intelligence, took charge. Stood up against men, stood up against situations, environment, the past.”
Still, in no way was Catherine in line to be anything but a consort. She had been brought to Russia “just to be a mother,” and continue the Romanov dynasty, explains Massie. “She was popped into this dreadful marriage with this creep, who—I still can't get into five or six words the character of Peter. He didn't have an easy life. I tried to present that in all its complexity, but he didn't want to be [in Russia]. He wanted to go back to Germany. He was petty, selfish, blah blah blah. And then he had this physical defect that made it impossible for him to have sex. Catherine marries this guy when she was 16, and for nine years lies in the same bed with him. He won't touch her, and the Empress Elizabeth and the court blamed her for not producing a child.”
At 25, Catherine finally had a son, although whether or not Paul was a Romanov is highly debatable. Elizabeth immediately “snatched Paul away literally from the birthing bed,” says Massie, initiating what would be a lifelong rift between mother and son. Catherine was crowned empress eight years later, in 1762, after her husband’s brief reign ended under murky circumstances. That the Russian people accepted a German princess as their ruler is evidence of how much respect Catherine had won during her 18 years as a crown princess, adopting their culture, language and religion as her own.
A devotee of Enlightenment philosophy, Catherine corresponded with the likes of Diderot and Voltaire (upon Voltaire’s death, she purchased his library, which is one of many treasures she collected that are still in the Hermitage today). She tried to improve the lives of subjects, although her biggest move, an attempt to abolish serfdom—the Russian brand of slavery—failed. “I don't remember any of the first half-dozen men who became presidents of the United States even trying,” quips Massie.
It is clear that, after eight years spent writing and researching Catherine the Great, Massie feels a bit protective of his royal subject, who is perhaps best remembered for things she didn’t actually do. Especially when it comes to her romantic life. “This was a concoction by her enemies,” he says, pointing out that during her early life and reign, Catherine sustained lengthy, monogamous relationships. Early favorite Gregory Orlov, who was her consort when she became Empress at 33, held that standing for 12 years. “That's a pretty long stay in America these days,” Massie laughs. “Then there was Poniatowski, who really did love her all his life. And there was Potemkin, who she may have married.”
Later, Catherine took a succession of younger men as royal favorites, sending gossips in Russia and around world into an even bigger frenzy. “I bristle at this,” Massie says. “I mean, Louis XV, who ruled France for half a century, had a training ground at Versailles to bring up teenage girls for his bed. . . . No one thinks that's at all disgraceful. Augustus the Strong of Saxony had 300 children, several by his daughter. That's not a story that goes around. But let a woman become empress, and need somebody in various senses, and it's lights out, or whatever metaphor you want to use.”
Massie first became interested in the Romanov family when his oldest son, Robert Massie Jr., was diagnosed with hemophilia in the late 1950s. As the Massies struggled to manage Bobby’s illness (a time chronicled in the memoir Journey, co-written with Massie’s first wife, Suzanne Massie), they reviewed case studies of the most famous hemophiliac, Tsarevich Alexis. Massie became convinced that Alexis’ disease, and the resulting need for secrecy and dependence on Rasputin, was a larger contributing factor to the dynasty’s downfall than it had been considered previously. This research turned into Nicholas and Alexandra (1967), which he wrote over nights and weekends while working as a journalist. “My advance was $2500,” he remembers. Published during the Cold War, the book (and subsequent Hollywood film) was a hit, allowing Massie to write full-time.
Over the course of his lengthy publishing career, Massie has worked with some of the best editors in the business, including Robert Gottlieb (on Peter the Great) and Bob Loomis, to whom Catherine the Great is dedicated. Still, his genius is his own. Massie has the rare ability to shape a life story into a compelling narrative, and he puts his larger-than-life figures into historical context. At the end of a Massie biography, the reader will not only have an in-depth knowledge of its subject, but also an understanding of their world. “I know a whole lot more than the reader knows,” he says of his extensive research, which often results in delightful asides, like a memorable passage on the guillotine in Catherine the Great.
Massie doesn’t feel attracted to the idea of writing about any 20th-century Russians. When Si Newhouse, the owner of Condé Nast, once suggested Massie write about Stalin, “I shivered. . . . I have to feel something other than just a shiver [when I think about a biography subject].”
The only shiver that Catherine’s remarkable story might inspire is one of awe. “She was a woman who, by her own initiative, courage, intelligence, took charge. Stood up against men, stood up against situations, environment, the past,” Massie says. But Massie’s achievement in Catherine the Great goes beyond listing her accomplishments as a ruler—he has resurrected her humanity. “I was simply trying to make the contemporary reader realize that this was a woman we could all understand,” he says. With compassion, intelligence and meticulous research, he has realized that goal.