By Chet Yarbrough
The author of “Catherine the Great”, Robert K. Massie, is steeped in Russian’ history; i.e. he wrote “Nicholas and Alexandra”, a widely praised biography of the last royal leaders of Russia, and “Peter the Great: His Life and World”, a 1981 Pulitzer Prize winning biography.
Massie reports a detailed history of an obscure German Princess that becomes a beloved ruler of the largest territorial nation in the world. Catherine the Great lived in the time of Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Diderot; she manages to impress all three philosophers with her adoption of their progressive philosophies of government.
On the one hand, Catherine’s reign may be seen as a table setting tableau for the 1917 revolution because Catherine fails to change the slavery-like characteristics of Russian serfdom. An estimated 23 million serfs (almost 38% of the population) served the Aristocracy of 18th century Russia. Catherine the Great suppresses Cossack uprisings that rallied peasants to rebel against serfdom. (The most famous reported by Massie was the Pugachev rebellion, an uprising led by a pretender to the throne.) Though Catherine recognizes the validity of some of the uprisings’ goals, she does not; possibly, could not, defeat the institution of serfdom.
Massie shows that a great part of Catherine’s failure to eliminate serfdom is because of a military and aristocratic power base she needed to become Empress; Catherine needed revenues from landholding’ Nobles (whose income came from serfdom) to gain and maintain her role as leader of the Russian empire. On the other hand, Catherine’s reign changed Russia’s image from a backwater country to a nation among nations.
Just as Cleopatra seduced Caesar, there is a fine line between love and manipulation that both men and women in history have crossed. Massie explains how Catherine loves, manipulates, and manages male military, diplomatic, and political leaders to overthrow Russia’s heir (her husband) to the throne, and how she maintains government order, to win wars, and expand the empire. Catherine succeeds to the throne by loving one of the Orlov brothers; she maintains government control by co-opting the church and counter-balancing political leaders; she expands the empire by surrounding herself with capable lovers like Grigory Orlov in war and Gregory Potemkin in peace (though Massie shows Potemkin also excels in war).
Massie shows Catherine to be a passionate Machiavellian’ paramour, accepting and rejecting lovers, based on what they could do to help her maintain position and control in the Russian empire. Though Catherine’s passion extends to “boy-toy” lovers, she resolves, with steely determination, to reject lovers that either do not satisfy her passion or fail to offer political advantage.
An early lover, Stanislaw Poniatowski, becomes infatuated with Catherine, but after her ascension to the throne, Poiniatowski becomes Catherine’s pawn in a game of thrones; i.e. Catherine maneuvers to make Poiniatowski King of Poland so Russian expansionism would have a dependable eastern ally; even though Poiniatowski, after Catherine becomes Empress, never makes love to Catherine again.
Grigory Orlov becomes Catherine’s lover before the palace revolt that makes her Empress of Russia. Catherine’s choice of Orlov as a lover seems calculated; in part, (possibly) because of his reputation as sexually insatiable, but more probably because Orlov and his brothers have influence in the military. Massie observes that, without the help of the Orlovs, Catherine would not have become Empress of Russia.
Though Catherine remains loyal to the Orlovs, after 13 years of rule, Gregory Orlov’s intellectual limitation and rampant flirtation, with other women, compel Catherine to replace him in her affection with Grigory Potemkin; perhaps the most important lover of Catherine’s continued reign. Massie notes that Potemkin is the only lover that may have married Catherine after Tsar Peter III had been murdered by the Orlovs. (Tsar Peter III ruled Russia for 6 months.)
Though Catherine the Great did much to improve government bureaucracy and universal education, the power structure of the Russian’ upper-class prevails during Catherine’s reign. Catherine is compelled to reward the upper-class that propelled her to the monarchy. The Nobles endorsement and support of Catherine maintained her position as the Russian Empire’s leader.
The greatest failure of Catherine’s rule is her inability to eliminate serfdom. She clearly understood the cancer of an underclass that is treated as property. Evidence of her understanding is explained by Massie in her effort to create an age of Russian Enlightenment. She read Montesquieu and Voltaire with the intent of tempering autocratic rule. She creates the “Nakaz”, a code of natural law that endorses the ideas of the French Enlightenment; particularly a belief that all men are equal before the law. This seminal document is gutted by Russian nobility and never reaches the goal of equality-before-the-law that might have changed the course of serfdom in Russian culture.
However, history’s events show that Catherine’s reign is correctly catalogued as “the Great”. Catherine the Great successfully replaced a weak, ineffectual Tsar with little bloodshed and governmental disruption. She expanded the Russian empire and won several wars. She raised recognition of the power and importance of education and women in the world by expanding schools and projecting an image of enlightened government. She changed the image of Russia from an ignorant farming nation to a forward-looking cultural center with technological, agricultural, and world trade experience; not bad, for an obscure German Princess.