- - Friday, December 2, 2011

By Robert K. Massie
Random House, $35 625 pages

The venerable Robert Massie has written another fascinating book about one of his favorite subjects: Czarist Russia. The new narrative by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Nicholas and Alexandra,” “Peter The Great” and “The Romanovs” reveals, in exhaustive detail, the lavish and byzantine lives of the imperial family along with the machinations, intrigues, malicious gossip and rumors that flourished in the shadows of their court.

This time, he has chosen an unknown princess of minor German nobility, Sophia Augusta Fredrika von Anhalt Zerbst, who traveled to Moscow at age 14 to marry her second cousin Peter, and who through cunning, persistence, and most importantly, devotion to her adopted country, rose to become one of the most celebrated and powerful rulers in European history: Catherine the Great, Empress and Autocrat of all the Russias.

This work is not just for history buffs, and no reader should be deterred by its heft and length. Mr. Massie has written a compelling biography that reads like a novel and is hard to put down.

Isolated and ill-treated by the ruling Empress Elizabeth, rebuffed and ultimately reviled by a troubled and dysfunctional husband - their marriage was not consummated for seven years. He preferred to play with toy soldiers in bed. She sought refuge in French literature and a variety of lovers - 12 to be exact - but for the prurient, no, there was no relationship with a white stallion except for the one she rode into Moscow at the head of her troops after her coup d’etat in 1762.

She produced three children, each by a different “favorite,” all of whom were immediately snatched and raised by the jealous and childless Elizabeth. Although they lived a few yards from her apartment, Catherine was not involved in their upbringing and rarely allowed to visit. (Interestingly, she was equally ruthless with her own grandchildren - naming them and separating them from their parents in order to gain their affection and instruct them).

She toyed with the idea of choosing Alexander, her oldest grandson, as her successor but after endless equivocation at the end of her 34-year reign, Paul, her eldest son ultimately inherited her mantle.

Describing Catherine at her coronation, the British ambassador offered an explanation of her appeal: “A woman of middle height, her glossy chestnut colored hair massed under the jeweled crown … she was beautiful, and the blue eyes beneath were remarkable for their brightness. The head was poised on a long neck, giving the impression of pride and power and will.”

Committed to the legacy of Peter the Great, to enlighten her backward and expanding empire and determined to become “a benevolent despot,” she amassed a stunning art collection, the finest in Europe, built a series of splendid palaces and entertained - or corresponded with - literary luminaries Voltaire, Diderot, Montesquieu, and oddly, America’s naval war hero, John Paul Jones.

A voluptuary with a lusty appetite, there were two main lovers in her life: Gregory Orlov, an artillery officer of humble origin who caught her eye when she was still grand duchess and with whom she had a son, Aleksey, Count Bobrinsky. He along with his brothers organized the conspiracy which led to the abdication and murder of her feckless husband, Peter III, and placed her on the throne. Orlov, though rough hewn, was her constant companion. She was faithful to him for 11 years and elevated him to a count. Early on, he was a helpful and sympathetic adviser and begged her to marry him, but she declined his marriage proposal, gave him vast wealth and jewels, made him a prince of the empire and found another paramour - her true passion - Gregory Potemkin.

Potemkin was also a military officer, a nobleman 10 years her junior and her equal in intelligence, interests and conversation. He offered loving and trusted companionship. This union lasted for 17 years, and there is speculation they were married in a secret ceremony in 1774. The strongest proof, her letters to Potemkin calling him “My dear husband,” “My master and tender spouse” and signing them “Your devoted wife.”

She never wrote to any other lovers using those words.

Potemkin became a prince with vast estates and serfs, and oversaw Eastern territories and acquisitions. Though they quarreled and took other lovers, he always retained a special place in her heart.

After his death she wrote her own epitaph, which reads in part:

When she came to the throne of Russia she wished to do what was good for her country and tried to bring happiness, and prosperity to her subjects.

She forgave easily and hated no one. She was good natured, easygoing, tolerant, understanding and of a happy disposition.

She had a republican spirit and a kind heart.

She was sociable by nature.

She made many friends.

She took pleasure in her work.

She loved the arts.

A modest remembrance for one of the most accomplished women of all time.

• Sandra McElwaine is a Washington correspondent for the Daily Beast.

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