Monday, 27 August 2012

Robert K. Massie

Robert Massie is a great storyteller and a Pulitzer prize winner. He is 83 years old now and is latest book on Tsarina Catherine II of Russia (1729-1796) is a masterpiece, entitled Catherine the Great, the portrait of a woman.
In this portrait the Empress wears the orders of St-George and the great collar of St-Andrew. Both Imperial orders are still given today in modern Russia.

Previously Massie wrote about Peter the Great who is the founder-creator of St-Petersburg and modernizer of the Russian army and founder of the Russian Navy. Catherine a German Princess, whose birth name was Sophia Fredericka Augusta Von Anhalt-Zerbst, who came to Russia from her father's estate North-East of Berlin at 14 years old to be engaged to Peter's grandson Peter III (1728-1762), himself a child at the time, raised in Holstein, a very Prussian Prince, who suffered from serious psychological problems due to his being physically abused by his tutors after his parents death.

Her job as it was explained to her by Tsarina Elizabeth was to produce an heir for the Russian throne. Enormous pressures where put on her and Peter III to produce that heir. That she did not become mad herself in the stifling almost prison like atmosphere of the Imperial Court is almost a miracle. When she did produce a male heir Paul I (1754-1801), the newborn was taken away from her immediately upon being delivered and taken to the apartment of Empress Elizabeth, she would see her son only sporadically and from a distance.
              Tsar Paul I will reign only 6 months before being murdered in his bed by his generals. He angered far too many people and was not politically very savy. He wears the green jacket of the Life Guard.
Tsar Peter III who will be murdered by his wife's lover after a short reign, he was seen as an agent of Prussia. In this coronation official painting Peter wears a Prussian uniform.

Massie writes an extremely interesting book rich in details on Catherine II and examines the personalities of the other Kings and Emperors around Europe as well as the people at Court in St-Petersburg and life inside the Winter Palace. The reader is drawn into the story, you want to know more. The correspondence of Catherine II and of the people who came in contact with her also serves as abundant reference giving an intimate look at the people and their way of thinking. The murder of her husband Peter III by the Orlov brothers who will propel her on the throne and the murder of Tsar Ivan VI who was known State Prisoner no.1 shortly thereafter on orders of her Prime Minister Nikita Panin. Poor Ivan had been a prisoner since birth on the orders of Tsarina Elizabeth, shows that the male line of the Romanov family actually ended with the death of these two men. Catherine II son Tsar Paul I was in fact the son of her first lover, the diplomat Saltykov, all this arranged to secure the dynastic line at all cost. Frederick II the Great of Prussia played an important role in ensuring the future of the Russian Imperial Family by supplying German Princesses of the Holstein-Gottorp family.

Massie examines the story of her 12 lovers, mostly pretty boys from the Guard Regiment who spoke French and could amuse Catherine. All supplied by two former favorites Prince Grigory Orlov who murdered Catherine's husband Tsar Peter III and by Prince Grigory Potemkin who became vice-ruler of Russia and who is thought to have been her secret husband.  The book also details her great work to reform and develop Russia along modern European lines in the age of Enlightenment. Needless to say a very complicated and very human story.

It is difficult for ordinary mortals who live in the modern age to understand a woman like Catherine II. She was an autocrat in an age of absolute rulers, we are very far from our world. Massie tries hard to explain that we as readers must make an effort to see her world as very different from ours. The idea of political and social stability in the largest country in the world was paramount and may in many cases involve what we would think today as cruel or unjust decisions or punishments, but in this case necessary since no other solutions were available at that time. Massie has one chapter on the NAKAZ or great political and social reforms Catherine tried to introduce by convening an Estate General of all classes of Russian Society well before such a thing would be done in France or anywhere else in Europe or America. She quickly realized after 18 months of conferences that you cannot impose change on an illiterate people. Though she opened the way for reforms which her successors Alexander I and Alexander II, the Tsar Liberator will bring forth and many other important reforms of course will appear too late in 1905 and in 1917.

After our visit in June of St-Petersburg and Tsarkoe Selo reading this book brings more understanding to it all. One cannot but be impressed with the will of Catherine II an educated and intelligent women to reform and advance her country on many fronts at once.
                               Tsar Peter the Great, wearing the green jacket of the regiment he created the Life guard who today are the Presidential guards at the Kremlin. Today the guard wear the updated uniform of 1812.

The other great book of Massie is on Peter the Great (1672-1725), the modernizer who took Russia screaming and kicking into a European mold. The life of Peter was just as dramatic as that of his future successor Catherine II. Both can be considered the creators and founders of the Hermitage museum at the Winter Palace, being avid collectors of art. Peter's childhood was marked by dark conspiracies amongst the Boyars and Orthodox Church clergy and as a young child, he witnessed a massacre of State Councillors and family relatives in the Kremlin by body guards gone mad. An event of blood and gore which lasted 3 days, he will never forget these terrible events and will live in fear of conspiracies and plots. Peter is described as being extraordinarily tall for his time, at 6.5 feet tall, with a pronounced nervous twitch on his left side and famous for being moody, cruel and having violent rages but also a man who gave Russia its current flag modelled on the Dutch flag by simply reversing the design, a student of all things modern during his life time, curious and intelligent and surrounding himself with equally intelligent and talented people most of whom came from Western Europe. This all powerful autocrat was greatly feared and admired. He is tragically remembered for ordering the arrest which lead to the death of his only son for reasons of State.
Again a difficult concept for us to understand in a modern setting given that ''la raison d'Etat'' is never invoke nowadays. Peter was also involved in the 20 year war against Sweden and Charles XII which led to Russia taking the Baltic States from Sweden and establishing Russia as a world power. Massie also devotes passages of the book to the difficult relationship between the Tsar and the old Orthodox believers who were very xenophobic and constantly agitating for a return to isolation from Western influences. Peter instigated a policy of tolerance and protection of other Christian religions, he is described as a moderate in matters of religion and had apparently a good singing voice participating in the Choir at religious services.

We visited Peterhof his summer palace just outside St-Petersburg and the small house called Mon Plaisir which he built himself. Had it not been for Peter and Catherine, one wonders where Russia would be today, how would it have evolved, certainly there would be no St-Petersburg.

If you have the energy to read such huge books, it is well worth it, the wealth of details brings the subjects alive and give you a better understanding of Russia and the Romanov legacy. In 2013 the Russian State will celebrate the 400th anniversary of the Romanov dynasty.



  1. Thanks for a great book suggestion. Pre-Stalinist history of Russia has always been an interest of mine. I remember reading Nicholas & Alexandra when I was in high school and being fascinated by it. I enjoyed his Peter the Great biography very much when I read it. I look forward to reading and enjoying the Catherine biography.

  2. I have a great thick book on the history of Peter the Great. I need to get crackin'; I am very interested in Mr. PTG.

    1. I think that from a professional point of view you will find Peter to be a fascinating character, the horrors he saw as a small child and his own physical ailments at a time when medicine could not offer much help. Think of that when you read the book, it will open a new door of understanding.