Saturday, December 8, 2012

Voluptuary and statesman (Books - Catherine the Great by Robert K. Massie)

Literature, theatre, and neuroscience are the fascinations I profess in the tagline to this blog, but while my enthusiasm for fiction and science are evident in my reading choices, and my interest in how narratives build selves shows up again and again in my writing, I think of my interest in Central and Eastern European history as a kind of secret pleasure - one I share with my dear friend Sheila (although I haven't read nearly the amount she has on the subject).  We met for an evening of red wine and talk this past week and she saw Robert Massie's Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman (625 pages. Random House, 2011 ) poking its massive head out of my briefcase and laughed knowingly.  Many a time is it that we have met over the last twenty years when the second to arrive finds the first at the bar, red wine already in-progress, nose buried in a 900 page tome about the purges of Stalin, or the velvet revolution.  In any event, the truth now out on the table, I can confess to not merely enjoying Massie's biography of Catherine II, and learning a ton about 18th century European history - not just of Russia but also Poland and Austria-Hungary, and he does a great one-chapter mini-review of the French Revolution - but also to having done some much-needed work on my biceps, triceps, and lats, lugging the 4 lbs of its heft back and forth to work every day.

Empress Catherine II of Russia was neither Russian nor was she Catherine.  She was born Sophia in 1729 and was a princess of Anhalt-Zerbst, a district of Anhalt-Saxony, one of many states of the loosely federated German empire.  She was summoned by the childless Empress Elizabeth, daughter of Peter the Great, to marry her pathetic nephew and heir Peter, in the hopes of, you know, bucking him up, giving him some metal.  Peter was sickly, puny, and mentally warped by years of abuse by his tutor Otto Brummer. Sophia, though attractive and eventually well-read, and a brilliant political tactician, couldn't do much to draw Peter to fulfill his marital duties or to behave in a manner befitting the ruler of the Russian empire.  She and her supporters eventually seized the throne from Peter and he was murdered, whether by design or by accident is a little murky.  She reigned as Catherine II of Russia for 34 years.

In the nine years Catherine spent as a virtual house prisoner of Empress Elizabeth, who would not allow the royal-couple-to-be any freedom until they produced her heir, Catherine dealt with a variety of manipulative gaolers whose antics make great stories, read widely, becoming an admirer of the Enlightement philosophers, particularly of Montesquieu, and of Voltaire and Diderot, with whom she had active correspondences.  She eventually learned to find love herself with a succession of thirteen lovers termed her "favorites,"  It is apparent from Massie's biography how these passions shaped her politics.  For example, she makes her early lover, Stanislaus Poniatowsky, King of Poland in order to appease him for ending their relationship and taking up with Gregory Orlov, one of several brothers who were responsible for helping her seize power.  This both kept Poniatowsky at a distance and allowed her control over a neighboring country, a large perecentage of whose citizens were members of the Russian church (to whom she also owed allegiance for their support of her acquisition of power).  Despite this, the subtitle Portrait of a Woman, had a sexist ring to it in our day.  Massie does emphasize the tensions between the professional and the personal sides of Catherine, but her sex hardly seems the point. The subtitle of his Peter the Great biography was His Life and World, which would be more reflective of the book Massie wrote. He shows Catherine to have been as powerful as any male ruler of her time and, one could argue, a lot smarter than many.  It was hardly unusual for sexual relations, married or otherwise, to influence the acquisition of power, this was not peculiar to her being female.    

The strength of Massie's biography is in portraying the paradoxes of Catherine - the sensualist who could not live without love every day versus the powerful tactician who partitioned Poland, defeated the Turks, and shifted the balance power with the Prussian and Austro-Hungarian Empires.  The student of the Enlightenment who valued individual freedoms versus the powerful monarchist outraged by the French revolution.  The enlightened reforms she attempted during her reign included writing the Nakaz - a guide to revamping Russian law  - and created a legislative commission with representatives from every estate (social rank) except the serfs.  This, the first representative assembly of people established in Russia.  It was charged with informing Catherine about the conditions in her vast country, and with drafting new laws to serve the needs of each estate, a project whose outcome ultimately disappointed Catherine.  She also expressed a desire to free the serfs, but never felt she had the economic landscape or the political will for attempting such a massive social reform.

Massie's writing captured my interest from the get-go, this was despite some oddities in diction and consistency across the narrative.  For instance, I found him a little prudish on matters of Elizabeth and Catherine's sexual voluptuousness.  For such unrestrained subjects I found his writing riddled with nineteenth-century euphemisms and choices of phrase that remind me of the dated language which today seems to be reserved for summaries of opera plots.  Empress Elizabeth was thought to be "madcap."
She was endowed with her father's ardent impetuosity and never hesitate to gratify her desires; before she was twenty, there were reports that she had given herself to six young men.
But he writes with alacrity of problems Peter was rumored to suffer with his foreskin.  Massie seemed to loosen up as the narrative progressed.  The book also featured a frustrating repetitiveness that suggested it could have benefited from closer editing.  I should have kept more careful notes, but in one example, Massie wrote of Peter's decree during his brief reign which secularized the property of the Russian Orthodox church.  A few pages later, he wrote of Catherine's dealing with the Orthodox church, reiterating what he had written about Peter pages earlier. Though key points bear repetition, this happened multiple times in the book in language that seemed too close to what I had read recently, and did not acknowledge that the material had already been covered.  

This contrasted with the majority of the writing which kept a story with a great number of political ins and outs barreling forward and was colorfully descriptive.  For example, his depiction of Catherine's court after her mother departed for Germany but prior to her marriage:
Before her marriage, the empress had added to Catherine's small court a group of young Russian ladies-in-waiting to help the German-speaking bride-to-be improve her Russian.  Catherine was delighted to have them.  The girls were all young; the oldest was twenty.  "From that moment on," Catherine recalled,  "I did nothing but sing, dance, and frolic in my room from the moment I awoke until I fell asleep. "  These were the playmates with whom Catherine played blindman's buff, used the lid of a harpsichord as a toboggan, and spent a night on mattresses on the floor wondering what men's bodies looked like.  
 And a wonderful passage about the Russian winter.
In January in northern Russian, everything vanished beneath a deep blanket of whiteness.  Rivers, fields, trees, roads, and houses disappear, and the landscape becomes a white sea of mounds and hollows.  On days when the sky is gray, it is hard to see where earth merges with air.  On brilliant days when the sky is a rich blue, the sunlight is blinding, as if millions of diamonds were scattered on the snow, refracting light.  In Catherine's time, the log roads of summer were covered with a smooth coating of snow and ice that enabled the sledges to glide smoothly at startling speeds; on some days, her procession covered a hundred miles.  "It was a time," wrote Segur, "when every animal stayed in its stable, every peasant by his stove, and the only sign of human life were the convoys of sleighs passing like small ships over a frozen sea."   In those northern latitudes at this time of year, daylight lasts no more than six hours, but this did not hinter Catherine's progress.  When darkness fell in the afternoon - as early as three o'click on the first days of the journey - the road was illumintated by bonfires and blazing torches. 
Massie's Catherine the Great is an achievement for its readability and its bringing a figure of historical importance to life in all her complexity: voluptuary and statesman.  She was a soldier of discipline (she worked 16-hour days), and offered herself as an example of courage - Catherine insisted that a recently-invented smallpox vaccine be tested on her.  She was the champion of freedom in the abstract and yet, ultimately, agreed with Voltaire who wrote:
Why is almost the whole earth governed by monarchs?  The honest answer is because men are rarely worthy of governing themselves...  Almost nothing great has ever been done in the world except by the genius and firmness of a single man combating the prejudices of the multitude..." 

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