Catherine the Great (1729-96) is a perennial subject for biographers. Her personal story is compelling: Like England's Elizabeth I, she ruled in a male-dominated world with extraordinary wit and guile. On her watch, the Russian empire expanded and modernized. Notably successful at home and abroad, she capped off her triumphant life by writing her own story in memoirs that her latest biographer calls "invaluable."
Since there is no shortage of recent biographies of Catherine, what is it that distinguishes Robert K. Massie's effort? Surprisingly, he does not say, although his notes reveal his indebtedness to biographies by Joan Haslip, Zoe Oldenbourg, Isabel de Madariaga and Gina Kaus.
It is apparently enough for Massie, a Pulitzer Prize winner, that he has devoted much of his writing life to Russia in biographies of Peter the Great and Nicholas and Alexandra. And certainly no biographer writes better. The pleasures of this biography are evident as Massie deftly introduces Catherine, a rather plain-looking daughter of an obscure noble family whose prospects would hardly forecast her illustrious future. Even worse, her mother, Johanna, disappointed that her firstborn was not a son, discounted at every turn the idea that she had already produced a nonpareil.
Early on, Massie reveals why Catherine emerged out of such unpromising circumstances. Empress Elizabeth of Russia, engaged to Johanna's brother who died of smallpox, remained a friend to Johanna, who, in turn, assiduously cultivated her connections to the Russian court.
Then Frederick II of Prussia, intent on expanding his realm (mainly at the cost of the Habsburg Empire), saw in Catherine's marriage to her second cousin, Peter of Holstein-Gottorp, heir to the Russian throne, an opportunity to ingratiate himself with the Russian court and deflect Russian opposition to his expansionist plans.
Frederick II invited the 14-year-old girl to visit him and astonished his court by engaging her in an adult conversation that she not only understood but also contributed to, thus ensuring not only his favor but also his good reports to the Russian court about her precocity.
The rest, as they say, is history, wonderfully told in vivid scenes and sly sentences that capture, for example, not only Johanna's early despair over her prospects but also her dutiful submission in the bedroom to a dullard husband: "But always, underneath, she yearned to be free." It is that choice of "underneath" that makes Massie such a teasing pleasure to read.
Carl Rollyson is a biographer and professor of journalism at Baruch College, The City University of New York.