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Clif's Book World

Adventures from reading books captured within short reviews.

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman (Audiobook - Audible Download) - Robert K. Massie, Mark Deakins I was surprised how interesting I found this book to be. I had no particular interest in Catherine the Great and the only reason I read it was to reinforce my knowledge of history in preparation for a trip to Europe to trace the route of my wife’s ancestors' migrations. Their movements included a number of years in both southern Poland and Ukraine, both regions are within the sphere of influence of Catherine’s Russian Empire.

Since I didn’t know that much about Catherine, I was easily surprised by new information about her. First of all I was surprised to learn the Catherine wasn’t Russian. She was a low level German princess imported for the purposes of bearing a child. Her husband (Peter III) was so clearly unfit that after six months of his rule Catherine led a successful coup to displace her husband as supreme ruler of Russia.

It’s interesting to speculate how it’s possible for outsiders such as Catherine to achieve high positions of power. Other examples that come to mind are Napoleon (Corsican not French), Hitler (Austrian not German), Stalin (Georgian not Russian), and Nikita Khrushchev (Ukrainian not Russian). In Catherine’s case she was blessed (cursed?) with a clearly incompetent and unpopular husband that gave her the opportunity to seize power in the first place. However, once she was in possession of power she knew that it was important to rule wisely in order to maintain the support of the Russian nobles. She is generally acknowledged by most historians to have been an enlightened despot who ruled wisely.

I knew Catherine was rumored to have a large appetite for sex. Of course, the most outrageous stories are NOT true. However, I was surprised how well her succession of lovers is documented. She made no effort to keep these relationships secret. There is a surviving note to Potemkin written in her handwriting in which she lists all men with whom she previously had had sexual relations. This must surely be unique documentation on such a personal subject for a royal personage of that era. This book says she had twelve “favorites” during her 34 year reign as Empress. She never publically married any of her lovers. However, this book indicates that there are reasons to believe that she may have secretly married Potemkin.

The term “Potemkin villages” has become a widely recognized descriptive expression for something that is fake and has artificially been made to look better than it really is. It is based on the rumor that Potemkin built fake settlements of hollow facades to fool Empress Catherine during her tour of newly conquered territories and the Crimea. This book indicates that there is no documentation to support these rumors and that they were probably started by enemies of Potemkin.

There was no mention in this book of Catherine inviting German settlers to move into the newly conquered regions of the Ukraine to help develop the area. That would have been of interest to me because my wife’s ancestors were among those settlers. (Actually, their move to Ukraine came later than Catherine's reign.)