Friday, April 7, 2017
Catherine the Great by Robert K. Massie
So I didn't really know who Catherine the Great was, so I'm going to pretend that you don't either and give you a very brief introduction.
Catherine the Great (born Sophia Augustus Fredericka) was a noble-born German girl who ended up being married to the heir to the Russian throne (who was also German). Her mother thought herself cleverer than she was and didn't give Sophia much love, and her husband didn't love or respect her either.
Trapped in a loveless marriage in a foreign court, Sophia (who was renamed Catherine after converting to Orthodoxy) made the best of a bad situation by endearing herself to the Russians, overthrowing her husband after he became emperor and becoming Empress herself. Seriously a "when life gives you lemons" sort of person.
I have so much respect for Catherine after reading this, not only because of how she made the best of her situation but because she seemed to genuinely love Russia and ruled with its best interests in mind. She not only corresponded with great thinkers, she put what she had learnt into practice by writing Nakaz, which laid the guiding principals upon which she hoped Russia's new laws would be founded.
Sadly, she didn't get to carry out her ideas as she wanted to (because even autocrats need the support of the nobility and army), and she didn't manage to end serfdom even though she wanted to, but I was genuinely impressed by what she managed. Russia is huge and she not only governed it, she tried to better it.
Her attempts to improve the Russian healthcare system were more successful and in 1768, she was the first to be vaccinated against smallpox, to show Russians that it was safe. That put her ahead of continental Europe, which shunned it as dangerous (and considering that anti-vaxxers still exist today, this really shows how forward thinking she was).
I found this book to be easy to read, although some controversial issues (like whether she married a Potemkin) seemed to be glossed over. I'm not a scholar though, so this is purely just an impression of how disputed it might have been, because I was expecting a little bit more discussion on it.
If you're in the mood for a biography, I'd recommend this. I mentioned in my review of the three royals who ruled before WWI (George, Nicholas and Wilhelm) that they seemed to be victims of the birth (although I may not have used those exact words), but Catherine shows that you aren't trapped and that one can rule well even if they weren't brought up to do so.