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Catherine the Great, who ruled Russia for more than three decades in the late 18th century was not Russian. She was born in Germany and raised as a Lutheran. Her family had only a minor claim to nobility, but through a series of strategic moves, managed to arrange for her marriage into the Russian royal family. Seventeen years later, she seized the throne. Pulitzer prize winning writer Robert Massie details the remarkable story of Catherine the Great: cut throat palace intrigues before and after she became Empress, her interest in the Enlightenment, and her efforts to put Russia front and center on the European stage. Please join us for a conversation with Robert Massie on Catherine the Great.
- Robert Massie Pulitzer Prize-winning author
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us, I'm Diane Rehm. Historian and Pulitzer Prize winning writer Robert Massie has turned his attention, once again, to Russia. In a new biography, he details the unlikely story of a young German princess who reigned as empress of Russia for more than three decades in the late 18th century. His new book is titled "Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman." Robert Massie joins me in the studio and, of course, we'll be happy to have your calls, questions, comments, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to email@example.com, join us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning to you, sir, it's good to see you here.
MR. ROBERT MASSIEGood morning. May I call you Diane?
REHMPlease call me...
REHM...Diane. Catherine was not originally her name.
MASSIENo. Her name was Sophia. She was a very minor, very obscure German princess, born in the Baltic port of Stettin. Her mother and father were both Germans, she was raised as a child in Germany and she went to Russia at the age of 14 and never left. She never crossed the frontier -- Russian frontier again after she arrived.
REHMHe should say she was born in 1729.
MASSIEI should say that, yes.
REHMBut she dreamed of becoming a queen.
MASSIEShe was very ambitious. She was a very bright young girl. She had arguments with her tutors about really intellectual subjects, theological and so forth, when she was a very young girl. She was ambitious because she saw that her father who was a general in the army of Frederick the Great and her mother was a very young woman when Sophia was born, she was only 16, was interested in society and clothing and so forth and her child was not, she was interested in larger things...
MASSIE...ideas. She also wanted, frankly, to get away from her mother and she, as I think some young women may still, wanted to marry earlier in order to do that. But she was fueled all her life by this ambition, I can be more then what I am if I persevere, devote myself and stand up to -- and clear the obstacles.
REHMI love the fact that the book is subtitled "Portrait of a Woman" because with the encyclopedic version of who Catherine the Great was, you have the service, you don't have the heart of the woman and that's what you've given us here. Tell us what documents you were relying on.
MASSIEWell, I would say primarily -- you're absolutely right. I was fascinated by the woman, the side of Catherine's life and work. Maybe it's because four of my six children are daughters and I watched them grow up and learn what it is to become a woman. That was a part of it. The primary documents I used, certainly in the first half of the book, which take her up to the time she became empress were her memoirs and her letters.
MASSIEHer memoirs were written after she became empress to explain to her son and grandson the sequence of her life and some of the decisions she'd made and why she made them. And they are extraordinarily honest for a royal person. Then or now, anytime. And they gave me, as a biographer, a sense of being somebody who -- to whom she was talking. She explained, this happened and then this happened.
MASSIEShe describes episodes in her life, meetings with people, difficulties with people. So first of all, the memoirs, secondly her letters. Her letters to Voltaire, the great, sort of, guru of the enlightenment who was, of course, much, much older but loved the fact that here, when she achieved the throne, that here was an empress who was willing to follow and try to put into practice his advice about benevolent despotism and so forth.
MASSIEAnd then I used, in the book, a number of her letters to -- primarily to Potemkin, her -- the most famous of her lovers, perhaps her husband there, may have been a secret marriage. But the passion of those letters, if I can use a cliché, almost scorches the page. And she was very sincere. They had a tempestuous relationship for several years. Then the -- and Potemkin was a great man himself.
MASSIEHe was devoted to her, but he was a man. And he couldn't understand why she wasn't always available in every sense to him. She said "But I have an empire to rule." And so eventually they had to part. And that was tempestuous. But they remained friends, she continued to rely on him. He was a giant figure, not only in her life, but in Russian history.
REHMTake us back to the moment at which it was decided she would marry Peter III who was indeed Peter the Great's grandson.
MASSIEThat was decided by the Empress Elizabeth, Peter the Great's daughter who was the ruling empress and all -- who, although she had many lovers never could conceive a child, never married and never conceived a child. So she had no heir. So Elizabeth brought back her nephew Peter to Russia, he'd been born in Germany because his mother, Peter the Great's other daughter had married a German prince, so Peter became Peter III, was brought back, made heir to the throne and then Elizabeth needed a wife to produce a baby, to assure the dynasty.
MASSIEAnd it happened that Catherine's mother was connected, even though very minor nobility, to Elizabeth through a love affair of Elizabeth's. So Elizabeth imported Catherine to Russia at the age of 14, had her convert to Orthodoxy, change...
REHMWhen she was a Lutheran.
MASSIEThat's right. When she converted, she became a grand duchess and two years later she married Peter...
REHMAt age 16.
MASSIEShe was 16, he was 17. But then there was a problem with Peter. He was afflicted with various psychological and physical ailments. He was not interested in Catherine who was his, in fact, his second cousin. He was not interested in her sexually which is not to say that he was not interested in other women as his life went along. But the incredible thing to me was that Catherine, this young woman in a foreign country, had to lie in bed next to this man for nine years and he never touched her.
MASSIEAnd finally the empress who was desperate, I mean, Catherine had been brought for a purpose, said, well, my dear, I notice you are friendly with these two men, Saltykov and (word?), which do you prefer? And she not only advocated, but demanded that Catherine produce a child and Catherine did, her son Paul who later became emperor.
REHMAnd it was the Empress Elizabeth who took control of that child so that Catherine really had no relationship with her own son.
MASSIEThat is part of Catherine's story and part of the accounting for what happened. Not only, Diane, did she take control, she came into the room where Catherine was lying on a birthing pad on the floor and took the baby, she was ecstatic but she literally took the baby or handed it to a nurse and disappeared. And for the next eight months, Catherine the new mother, only saw her little son three times, briefly. So their relationship was flawed from the beginning.
REHMAnd never to be amended.
MASSIEIt never really became a happy relationship.
REHMRobert Massie, his new biography is titled "Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman." We'll take your calls, your questions, join us, 800-433-8850. I look forward to hearing from you.
REHMAnd welcome back. Many of you know Robert Massie, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer. He won that prize for his biography of "Peter the Great." Now he turns to Catherine who is the wife of the grandson of Peter the Great. She, Catherine, does assume the throne and becomes the Empress. But I'm getting ahead of the story because those early years, Robert Massie, for Catherine had to have been so bitterly lonely. And yet she used it to educate herself.
MASSIEAbsolutely, absolutely. She was lonely. She was -- her husband was interested in his dogs, his soldiers. He was still a man child and he was not interested in her. It's -- it may be that he was -- felt threatened by her. It was pretty obvious that she was much more intelligent than he.
REHMAnd yet she became that dutiful wife.
MASSIEShe tried very, very hard to act the role that she'd been brought to Russia to perform. But left alone for hours and days, she began to read. And she read a great many things. She started with novels, as most young girls do, young women. But she eventually began to read the works of the philosophe of the Enlightenment, mostly French, but others. She had learned French as a child.
MASSIEAnd she read Voltaire, she read Diderot. She began actually with Montesquieu who was talking about the basis of Monarchical rule, of autocracy, of despotism and how it could be adapted or administered with tolerance and -- which would bring to the country of the ruler greater efficiency, greater, if you can say it, patriotism. And she absorbed all of this. And later, she tried -- she -- in many ways -- in every way she tried, in many ways she succeeded, in some ways she did not succeed.
REHMHow long did her mother-in-law, the Empress Elizabeth, rule after Catherine and Peter III were married?
MASSIEAlmost 20 years.
REHMAnd then did she die?
MASSIEShe died on what we would say Christmas Day, December 25 in 1761. Peter, Catherine's husband, came to the throne and lasted only six months.
MASSIEBecause he was arrogant, incompetent and tried to force through some of his ideas against the -- not only the wishes, but the power of the Russian Orthodox Church, of the Russian army, of the people of St. Petersburg. And they began by acknowledging that he was the new czar or emperor. But only six months passed before Peter suddenly -- the ultimate straw was when he declared war on Denmark, which had no relation to anything significant to Russia because of a personal whim. And the Guard's regiment, the army just said, no.
REHMHow did Catherine seize the throne?
MASSIEShe was supported by the Guard's regiment. By then she had a lover, Gregory Orlov who was one of five brothers, all Guards officers. They were all circulating the -- in the barracks -- in the regimental barracks Catherine's -- their preference and the advantages of -- that -- of a rule by Catherine would be. And they didn't want to march off from northern Russia to Denmark.
MASSIESo one day -- and -- oh, after Peter had publicly insulted Catherine in front of hundreds of people at a diplomatic banquet...
REHMHow did he insult her?
MASSIEHe stood up -- because she hadn't stood up when he had called for a salute to Frederick the Great, Russia's then enemy whom he greatly admired -- and he shouted down the tables of the banquet, you know, durak, fool or idiot.
MASSIEAnd she wept and he'd already made convincing signs that he wanted to divorce her, which in Russia in Orthodox religion means achieve by putting her in a convent. This was not what she wanted to do with the rest of her life. She had many supporters. And when he was at a suburban palace outside St. Petersburg she came back, rallied with the help of these officers, the Guard's regiments and then led a march of 14,000 men -- 14,000 on Peter's sort of palace and encampment. And there was no resistance. He gave up very, very quickly and abdicated.
MASSIEFrederick the Great said he behaved like a child being sent to bed. He abdicated, he swore allegiance to her. She sent him off to detention in a country house. And there a week later he died in mysterious circumstances.
REHMDo we have any indication that she played a part in his death?
MASSIEBelieve me, historians for 200 and some years have explored that. It was convenient for her. There's no evidence that she initiated it or authorized it. After the fact, since these were the same men who had supported her coup, she did not punish them. But she learned when the leader of the Guards wrote to her and said, matushka, little mother, he is dead. We ourselves know not what we did. And for the rest of her reign -- most Russians were absolutely delighted but she cared a great deal about European opinion and for the rest of her reign she hoped and did what she could to convince people that she was not responsible.
REHMNow, wasn't there another claim to the throne after Peter III abdicated?
MASSIEThere was. There was a man. He had been elevated to the throne at the age of three months. And he'd come to the throne before the Empress Elizabeth, Peter's daughter took the throne. And she had dethroned him, put his family into sort of domestic exile. And then when he was still a boy she locked him up in a fortress up the river and he was there for 20 years.
REHMThis is Ivan VI.
MASSIEIvan VI, yeah.
REHMYou know, it's fascinating when you hear these stories and you think about today's politics. I mean, it was life or death back then, or life or lifetime imprisonment back then, just absolutely fascinating. So tell us about Catherine's rule.
MASSIEJust to go back, the explanatory factor is the stakes were very high. And if you had a consecrated crown -- well, he wasn't crowned, but a consecrated czar roaming around not on the throne, he would become the focus for all sorts of if there were, as there always are in any situation, opposition.
MASSIEAbsolutely. Anyway Catherine's rule. When she came to the throne she was determined to bring into her decisions and policymaking Enlightenment principles. And at first she succeeded. She decided, for example, that the whole Russian law code was out of date, contradictory, tangled. For one thing Peter the Great had dictated law from the saddle. Who knew what had been written down? He was so powerful and masterful that nobody ever argued with him.
MASSIEShe wrote first an introduction using Montesquieu. She said, I plagiarized him disgracefully. I hope he'll forgive me. I meant the best for my people. This was intended as an instruction for a legislative commission she was calling. It was an assembly, the first of all the classes of free Russian citizens. Not the serfs. We can talk about that if you want, but everybody else, the nobility, the government officials, merchants, townspeople and so forth. And she said, I want you to come and tell me what needs to be changed. And then you advise me on how to change it.
MASSIEThey fell to arguing between each -- between themselves, between classes and so forth. She at that point wanted to do something to either eliminate serfdom or ameliorate it. The nobility, who were the landowners who owned the serfs -- and, Diane, it's important for -- to realize that wealth in Russia was counted in the number of serfs, not in land -- and the nobility said we need serfs to work the land. And if they're taken away from us who's going to pay us and what are we going to do? And also, what are the serfs going to do? They're not going to have any land.
MASSIEAnd on these sort of practical and very forceful objections and opposition, that fell. Then she got involved in various difficulties with neighboring countries, primarily through her reign, the ataman empire, Turkey, which controlled the whole of the Black Sea coast. Peter had taken the Baltic back from Sweden. He'd failed in the south. Catherine was determined to succeed. And the Turks were well aware of this. They attacked Russia twice during her reign. She won both wars, but they were difficult. They absorbed, as wars will, taxes, casualties, et cetera. She fought those wars to a conclusion which was not satisfactory to everyone.
MASSIEDuring her reign Poland, which was a large sprawling amorphous, poorly governed country was partitioned three times between Poland's powerful neighbors, Russia, Prussia and Austria. And in those partitions, Poland disappeared for over a century.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." One question before we open the phones. She did establish supremacy of the state over the Russian Orthodox Church. How did she do that?
MASSIEWell, Peter had done away with the patriarch, sort of the Pope in his reign. But it was still very powerful. Various monasteries and church regions owned serfs, some thousands of serfs. Catherine decided that the great wealth of the church really should be devoted to something useful to society and the citizens. And the church had actually supported her coup but then she turned and passed legislation or decreed legislation that the church should give up these lands. And all of the leaders of the church agreed to do so. Not all was willing, except one who objected fiercely and condemned her and so forth. That's too long a story to tell now.
MASSIEBut she was looking out for the future of Russian citizens. As you know, she created the greatest art collection in the world. She established medical schools, training academies for young women. She was the first person in Russia to be inoculated for smallpox. And everybody -- a list a mile long.
REHMIsn't that wonderful? I have a caller here from Jacksonville, Fla. who'd like to talk about that interest in art. Good morning, Debry (sp?). You're on the air.
DEBRYGood morning. This is a great honor for me. I was wondering if Mr. Massie could talk a little bit about Catherine's legacy in terms of the visual arts -- or I mean, the applied arts, specifically, the legacy we've lost a lot to do with her son Paul I. And also the second World War, specifically her glass bedroom which is cutting edge -- was cutting edge at the time at Tsarskoe Selo, her palace at Pela (sp?). Also the palace we also have in Moscow, the Catherine Palace which currently occupies...
REHMDebry, I'm afraid you're asking a great many questions. But what about her interest in the arts?
MASSIEShe was a great collector and she became, as the paintings she bought arrived in St. Petersburg, quite knowledgeable about arts and artists and so forth. And she used the gigantic winter palace as a museum. She built another smaller palace so she could hang her favorite pictures there.
REHMWas there a glass bedroom?
MASSIEWell, yes. But this -- she was the founder and her collection -- or the basis of the great -- one of the great art museums and collections of the world today at the Hermitage. Now, as to the other questions, I'm afraid I wasn't writing them down. Do you want to repeat...
REHMAnd I'm afraid we're out of time for this particular segment. And I think what you should do, Debry, is to read this book. Short break and right back.
REHMAnd welcome back. Pulitzer Prize winning author Robert Massie is with me. His new biography is titled "Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman." She was of course the empress of Russia and served for three decades. Let's go to Mishawaka, Ind. Good morning, Matt. You're on the air.
MATTGood morning, Diane, and good morning, Mr. Massie. I'm a big fan of several of your books.
MATTI was just wondering, I know that Catherine's predecessor, Elizabeth, was very anti-Prussian and loathed Frederick the Great. And I know her husband was a big fan. What exactly was Catherine's relationship with Frederick?
MASSIEThat's an interesting question. Catherine was German. Her father had been one of Frederick's officers. Her father actually did not want her to go to Russia because he was a devout Lutheran and he knew she'd be forced to convert. But Frederick wanted her to go because of the connection and the link. The link would be helpful to Prussia's foreign policy and so he endorsed her going. And Elizabeth, as the sort of diplomatic situation developed and worsened and Russia was then allied with Austria, Elizabeth fought Russia during the seven years war, which we know here as the French and Indian War. We were a side a show, but became important.
MASSIEFrederick and Elizabeth fought 'til Elizabeth's death. Elizabeth once assured the Austrian ambassador that I will sell half my jewels, I will not give up this war no matter what. And during the war, Russia and Austria drove Frederick and Prussia almost to destruction. The Cossacks rode through Berlin and so forth. Meanwhile, as you know, and as Diane has told you, told us, she brought -- Elizabeth brought Peter from North Germany. He was passionately -- a passionate admirer of Frederick, the greatest soldier of the age. He did not want to go to Russia. In fact, he hated Russia. He admired Germany. He wanted to go home. He would have preferred to be the Duke of Holstein-Gottorp, which he in fact was, to being Emperor of Russia.
MASSIEAnd all during his life as the heir to the throne, he was explicit about this so that his relationship with Elizabeth was difficult to say the least. Catherine took the exact opposite tact. She wanted to be Russian. She learned the Russian language, which he basically refused to do. She became Orthodox enthusiastically at least on the surface. And she devoted herself through the rest of her life to Russia. So that was another difficult disagreement between Catherine and her husband.
REHMAll right. To Millfield, Ohio. Good morning, Tom.
TOMOh, good morning. Thanks for inviting me on. My question is about two characters. And I'm not sure whether Stepan Razin coincided with Catherine's rule, but I believe Pugachev did and I wonder if you could talk about those two individuals and their rebellion against Catherine.
MASSIEWell, Stepan Razin was quite some time before Catherine. He did rebel and he was a hero to the Cossacks and people living in what was the south of Russia, is now Ukraine. Pugachev was certainly a factor in Catherine's reign. Ten or eleven years after she came to the throne when the Russian Army was wholly engaged against the Turks, he deserted from the Army and wandered across the south of Russia to the Volga regions and near the Urals and declared -- decided that he would try to become somebody he wasn't.
MASSIEHe announced that he was Peter the Third returned, Catherine's long dead husband, returned. And he'd come to throw his wife who had connived at removing him off the throne and bring back -- in various manifestos he said he would bring back the true freedom of the Russian people. By which he meant going back to really pre-Peter the Great, to the old Russia of the old believers, the very conservative Orthodox believers, and establish himself as a true czar.
REHMThanks for calling, Tom. You know, as you talk about Catherine's relationship with the Orthodox Church, she did believe that the great wealth that the church held really should be used for the betterment of the public. I don't know how much success she had in that realm.
MASSIEGreat success. In fact, this is an area in which she succeeded almost more -- better than Peter. Of course, she came along 37 years after Peter's death. Things had continued. The Orthodox church was very, very wealthy. And she said from now on the church and its priests and bishops and so forth are going to be servants of the state. In fact, employees of the state. We will pay their -- she didn't do away with the religion. She put it on a different...
MASSIE...secular basis. And it was -- it continued on basis until the revolution in the 20th century.
REHMLet's take a call. Here in Washington, D.C. Good morning, Theo.
THEOHi, Diane. Our ancestor was the son of Catherine and Grigory Orlov. He was sent to an estate. I just wondered if Mr. Massie had any comments about him and that relationship.
MASSIEWell, you must mean Bobrinskoy.
MASSIEYes. Orlov had been Catherine's sort of permanent lover, favorite was the title used, for 12 years. And they had a child who was Bobrinskoy. He was illegitimate and could not be recognized as a potential heir to the throne. But she saw that he was brought up educated. When he became a man, he was given money. He traveled. He lived in Paris for awhile. She kept an eye out or had her sort of ambassador and agents in Paris. He was a good man. And interestingly when Catherine died, her legitimate son, Paul, who became the Emperor Paul the First brought his half brother back and made him a count and they became part of the Russian nobility. And there you know the rest.
THEOYeah, thank you.
REHMAll right. Thanks for calling. How did she die? Apparently there are a great many rumors out there.
MASSIEThere are some...
MASSIEThere are some salacious and quite impossible rumors, which were originally generated by her enemies, by her foreign enemies, particularly in Paris, in France and in Turkey. Catherine actually died one morning she had been -- she was 67. She had been at a party the night before where she had laughed hysterically and had to go to bed because she was -- her face was getting red and so forth. So she went to bed. She got up as always the next morning at 6:00 to start doing her work, reading her correspondence and so forth.
MASSIEAnd at 9:00, she told her man servant and ladies in waiting, excuse me a minute. And she withdrew into the inner part of her apartment and she didn't come back. And eventually her leading man servant went in and she wasn't to be seen. And so he went to the bathroom and the door was blocked. And he called for help. And she was lying on the floor in the bathroom unable to speak, her face almost purple. She'd suffered a stroke. They called for more help and got her on a mattress which they slid into the bedroom. And she was in that condition of living but dying for more than 30 hours.
MASSIEPaul came and everybody was gathered around her. The important thing, Diane, was whether she was going to revoke Paul's succession to the throne, which the emperor -- the sovereign could do until the moment of death. And she did not.
REHMWhat did -- what was her stature physically?
MASSIEShe was not tall, but she gave the appearance to everybody. There are many comments by foreign ambassadors or descriptions who were writing home. Because once she came to the throne, everybody wanted to know who, what, how, what she looked like. She was described as achieving height through her great dignity, the carriage of her head. She had a head of thick auburn hair. She had very bright dark blue eyes. She had a prominent chin. She carried -- people commented on her hands and her neck as being exceptionally beautiful.
MASSIEBut really the thing about her persona was her character more than her appearance. She was the empress. Nobody ever doubted it. And having displaced that, she could be funny, she could be witty. She encouraged people to be informal. By the people who knew her in her circle, she was greatly loved.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go now to Rochester, N.Y. Good morning, Roy.
ROYGood morning, Diane. Good morning, Mr. Massie.
ROYIn 1976, I had a summer session and I needed a class. And I ended up in a special bicentennial session with Nikolai (unintelligible) who got to come for the summer and teach a seminar in the American Revolution. Can you speak about Catherine and her relationships, her comments to George the Third and not leasing him a 30,000 man Russian core to suppress his colonists?
MASSIEThat's a very interesting point. Catherine was not in favor of revolutions. Her idea of reforming government, changing the administration of people was to work from the top by educating, by looking for and finding educated rulers, hopefully she thought in the concept of the Enlightenment which she tried to do. So the American Revolution which was distance was not something she truly favored, although she was aware of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson and those other people who were affected -- influenced by the Enlightenment. Of course, the French Revolution was the thing which really terrified her because of the savagery of the -- as it progressed from Marie d'Herbois to Robespierre.
MASSIEThe interesting thing you brought up was the king -- King George the Third's request. And it came directly from the king, monarch to monarch, for I think it was 20,000 Russian infantry and 1,000 Cossacks to be carried to America at British expense. Britain controlled the seas but didn't have a large Army. To deal with what the British foreign office described as the king's dissatisfied American colonists. Well, you know, having been turned down by Catherine, she said, I don't think so. He then went on and hired the Hessians who made themselves well known, perhaps infamous, in their behavior toward American towns and soldiers.
MASSIEBut I -- just to carry one more thought, can you imagine what we would think today of the Russians, what might've happened if 20,000 Russian soldiers and 1,000 Cossacks had been loosed on the American colonies...
REHMWhat do you think?
MASSIE...New York, Philadelphia, whatever. I think we would -- you know, Russia is the one country or one of the countries with whom we have never fought a war. We had a cold war and it got pretty ominous for awhile, but we've never fought a war. If the Russians even as higher-ees of the King of England had come here and done some of the things that they were capable of doing, that might've been enough to color our attitude.
REHMMr. Massie, you have written just a fascinating account of this woman and I thank you for it.
MASSIEThank you very much.
REHMRobert Massie, his newest book is titled "Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman." Thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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