Top positive review
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superbly readable biography
on 29 May 2017
This is an excellent biography of one of the greatest of Russian rulers, by an author who has already written major biographies of Peter the Great, the last tsar Nicholas and his wife Alexandra, and a book about the post-revolutionary Romanovs in exile. It is rich and colourful and, the title notwithstanding, covers all aspects of Catherine's life and rule, the personal, political, military and social. Catherine was an unlikely ruler of the biggest empire in the world, being a princess of a minor German state with no Russian blood. Called to Russia at the age of 14 to marry the heir to the throne, Peter, Empress Elizabeth's nephew, she quickly, unlike her husband, adopted Russian customs and language and joined the Orthodox church, renouncing her Lutheranism against her father's protests. She quickly eclipsed Peter in all areas. He was unstable and unfit to rule, and Elizabeth worried for the succession, so much so that, after nine years of unconsummated marriage, the way was cleared for Catherine to have a child by another man, with the result that Grand Duke Paul was very probably not Peter's son.
After Elizabeth's death, Peter became emperor Peter III, but Catherine overthrew him six months later and assumed the imperial title (Peter died suddenly a week later, very probably bumped off by Catherine's supporters, the Orlovs). Catherine was a ruler of contrasts. A follower of Voltaire and Diderot, she was genuinely liberal by the standards of rulers of the time, and made some attempts at constitutional and other political and economic reform, which however she could not progress in the face of opposition from the nobility, on whose support she depended. For an autocrat she was sparing in the use of force and consistently opposed the use of torture, even against her bitterest opponents. However, her liberal instincts weakened in the face of the Pugachev rebellion, whose leader the Cossack Yemelyan Pugachev claimed to be Peter III; and withered almost entirely after the French Revolution, when the fear of a bloody upheaval against established authority caused her to become suspicious of reformers, including the first true Russian reformer Alexander Radischchev. It also led her to what was surely the most outrageous and longest-lasting injustice of her reign, that of the dismemberment and destruction of the Polish state, after its legislature had tried to assert some independence against Russian domination; Poland did not emerge again until after the First World War.
The book also of course charts Catherine's colourful love life and her many favourites, including most prominently Grigory Potemkin, the love of her life, to whom she may have been secretly married; and the other significant relationships (with each of whom she had a child) Stanislaus Poniatowski, whom she later made her puppet king of Poland, and Grigory Orlov, one of the brothers who helped her win the throne. Ironically, history repeated itself and Catherine regarded her son Paul as largely unfit to rule and may have planned to name her eldest grandson, Paul's son Alexander, her successor in his place. She died at the age of 67 in 1796, one of the longest lived rulers of Russia, not a breed known for their longevity. Always a fascinating character, one of the genuine greats of European history.