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Russian History At Its Best With Robert Massie–Catherine The Great Lives Again

August 21, 2020

Consider the audacity, enormity, and power of the following sentences from Robert Massie’s masterpiece, Catherine The Great.

The final sequence in the ceremony was the acknowledgment the coronation represented a pact between God and herself. 

She kneeled and, with her own hand, took the communion bread from the plate and administered the sacrament to herself. 

Now consider the way you or I might feel when inviting a guest to our home.  Perhaps we try to push them off until the blooms are perfect in the gardens or a house project is complete.  We, therefore, can see the logic, and even humor, when Voltaire wishes to visit Russia.  Empress Catherine is nervous about exposing her country and its rustic nature to his analytical eye and writes a friend the following.

“For God’s sake, try to persuade the octogenarian to stay at home.  What should he do here? He would either die here or on the road from cold, weariness, and bad roads.

She will write about Diderot and the way she first observed him.

“…a high brow receding on a half-bald head; large rustic ears and a big bent nose, firm mouth…brown eyes, heavy and sad, as if recalling unrecallable errors, or realizing the indestructibility of superstition, or noting the high birth rate of simpletons.”

Pages and pages and more pages of coming almost face-to-face with the main character is what makes this book so meaningful.

I am most interested in how Catherine reads about the Enlightenment and tries to channel thoughts about how her society should be constructed. How  the populace and her government might interact to the betterment of all. There was so much potential because Catherine had the willingness to grow intellectually and had the desire at times to remedy the fundamental ills that inflicted her people. I am struck, time and again, with how Catherine almost becomes a teacher rather than just the head of state. How she aspires to greatness both in terms of  being empress, and also with the power of intellectual thought.

Many years ago a long-time friend and Madison artist David Burkard recommended Robert Massie’s book.  Russian history is always bold, brassy, and leaves one wanting more.  Massie has the knack for dropping us in the world and time of his subjects.  So thorough is his knowledge of Russia that this series of books from Peter The Great (which received the Pulitzer Prize and this fall or winter will be my next Russia deep-dive) to Nicholas and Alexandria are recommended to better understand the Russian people and their fascinating history.

I strongly concur with the critical praise that was heaped on the book about Catherine and kick myself for not turning the pages before now.  The pandemic has certainly allowed for more reading time, and finding my way back over the years of book recommendations has provided fond memories of friends and events.

If anyone reading this post wants to step far aside of the frenzy over the current national election, or the bombast of our nation, and instead be immersed in drama and intrigue that is nuanced and presented from the hands of an erudite historian then please consider the following.

This book is brilliant and totally captivating.



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