By Joe Tash
Historians’ work is similar to that of novelists, in that both types of writers tell stories about people, enlivening their tales with details of their characters’ triumphs and travails, award-winning writer Robert K. Massie told local audiences this week.
While fiction writers populate their stories through their imagination, historians and biographers “have to work hard to discover the facts” by poring through mountains of documents, from letters to archives, Massie said in a recent talk to the Rancho Santa Fe Literary Society, which was held at the Marriott-Del Mar. (See page B16.)
Massie’s latest effort to unearth the stories of real people is “Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman,” published in 2011 by Random House.
“Catherine” is Massie’s sixth historical work. His past books have included “Nicholas and Alexandra,” which was made into an Academy Award-winning film, and “Peter the Great,” for which he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1981.
Massie is a native of Lexington, Kentucky, and now lives in New York state. He studied at Yale and Oxford University in England, where he was a Rhodes Scholar. He previously worked as a journalist for Newsweek and the Saturday Evening Post.
Massie’s subject, Catherine the Great, held power as the empress of Russia from 1762 until her death in 1796, at age 67. The daughter of a German prince, she is considered a key figure in both European and Russian history.
“She reached at age 33, halfway through her life, a summit where in the 1,000-year history of the European monarchy, only one other woman had stood,” that being Elizabeth I of England, Massie said.
The book details Catherine’s childhood, when she was rejected by a mother who wanted a boy, to her marriage at 16 to Peter, heir to the Russian throne. Her marriage was troubled from the start, said Massie, because her husband preferred playing with toy soldiers in the couple’s bed rather than having sex with his young bride.
Later, Peter’s aunt, the Empress Elizabeth, forced Catherine to have a child with a man other than her husband, in the hope she would become pregnant and produce a future heir to prolong the Romanov Dynasty. The coupling arranged by the empress was successful, and Catherine gave birth to a boy.
Catherine’s husband, Peter, became emperor of Russia at the death of his aunt, but was toppled from the throne during a coup by the Russian military. Catherine was named empress, and shortly after assuming the throne, Peter — who had been arrested — was strangled to death by his prison guards.
According to Massie, questions dogged Catherine for the rest of her life regarding whether she had ordered her husband’s death, or known about the assassination in advance.
“Certainly, it was very convenient for her,” Massie said.
Through her long reign, Catherine proved a skilled administrator, who steeped herself in philosophy and literature, maintained a correspondence with the French writer Voltaire, and enacted reforms such as ending torture and advocating for the emancipation of serfs, who toiled in the fields of rich landowners.
Although she never remarried, she had 12 lovers. “The official term was ‘favorites” and all were given titles, positions at court and very considerable wealth,” said Massie.
The most important of those lovers was Grigory Potemkin, who became her close confidant, military leader and viceroy for the southern portion of the country. Potemkin was considered the most powerful man in Russia, and helped Catherine rule Russia for 17 years, Massie said.
Catherine was one of the two most important rulers of Russia during the 300-year reign of the Romanovs, said Massie. Along with the political reforms she ushered in, she can also be credited with cultural advancements that endure today, from literature to ballet.
Peter the Great, Catherine’s predecessor by 37 years, brought in Western technology and made Russia a military power.
“Catherine, building on that, brought Western culture and European culture and art, architecture and literature… to Russia,” Massie said.
She wanted to bring enlightenment and reform to her country, but was no proponent of democratic rule.
Catherine and other progressives of her era “wanted to create and enact reforms, but they thought reforms should come from the top down. They didn’t want people at the bottom of the layers rising up and imposing their own changes,” Massie said.