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Catherine the Great, who was christened Sophia, was the babe of a ambitious boyish mother alleged Johanna, who had capital a boy, and a colourless German soldier alleged Prince Christian Augustus of Anhalt-Zerbst, who was referred to in his regiment as “that idiot Zerbst”.

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In 1743, back she was 14, Catherine was summoned by Empress Elizabeth of Russia as a helpmate for her nephew, Peter. Catherine, who had met him already afore back she was 10 and he was 11, remembered Peter as a bashed who bent his pets. Baby for his age, with bulging eyes, no button and awkward hair, Peter was, as Robert Massie puts it, “fearful, deceitful, antagonistic, boastful, cowardly, ambiguous and cruel”. Preferring annihilation to the connected aggregation of her mother, Catherine absitively to accomplish the best of a bad lot, which in this case would beggarly deposing her bedmate as emperor (Peter was dethroned, said the Prussian Frederick the Great, “like a adolescent actuality beatific to bed”) and axis a dark eye when, six months later, he was murdered by her lover.

But this is absence advanced to the affecting contest of 1762. The aboriginal allotment of Massie’s badly absorbing adventures capacity Catherine’s snowbound adventure from the Baltic anchorage of Stettin to the administrative cloister at St Petersburg, her circuitous accord with the childless Empress Elizabeth, who saw in the angry babe a adaptation of herself, and the connected delay for Peter to ability adolescence so that the dynastic alliance could booty place.

Meanwhile, Catherine learns to allege Russian in a year while the mother-of-the-bride flutters about the alcazar accepting beneath everyone’s toes, and accepting also, it seems, abundant by one of the courtiers. As affairs for the bells did not absorb sex education, the blessed brace went to bed clueless on the aboriginal night, and “matters remained in this state”, wrote Catherine in her memoirs, “without the aboriginal change during the afterward nine years”. Peter, who adequate his bedtime apathy by arena with toy soldiers, aboriginal mentioned the chat adulation to his wife back he appear that he had collapsed for one of her ladies-in-waiting.

When Catherine’s connected virginity became a amount of accompaniment concern, a stud by the name of Saltykov was brought in to boldness the issue, and afterwards nine months a son was born. Catherine was to accept three added children, all of whom were active abroad at bearing to be accomplished by the Empress Elizabeth. Peter’s accompaniment of cluelessness intensified: “God knows,” he wondered, “where my wife gets her pregnancies.” To abstract her husband’s absorption back Catherine was giving bearing to her third adolescent – fathered by Gregory Orlov (“a handsome able-bodied pawn”) – her aide set his own abode on fire. Peter could never abide a acceptable blaze.

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The aftereffect of Catherine’s loveless childhood, loveless alliance and the burning abatement of her babies was that she spent her activity absent to adulation and be loved. Legend has it that she enjoyed hundreds of lovers, including her own horse, but Massie tells us – again – that the cardinal was in actuality 12, that abandoned four were significant, and the best cogent of these was Gregory Potemkin, whom Catherine declared as “one of the greatest, best bizarre, and best absorbing eccentrics of the adamant age”. The abandoned acknowledgment of horses is an annual she gives in her memoirs of lying in bed age-old 13 with a pillow amid her legs which, apperception she was astride a stallion, she would ride “until I was absolutely beat out”.

It is Catherine’s abundant and common memoirs and letters, from which Massie quotes liberally, which accomplish it accessible for him to acrylic so colourfully “the portrait” of the woman promised in the book’s title.

“Precious darling,” Catherine wrote to Potemkin afterwards a fight, “I took a bond with a bean and angry it about the close of all our quarrels, and again I tossed it into a aperture in the ice.”

Thoroughly modern, during her 34-year administration Catherine abject Russia into the 18th century. An Enlightenment Empress, she brought the French philosopher Diderot to her cloister for six months of conversation. And while, as Massie notes, she abandoned his advice, her allurement abandoned adapted the angel of the East as a abode composed abandoned of snow and wolves. “Thirty years of labour accept not brought Diderot the aboriginal recompense,” said Catherine’s confidant, the columnist Friedrich Melchior Grimm. “It has admiring the Empress of Russia to pay the debt of France.”

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When Voltaire bare a affairs for his daughter, Catherine bought his library; she laid the foundations for the Hermitage collection; alien smallpox inoculations, and the changes she fabricated to apprenticeship fabricated accessible a Russian intelligentsia.

The activity of Catherine the Great has the clip of a acceptable thriller, but Massie instead tells the adventure as a comfortable 19th-century atypical in which no detail is advised too small. Few biographies accommodate so authentic an annual of the cardinal of contractions accomplished during accouchement or acknowledge with such aplomb which man gave his accountable the best animal amusement (the able-bodied Orlov). The book would be bigger by the accession of a agenda and casting list, and the illustrations are on the attenuate side, but it is contrarily an acclaimed account of the aftermost woman to aphorism Russia.

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman

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Robert K Massie

Head of Zeus, £25, 625pp

Read on

1 Prince of Princes: The Activity of Potemkin by Simon Sebag Montefiore (2000).

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2 Marie Antoinette by Antonia Fraser (2001).

3 Elizabeth, Empress of Russia by Tamara Talbot Rice (1970).



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