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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

How did a German princess from a minor noble family become the empress of Russia, and win the praise of Voltaire, Montesquieu, Diderot and other giants of the Enlightenment? Well, Robert Massie, who's previous books have detailed the lives of Nicholas and Alexandra, the Romanovs and Peter the Great, has now written the story of the woman who ruled Russia for 34 years, "Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman."

Bob Massie joins us from our studios in New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

ROBERT MASSIE: Thank you, Scott, for having me.

SIMON: So how does a German teenager become the empress of Russia?

MASSIE: That is what makes this such a great story. Catherine was brought to Russia by Empress Elizabeth, the daughter of Peter the Great, who herself could not have children. Peter, who became Peter III, was her nephew and he'd been brought up in Germany and he was brought there. And then, Empress Elizabeth reached out and brought this young German girl to be Peter's wife and the mother of a follow-on heir to establish Elizabeth's dynasty.

SIMON: It must be said that her marriage, Catherine and Peter III, was not what we'd call a happy pairing.

MASSIE: Far from it. Peter was a very strange man, to put it mildly.

SIMON: Peter played with soldiers, little toy soldiers all the time, didn't he?

MASSIE: He was childish into his late adolescence, and he was strange throughout his life. He was not particularly interested in Catherine. They were distant cousins. He was glad to see her because she was German and he was German, but he had no romantic or sexual interest in her at all.

And Scott, the extraordinary thing for her was that they did marry when Catherine was 16 and he was 17. And she had to lie in bed with this young husband for nine years and he never touched her.

SIMON: Is that what life was like among royalty in those days?

MASSIE: No, far from it. Far from it. Catherine's husband, Peter, was very, very different.

SIMON: And how did she meet the principals of the Enlightenment and become such a - so devoted to the idea that they could help Russia?

MASSIE: For half of her life, the 19 years she was in Russia before she became empress, she was frustrated by her situation, by her husband's inattention, by the empress's constant nagging and pressure to produce a child. And she had been a bright child; her languages then were French and German. She learned Russian. And she began to read the great philosophers of the French Enlightenment.

And in that way, she developed a philosophy of rule. Voltaire called it, and she picked it up - of benevolent despotism, and tried to put that into play when she actually became empress.

SIMON: When you talk about Catherine the Great being a benevolent despot, is that one of those phrases that maybe sounds better in retrospect? But to the people who might have experienced her authoritarianism, benevolent might not have been their first phrase for her.

MASSIE: You're absolutely right that not everybody looking up at the despot might have agreed that this was benevolence. I think there was a 19th-century Russian historian, Karamzin, who said if we consider the whole range of Russian monarchs, I think many people would agree that Catherine's reign was the happiest time, that people were happier than ever before or since.

SIMON: What difference did she make in her interest to improve the lot of serfs in Russia?

MASSIE: She tried. She came to the throne in 1762. By 1766, she had decided to call a legislative commission made up of representatives of all the estates. First time that had been done in Russia, to come together and try and improve the code of Russian laws.

One of the things she was most anxious to improve or change was the institution of serfdom. The problem was, Scott, that the nobility - who were the landowners - reckoned their wealth in serfs, not in the land. And they opposed her and she really failed. She said much later that's one of the most - the greatest disappointments I've had.

SIMON: Let me ask you about some of the really significant relations that she had in her life. Grigory Potemkin, I mean, as they say in the movies, talk about a cute meet. They met during a coup.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MASSIE: They met then when - he was 10 years younger than she. He was a young guard's officer, a cavalry officer. And he participated in a minor way really, in the coup d'etat by which she overthrew her husband, Peter. He joined her circle. He was a very, very bright man. He was a big powerful man. And their romance, their relationship was extraordinarily passionate, which is why I put so many of the letters in the book. I thought they're almost burning the page, and then they broke up, they started to fight. And then they reached an arrangement by which they stopped living together. He went off to the south, conquered the whole of the Black Sea coast for Russia. He became her viceroy. They still loved each other but at a distance. And both had other partners.

SIMON: Bobby, right in the, I guess it's the acknowledgements at the end of the book, that you're going to miss the company of Catherine the Great.

MASSIE: I am.

SIMON: Why?

MASSIE: This is true. Because I went back in my mind to the little girl with all these dreams and aspirations, the frustrated young woman, the terrible marriage, the string of young men, whom she found gave her comfort and persuaded her that she wasn't getting that old. The whole story of the life as it unfolded was absolutely fascinating. I think that Catherine is almost a lesson book. There were lots of moments of despair, but she carried on. She carried through. And in a sense, she's an example. She won. I found that exhilarating, and in a sense, reassuring.

SIMON: Robert K. Massie, his new book. "Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman." Thanks so much.

MASSIE: Thank you, Scott.

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