And so, because I did want to learn about Catherine the Great and eighteenth century Russia, I decided to read Robert Massie’s biography: Catherine the Great. Portrait of a Woman. (Massie is a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Peter the Great and Nicholas and Alexandra, and this biography has also been a bestseller, so I expected good things.) I borrowed it from my local library in order to add it to my library challenge (hosted by Book Dragon’s Lair.)
Catherine the Great is a straightforward, very readable biography. Massie is fortunate to have such a fascinating character as a centerpiece and he does a wonderful job synthesizing a wealth of material. He begins with Catherine’s childhood (as does The Winter Palace) when she arrives in Russia as Sophia, a fifteen-year-old German princess, Empress Elizabeth’s favored choice as bride for Grand Duke Peter. Much of the same material is covered as in the novel, although with different emphasis. There is extensive exploration of Russian politics and international relations, setting the stage for Catherine’s turn as empress.
The book is long but the material is consistently interesting. Near the end, Massie digresses a bit to give what seemed to be more detail than was needed on the French Revolution. It was a major event and it did horrify Catherine and influence her behavior, but coming at the end of the book, when things were otherwise wrapping up, I found myself wondering why we were suddenly on such a lengthy journey to France. (Still interesting, just a bit off track.)
Overall, if you’re interested in Catherine the Great, this excellent biography puts her life in historical context and demonstrates what a truly remarkable woman she was.