Friday, May 31, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: Catherine the Great. Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie

Our next historical fiction/history book club meeting is coming up this weekend, and the book we read was The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak. Although I enjoyed the novel, it wasn’t quite the "novel of Catherine the Great" that I expected based on the subtitle. I’d hoped to be exposed to more of the reign of the extraordinary Russian empress.

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.

Eventually, Elizabeth dies, Peter takes up the reins of government, and then Catherine, with the help of the army (and her lover), stages a coup. This is where Catherine’s genius truly becomes evident. The challenges she faced were enormous. In a more or less chronological march, Massie gives a well-organized, thorough account of Catherine’s attempted reforms, her wars, her varied political alliances, her friendships with philosophers, her patronage of the arts, her attempts to modernize and upgrade the health and education of the populace as well as addressing those rumors about Catherine’s scandalous personal life. Yes, Catherine the Great took a succession of young men as "favorites," the male equivalent of mistresses. But no one at court saw anything scandalous about it at the time.

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.


  1. I already own this book, so I'm pleased to see that you enjoyed it so much :)

    She sounds like a fascinating woman.

  2. Thanks for the review. I read this book last year and thoroughly enjoyed it. Catherine was a remarkable woman.

  3. I totally agree with you. This was a fabulous biography, even for a reader like me who generally doesn't enjoy reading bios. I reviewed it here:

  4. Reading every page of this book was a thrill. For anyone interested in history of Russia, Catherine the Great and intellectuals of that era, this is a must read book.
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