Review

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman

by Robert K. Massie
Robert K. Massie's new biography, CATHERINE THE GREAT: PORTRAIT OF A WOMAN, has it all: jealous mothers, indulgent eccentrics, greedy social climbers, intrigue, infidelity, murder, political coups, sex, war and passion. Never before have I been so engrossed in a biography as to consider it a guilty pleasure. Stop watching “Game of Thrones” and start reading CATHERINE THE GREAT.
 
"Never before have I been so engrossed in a biography as to consider it a guilty pleasure."

Born Sophia Augusta Fredericka to German minor nobility, the future Empress of Russia had a neglectful upbringing. Her mother was a relentless social aspirant who forced her daughter into a politically advantageous marriage with the Grand Duke Peter III of Russia in 1745. Yet from this unhappy union, the newly-christened Grand Duchess Catherine emerged the victor. Just six months after her husband took the throne, Catherine ousted him in a glorious coup d'état. She went on to rule the Russian Empire as Tsar Catherine II for the next 34 years. During her reign, Catherine waged war, quashed rebellion, expanded her empire, faced plague and disease, advanced modern health care, patronized European art, and championed the ideals of the Enlightenment. More personally, she endured heartache and motherhood many times over. By the end of the book, you will not only come to respect the fiery and intellectual Russian Empress, you will want to be her. 

CATHERINE THE GREAT owes much of its literary appeal to the exuberant writing of biographer Robert K. Massie. Truly, the man could not pen a dull passage if he tried. Unlike the dry, objective tone assumed by some biographers, Massie's style tends towards the dramatic and narrative. Without sacrificing historical accuracy, he dives into the juicy details of Catherine's life, elaborating and speculating to the reader's delight. Massie is always on the empress's side: her greatest advocate in almost every circumstance. Perhaps this closeness stems from the proliferation of primary sources included in his research.
 
Interspersed with general history, CATHERINE THE GREAT includes large passages of dialogue and quotes from letters and memoirs. The result is a feeling of intimacy with the characters, as we hear their voices woven into the narrative. From the sexual to the grotesque to the outright strange, Massie relishes his telling of Catherine's story. And his enthusiasm is infectious: immediately upon finishing the book, I wanted to turn it over, open it back up, and begin reading again.
 

Reviewed by Shelby Wardlaw on September 28, 2011

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

  • Publication Date: November 8, 2011
  • Genres: Biography, History, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 656 pages
  • Publisher: Random House
  • ISBN-10: 0679456724
  • ISBN-13: 9780679456728