Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Review: Catherine The Great: Portrait of a Woman, by Robert K. Massie


I don't know if you are a fan of the Hulu series The Great, but I am, and I definitely got the idea to read Robert K. Massie's amazing biography of Catherine II of Russia after seeing the show and wondering about the relationship of fact to TV show; a quick glance at Wikipedia told me that Catherine's real story was just the jumping off point for the show, but I wanted to know more.

If you are interested in Catherine, this book is a great place to start and linger for a while over her amazing story. Beautifully written in nice bite-sized chapters, filled with anecdotes and narrative both personal and public, I learned so much from reading this book. The most compelling parts of the book for me were the most personal; her early years, her love life, the relationships she had with Empress Elizabeth, her husband Peter and her son Paul were really interesting and not always what I expected.  Massie details her many accomplishments as empress as well as the many challenges she faced, from the belief that she was a usurper to her struggle just to fit in in Russia, along with things like rebellions, an imposter who tried to take power and sowed chaos all over the country, her struggle to reform Russia on various levels, on and on. 

Massie gives us lots of vivid supporting characters like Peter and Elizabeth but also the Orlov brothers, Gregory Potemkin and more. The court shenanigans were fascinating and tragi-comical at times. The relationships of all of these people are so clearly laid out and supported with stories and anecdotes; the only time I felt the book started to drag was towards the end when Massie's emphasis shifted to her political machinations especially around Poland. He does show how her actions set the stage for centuries of subsequent history and how her legacy can still be felt today in places like Ukraine. 

What shines through so much for me was her love of Russia and her wish to leave her mark on it- on its art, culture, politics, borders, and its intellectual life. He takes pains to portray her as intelligent, hardworking and very down to earth- someone you could run into, dressed simply, in one of her gardens. And then she would shift into the magnificent empress we all think of when we think of her.

Catherine the Great is a long book, detailed and brimming with her long story. It's well worth your time. You can buy a copy at Bookshop.org if you are curious.


FTC Disclosure: I did not receive a copy for review. I am a Bookshop.org affiliate and receive a small commission on sales.

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