Dec 11

Book Review: Catherine the Great-Portrait of a Woman

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

I usually don’t read biography, but two disparate people recommended this to me in the space of two weeks, so I decided to make an exception.

As you might expect, this book is about Catherine II of Russia, one of the most powerful and famous tsarinas Russia ever had. A contemporary of Voltaire and Napoleon, she considered herself an enlightened monarch in the dawn of the age of reason.

The book begins with Catherine’s upbringing when she was merely Princess Sophia of Germany. Part one talks about her life and her upbringing and her relation with her distant father and ambitious mother. Catherine’s mother finagles a betrothal with the young princess to Archduke Peter of Russia. They move to Russia and then begin a long, tumultuous drama with the sickly and immature Prussiophile Peter, his volatile mother the Empress Elizabeth, and various members of the court.

Part two involves Catherine’s relationship with Peter, and part three deals with her reign as monarch of Russia. There are a lot of good, juicy details in this. Houses fall down while people are in them. Uncles seduce nieces. An archduke develops a crushing bromance on the King of Prussia. Catherine seduces some hotties and gets her heart broken. Everyone puts dibs on Poland. And oh yeah, the French revolution and some other wars.

For the most part, this book strikes an excellent balance between thoroughness and readability. The first part flew by. It did bog down a little in the middle, but any book of this length is likely to bog down around page 350 or so.

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1 comment

    • Jim on December 11, 2014 at 8:29 pm

    Actually, “Germany” did not exist as a nation in Catherine’s time. She was Princess Sophia of Anhalt-Zerbst, a minor principality dominated by Prussia.

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