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

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman
Author: Robert K. Massie
Genre: Nonfiction, Biography, History
Publisher: Random House
Release Date: 2012
Pages: 672
Source: Personal Collection
Synopsis: Pulitzer Prize winner Massie offers the tale of a princess who went to Russia at 14 and became one of the most powerful women in history. 

     Born into minor German nobility, she transformed herself into an empress by sheer determination. Possessing a brilliant, curious mind, she devoured the works of Enlightenment philosophers, and reaching the throne, tried using their principles to rule the vast, backward empire. She knew or corresponded with notable figures of her time: Voltaire, Diderot, Frederick the Great, Maria Theresa of Austria, Marie Antoinette & John Paul Jones. 

     Wanting to be the “benevolent despot” Montesquieu idealized, she contended with the deeply ingrained realities of Russian life, including serfdom. She persevered, and for 34 years the government, foreign policy, cultural development and welfare of the Russian people were in her hands. She dealt with domestic rebellion, wars & the tides of political change and violence inspired by the French Revolution. Her reputation depended on the perspective of the speaker. She was praised by Voltaire as like the classical philosophers. She was condemned by enemies, mostly foreign, as “the Messalina of the north.” 

     Her family, friends, ministers, generals, lovers and enemies are vividly described. These included her ambitious, scheming mother; her weak, bullying husband, Peter (who left her sexually untouched for nine years after their marriage); her unhappy son & heir, Paul; her beloved grandchildren; and her favorites — the young men from whom she sought companionship and the recapture of youth as well as sex. Here, too, is Gregory Potemkin, her most significant lover & possible husband, with whom she shared a correspondence of love & separation, followed by 17 years of unparalleled mutual achievement. 

     All the qualities that Massie brought to Nicholas & Alexandra and Peter the Great are present: historical accuracy, deep understanding, felicity of style, mastery of detail, ability to shatter myth & a genius for finding and expressing a human drama. 

     My review: Catherine the Great was Russia’s longest reigning female ruler. The fact that she did not inherit Russian by birth because she was of German descent makes her story all the more fascinating. She helped modernize Russia. After her reign, her son Paul made a law that a woman could not inherit the throne.

     This biography of Catherine the Great is very intimate. It tells the tribulations and faults for Catherine, but at the same time is very sympathetic. The biography portrays her to be intelligent, and a capable ruler, but while she made many accomplishments, she was a very lonely woman. Her personal life was very unhappy with her strained relationship with her son Paul, which is the reason why she had many lovers to help satisfy her loneliness.

     Catherine was an insignificant German princess, who was given a chance to marry the tsarevich of Russia. She took it. However, her life with Peter was not happy and for many years she could not bear a son. Finally, she bore one, which the author suggests it is most likely illegitimate, and Catherine’s position was secure. Because she was politically savvy, she realized that the military was a powerful ally and with their help she was able to construct a coup d'etat and became the ruler of Russia herself.

     This book is constructed into two parts, her life till she became queen, and her reign. While in her reign the author mentions her accomplishments, he also mentions her faults. For instance, she was more for the nobility than the peasants. This was comprehensible for it was in chronological order and it helped depict an intimate portrait of the queen, whom we could empathize with.

     The writing was very engaging and it helped answered some questions about Catherine the Great. It also debunks the popular myths of Catherine the Great. While the book is long, it didn’t really feel long. Instead, it was a quick read, and I found myself wanting it to not end. I would greatly love to reread the book again.

     Overall, this is a very intimate depiction of the queen. It gives us a glimpse into the personal life of Catherine the Great. It is clear that the biographer loves his subject. The book is very comprehensible to the reader, and the writing is very engaging and reads like a soap opera. There is betrayal, scandal, and drama, yet at the heart it is about a woman who was able to rise against the odds to become a strong and capable ruler in her own right. I recommend it those who are interested in learning about Catherine the Great, for it shows her in a very sympathetic light.

Rating 5 out of 5 stars

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