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Catherine The Great, Portrait of a Woman – a review

[by J. Scott Shipman]

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

Robert K. Massie, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of Peter the Great: His Life and World, provides another bigger-than-life portrait in his compelling biography of Catherine the Great (1729-1796). Massie traces the life of an unlikely German princess of humble beginnings to the throne of Russia. Indeed Sophia, as she was then known, was plucked from obscurity by Peter the Great’s youngest daughter, Russian Empress Elizabeth, to be the child bride of a German lad who was the son of Charles Frederick, the Duke of Holstein, who happened also to be married Peter’s eldest daughter and Elizabeth’s favorite. Peter had changed the traditional rule of male primogeniture, allowing the reigning sovereign to designate “his or her successor” and Elizabeth, who came to power in a coup, wanted someone from her father’s line to follow her reign. Hence, she imported these two youngster’s (who were cousins) for the purpose of a marriage, but more importantly to produce an heir, only to be disappointed for seven long years (until Catherine took a lover; her husband had no interest).

This comprehensive biography details the misery of Catherine’s life before she became the Empress of Russia, and it seems she tried to make up for her failed marriage and lost time with “boy toys.” There were serious relationships, to be sure, but even into her old age, Catherine kept a younger man close by. If there is a weakness in this great book, it is Massie’s cataloguing of Catherine’s lovers (my guess, these intimate choices were so central to her personality these facts could not be ignored).

Massie does a very good job of describing Catherine’s substantial intellect, and her theoretical approval of liberal government. She went so far as to convene a group to define laws for Russia, but never relented in her prerogative as the one having the last word. True to form, Massie also provides rich details of the intrigue surrounding Catherine’s court, and who the movers and shakers were behind the throne, as it were.

Catherine read and spoke French and had a healthy correspondence with Voltaire. She also purchased Diderot’s library, and through Diderot many “artists, scientists, architects, and engineers swarmed to solicit appointments to St. Petersburg.” Massie section discussing the French Revolution and the fear it caused many in Europe and Russia is perhaps my favorite, as he provides rich detail of not only the Russian court, but other centers of power in Europe. (his remarks on the guillotine were positively chilling)

In the acknowledgements, Massie mentions his “extraordinary pleasure…in the company of the remarkable woman.” I suspect readers of this superb biography will agree. I finished this book in December 2011 and it is among one of the best books of the year for me and comes with my highest recommendation.


Massie has made the Russian Romanov family the subject of two other recommended books: Nicholas and Alexandra and The Romanov’s The Final Chapter.

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