Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman

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Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, Robert K Massie, book reviewCatherine the Great was ruler of Russia in the eighteenth century. Born Princess Sophia of Anhalt-Herbst in 1729, she was brought to Russia by the Empress Elizabeth as bride to her nephew and heir, Peter. The marriage however was not happy, and when Peter ascended the throne and proved to be a poor Tsar, largely due to his idolisation of Frederick of Prussia, Russia’s enemy and ruler of Peter’s birthplace, Catherine staged a coup and became Empress, ushering in one of the golden periods of Russia’s history.

Catherine the Great by Robert Massie is not the first book on Romanov rulers by the author which I have read. Several years ago, having been fascinated by an exhibition on the last Tsars at Edinburgh’s National Museum of Scotland, I read and loved Nicholas and Alexandra. It was after visiting an exhibition on Catherine at the same museum that I wanted to learn more about this incredible woman, and once more turned to Massie.

His work on Nicholas and Alexandra had a personal focus, as he too has a son with hemophilia, however Catherine the Great does not have this connection. It is a biography of one of history’s great figures, and examines her childhood, marriage and reign, as well as her personality, successes and failures. She was by no means perfect, but is hailed as one of Russia’s great rulers, particularly for her love of the arts and the impact this had on the country. It was she who commissioned the huge statue of Peter the Great which stands in St Petersburg; although not descended from him, as indeed by birth she was not even Russian, she wished to align herself with him and show continuity. Her rule became the age of the Russian Enlightenment, with Catherine herself a huge admirer and correspondent of figures such as Voltaire.

Massie’s writing has that all-important quality for a historical biography, authority. He shows excellent attention to detail, and although he clearly admires Catherine, he is not fawning nor does he shy away from her faults and mistakes. Catherine the Great is a lengthy and detailed book, and appears to be a fairly exhaustive biography, although as I have not read anything else on the subject I can’t be certain of that. Due to its sheer volume there can be little of Catherine’s life that Massie does not touch upon, yet he never gets bogged down in dry facts. Catherine the Great comes to life in the pages of this book, and it is that rare thing, a biography which is fascinating and compelling from the very beginning. Many biographies which are otherwise excellent have sections which are dry and hard to get through, but even passages detailing Catherine’s contribution to the arts are lively, which in other hands could be sections the reader skims over.

There was plenty of action in Catherine’s life, yet what I found most interesting was her succession of “favourites”, the term given to the Empress’s lovers. The most important and influential of these was Grigory Potemkin, who she may even have married. Even though she later took other lovers, he remained a lifelong friend and her most important advisor. His achievements are simply incredible, including founding and building several towns in the new southern provinces which he had helped to capture, towns whose names I recognised from my reading on Nicholas and Alexandra, yet here I was reading about one man founding them all.

Catherine the Great is a daunting read, a large biography of a figure from a period of the past which may not seem as exciting as other times. Yet as soon as you start reading you realise this is a misapprehension, and that Catherine’s reign was exciting and innovative. I found myself eagerly looking forward to my commute to work so I could get the book out and continue Catherine’s story. Massie brings her back to life, and his work truly does justice to a great woman.

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

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Written by eilidhcatriona

A Scottish lass in her late twenties living in London. A prolific reader always interested in something new.

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