Biography Reviews


Catherine the Great
Portrait of a Woman

by Robert K. Massie

Who could not be fascinated by this minor German princess who survived Russian court intrigues and a dysfunctional weak husband to become ruler of the largest empire of her time? By the time she was Empress of all Russia, she controlled the life or death of any one of her twenty million subjects.

Uniquely in this book, writer Robert Massie’s intent is to get inside Catherine, to present new perspectives on her personal life as seen through her eyes. Although lengthy, the book reads like the fascinating almost soap opera story her life was. The chapter titles alone pull you in: ‘Intercepted Letters”, “A Ménage á Quatre,” ”Choglokov Makes An Enemy and Peter Survives a Plot,” “Retaliation,” “Art, Architecture, and the Bronze Horseman,” and so forth. Also compelling are details about Catherine’s many lovers with believable understandings as to why Catherine chose them as companions.

Readers new to the history of the period will be interested in Catherine’s masterful strategies not only at court but in achieving military successes in a war with Turkey, and in the unfortunate partition of Poland, giving significant parts to Russia. They will find modern parallels in Catherine’s links to Enlightenment philosophy and its thinkers, and the ways she was determined to change the perception of Russia as a culturally backward state. Although she could not end serfdom, nor improve the lives of vast numbers who were suffering under worsening conditions, she did attempt to modernize the archaic laws of her realm, and ban the use of torture under any circumstance.

Catherine’s lose of her early idealism also will resonate with the current disillusionments of some. The Pugachev rebellion against her and the anti-monarchism of France’s bloody revolution strengthened her belief in absolutism, and her idea that the stability of Russia depended on maintaining her total authority. In spite of this, it was she who advanced Russia toward a moral, political, and Enlightenment grounded culture and health system which bore fruit in the centuries to come.


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