Catherine the Great

From obscurity to greatness –  with the help of an ambitious mother –  Catherine the Great offers insight and historical context with drama.

After eight years of research and writing, Robert K. Massie leaves nothing out.  Through a dense and fact filled documentary, Massie manages to reveal the human personalities, and suddenly you are in the eighteenth century – with court deceptions, dukes and emperors trading lives for power, royals using overwhelming wealth to show favor or take it away, secret lovers, lives ruined for the wrong allegiance – a great way to learn history.

Massie, who won the Putlizer for his Peter the Great, creates a suspenseful plot with the innumerable facts at his disposal, and he manages to instill humanity into the historical icons as if they were characters in a play. The result will have you attending to his words, and reading for the next installment as Catherine’s life unfolds. Nevertheless, I found myself dozing off in some sections; this is a slow methodical read and you will have to persevere to reach the end.

Becoming Catherine

Ensconced in posh surroundings, weighted down with jewels and silver, the teenage German princess is summoned by the Empress Elizabeth, daughter of Peter the Great, to be betrothed to the heir of the Russian throne, an immature and petulant boy.  They have no choice but to marry, but it’s nine years before the marriage is consummated.  In the meantime, Catherine has learned the language, converted away from German Lutheranism to Orthodox Russia, and solidified her ambition to someday be Empress.

Massie uses letters and references to document the saga – many from Catherine’s own memoirs – and he maintains interest by inserting humorous episodes when they are available.  In attending a ball with the men dressed as women and the women as men (better to show off Empress Elizabeth’s legs), Catherine writes:

The very tall Monsieur Sievers… was wearing a hoop skirt the empress had lent him…Countess Hendrikova, who was dancing behind me, stumbled over the hoop skirt as he turned…I fell beneath the hoop skirt which had sprung upright beside me…there we were all three of us, sprawling on the floor with me entirely covered by his skirt.  I was dying of laughter trying to get up…no one could get up without causing the other two to fall down.”

Not all is balls and frivolity.  Massie describes poignant moments of despair, and illnesses that almost sever ties.   In his thoroughness, he relates every toothache, court gossip, and secret – some are entertaining.  Catherine’s invention of a side-saddle she could unobtrusively switch to ride astride to avoid her mother-in-law’s criticism foreshadows Catherine’s later “triumphant entrance into the capital” riding in uniform on her horse as the new ruler.

Empress Catherine

Pages of colorful portraits of the principals divide the book, with the first two hundred pages providing the background to the second half – Catherine’s reign.  Like other powerful women, Catherine overcame obstacles, asserted her independence, and managed people as well as countries.  She learned early that people prefer to talk about themselves, and she listened.  But she believed in “enlightened autocracy – what I despair of overthrowing, I undermine.” Massie writes that…

“she was intelligent, well-read, and a shrewd judge of character… She softened imperial presence with a sense of humor and a quick tongue.”

By writing her Nakaz, a suggested code of laws that condemned torture and capital punishment, and endorsed the principle of the  “equality of all before the law,” Catherine hoped to lead her country away from the feudal rules of serfdom.  She founded Russia’s first College of Medicine, established hospitals, and became one of the first to be inoculated against smallpox. Her collection of art gave her the reputation as “the leading prospective customer for all owners with major collections,” and she housed her holdings within magnificent architecture.  Catherine was a reader, motivated by the “dullness” of her husband.  She wrote in her memoirs: “When he left me, the most boring book seemed delightful.” Massie notes that she “always kept a book in her room and carried another in her pocket.


To maintain the historical momentum, Massie finishes each section of Catherine’s life, and then backtracks to comment on others who influenced her.  He manages to insert Voltaire’s life into the mix as well as King George of England’s problems with the “colonies.”  John Paul Jones, Father of the United States Navy, has a cameo appearance in the Russian war with Turkey.  This zigzagging can be distracting, but without providing the information, Massie’s portrait of Catherine would not be as complete or understandable.



Her personal life was never forgotten; although she suffered through a miserable marriage with Peter (who she may have managed to have assassinated), she had at least a dozen lovers – usually young handsome guards – and had three children.  Massie’s chapter on Catherine’s “favorites” offers insight into a powerful woman who was lonely and yearning for love.  She found it many times, and with Potemkin, ten years her junior and possibly her second husband,  sustained a relationship that survived – even after both took other lovers. Potemkin became powerful in his own right, building cities, “ruling southern Russia like an emperor…{and gave} Russia access to a new sea.”

Her Children

Massie ends his saga with Catherine’s progeny, specifically Paul, her son (whose father could have been either her husband Peter or a lover).  Massie reminds you who everyone is and where they came from, eventually focusing on her son’s second fruitful marriage to Sophia/Maria – yielding nine grandchildren, and her favorite, Alexander.  Although Catherine groomed Alexander from a young age to be her successor, his marriage never produced an heir, and the dynasty passed on to Nicholas, Alexander’s younger brother and Catherine’s youngest grandson – the one who had “escaped her strict supervision.”  Not even an Empress can control everything.

Massie’s Marvel

Robert K. Massie

Massie tells Catherine’s life from her point of view and, for the most part, turns dry historical facts into a readable and entertaining story full of intrigue and messy politics.  Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman may be one of those books that is good for you to read, as well as a good read.

A magnificent history lesson – and you won’t have to take a test after digesting it.

Read about another powerful historical woman: Cleopatra

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