Title: Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman
Author: Robert K. Massie
Release Date: November 8, 2011
Publisher: Random House
Genre: Non-Fiction, Biography, History
Rating: 5 out of 5
In this definitive biography, Robert K. Massie examines the life of Catherine the Great as one of the greatest leaders of the Russian Empire – the politics, the intrigue, the fighting and corruption, but most of all, the woman behind the throne.
Robert K. Massie brings history to life with his biography of Catherine the Great, one of the most celebrated leaders in Russian history. Massie focuses on many different aspects of Catherine’s reign and her life, but the most fascinating aspect was revealing the woman she was. In his narrative style, Massie actually develops Catherine as a character, which sounds strange because this is non-fiction. A character doesn’t need to be developed because Massie is working with the facts of Catherine’s life. But somehow, he lays Catherine bare, shows the reader her hurts and fears along with her strengths. As a result, the reader falls in love with Catherine from the beginning of her biography and roots for her to succeed, against all the obstacles placed in her way.
The most surprising aspect of Catherine the Great is how compulsively readable it is. Massie somehow weaves a taut thread of suspense through this entire biography. From the beginning, the reader knows that somehow, Catherine will rise to the Russian throne. It happened in history and the book is non-fiction. But it’s amazing how Massie ratchets up the suspense as Catherine’s road to the throne opens up. It seems as though the pace quickens and then falls, such that the reader is desperate to know what happens even though they are well aware of the outcome of the biography. It’s both impressive and ingenious.
Catherine the Great is expertly written; Massie’s style is engaging and accessible, and somehow never becomes dry, despite the fact that this book is over 600 pages. His enthusiasm for Catherine is infectious and leaps off the page; it’s clear that Massie relished the opportunity to write about someone so completely fascinating. Of course, the book is expertly researched, and Massie provides abundant details and tidbits to flesh out his narrative and make it vivid for the reader.
Massie also places Catherine in the broader context of history in this biography. He doesn’t begin with her birth, but instead discusses the political situation left in the wake of Peter the Great’s death. He discusses Peter’s heirs in detail such that the reader understands the circumstances under which Catherine was brought to Russia from Germany, and what her use was to Empress Elizabeth. What’s more, he discusses the political situations surrounding Catherine once she ascended to the throne, incorporating Catherine’s fellow leaders Frederick the Great of Prussia and Maria Theresa of the Hapsburgs into his narrative. As a result, the reader gets a broad view of this slice of history, which makes it extremely accessible to any reader.
One subject discussed in detail in Catherine the Great is her relationships. Catherine never married, and took many different lovers over the course of her life. Massie portrays Catherine as a woman unfulfilled by the power she held, and the power games her lovers played were very interesting, especially considering the rigid expectations Catherine had of them. In history, Catherine the Great has, shall we say, a bit of a reputation when it comes to sex, but Massie made it clear that the men who fulfilled her most were those who were intelligent and politically savvy. He paints a strong, capable, lusty woman in need of companionship, but with no wish to be dominated by any man.
I could go on and on about Catherine the Great; not only is it the best book I’ve read this year, but it’s the best I’ve read in recent memory. I am impressed and humbled by Robert K. Massie’s achievement. With this book, Robert K. Massie has solidified his hold on Russian royal biographies; he is absolutely the master of his craft and I feel fortunate to have had the chance to read Catherine the Great.