Book Review: Catherine the Great – Robert K. Massie

Title: Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman
Author: Robert K. Massie
ISBN: 9780679456728
Pages: 656
Release Date: November 8, 2011
Publisher: Random House
Genre: Non-Fiction, Biography, History
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 out of 5

Summary:

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.

Review:

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.

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Comments

  1. Wow! It may be a while before I can read it but it’s definitely on the list after reading your review.

  2. Wow! It may be a while before I can read it but it’s definitely on the list after reading your review.

  3. I’m waiting for a review copy of the audio — then I’ll be reading this too. I skipped to your last lines and now I can’t wait to read it.

  4. I’m waiting for a review copy of the audio — then I’ll be reading this too. I skipped to your last lines and now I can’t wait to read it.

  5. This was one of my “Recommended For You” books on my Nook. Now I know I have to read it. I love all things royal and Russian so this sounds perfect. I probably wouldn’t have picked it up without your review though, so thank you.

  6. This was one of my “Recommended For You” books on my Nook. Now I know I have to read it. I love all things royal and Russian so this sounds perfect. I probably wouldn’t have picked it up without your review though, so thank you.

  7. I have this one on my TBR pile – I’ve enjoyed Massie’s other books and am looking forward to this one!

  8. I have this one on my TBR pile – I’ve enjoyed Massie’s other books and am looking forward to this one!

  9. I really want to read this! So glad you reminded me of it so I can add it to my Christmas list!

  10. I really want to read this! So glad you reminded me of it so I can add it to my Christmas list!

  11. I am even more excited to read this after your review. This just moved to the top my my TBR pile.

  12. I am even more excited to read this after your review. This just moved to the top my my TBR pile.

  13. This gives me hope! It has been sitting on my “To Review” stack for WEEKS… and I m afraid of it. Mainly due to the length. But if it is “compulsively readable,” maybe I can attempt it this week.

  14. This gives me hope! It has been sitting on my “To Review” stack for WEEKS… and I m afraid of it. Mainly due to the length. But if it is “compulsively readable,” maybe I can attempt it this week.

  15. Gorgeous review, Swapna! This one is gong on my list right away.

  16. Gorgeous review, Swapna! This one is gong on my list right away.

  17. Well, I saw with my own eyes how totally excited you were to get your hands on this book at SIBA. I’m so glad it met your expectations and then some. I would not have guessed this book to be “compulsively readable” but you have convinced me I must read it.

  18. Well, I saw with my own eyes how totally excited you were to get your hands on this book at SIBA. I’m so glad it met your expectations and then some. I would not have guessed this book to be “compulsively readable” but you have convinced me I must read it.

  19. Great review, Swapna! I own an older copy of this book but have yet to read it. I’m totally moving it up on the TBR Pile after your review :)

    Thanks!

    Amy
    HF Virtual Book Tours
    Passages to the Past

  20. Great review, Swapna! I own an older copy of this book but have yet to read it. I’m totally moving it up on the TBR Pile after your review :)

    Thanks!

    Amy
    HF Virtual Book Tours
    Passages to the Past

  21. Your review on this book was wonderful and makes me want to grab it off my stack and gobble it all up right away. I have heard that Massie has other books out there that are pretty wonderful too, but this is the one I am most excited about. I love that it’s not dry an dusty, and that it injects color and life into the account of Catherine’s life. So, so excited to read this one now. Fantastic review today!

  22. Your review on this book was wonderful and makes me want to grab it off my stack and gobble it all up right away. I have heard that Massie has other books out there that are pretty wonderful too, but this is the one I am most excited about. I love that it’s not dry an dusty, and that it injects color and life into the account of Catherine’s life. So, so excited to read this one now. Fantastic review today!

  23. I definitely want to read this one. I have really enjoyed Massie’s books on the Romanovs so I am definitely interested in reading some of his other books.

  24. I definitely want to read this one. I have really enjoyed Massie’s books on the Romanovs so I am definitely interested in reading some of his other books.

  25. This book is on my holiday wish list – I really want to read it. Glad you thought it was so great!

  26. This book is on my holiday wish list – I really want to read it. Glad you thought it was so great!

  27. I really want to read this book. I am glad you liked it so much!

  28. I really want to read this book. I am glad you liked it so much!

  29. I’m really looking forward to reading this one. Nobody does the Romanov’s better than Massie. I’ve read and re-read Nicholas and Alexandra and his Peter the Great was epic but how could it not be when Peter was such a force. I’m glad to see you enjoyed this one as much as you did. Now I’m more anxious than ever to get to it.

  30. I’m really looking forward to reading this one. Nobody does the Romanov’s better than Massie. I’ve read and re-read Nicholas and Alexandra and his Peter the Great was epic but how could it not be when Peter was such a force. I’m glad to see you enjoyed this one as much as you did. Now I’m more anxious than ever to get to it.

  31. I totally agree that this is an immensely readable biography. Massie did an outstanding job. My review goes up tomorrow.

  32. I totally agree that this is an immensely readable biography. Massie did an outstanding job. My review goes up tomorrow.

  33. This sounds like a fantastic read, great review, will be watching out for this.

  34. This sounds like a fantastic read, great review, will be watching out for this.

  35. Loved the review! I just ordered the book and can’t wait to read it myself.
    I’m looking forward to seeing character development – very few authors in non-fiction can pull it off without exaggeration. :)

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