Book Review: Catherine The Great

Catherine The Great:  Portrait Of A Woman, by Robert K. Massie

If you want to know what kind of woman Catherine the Great was, this book will definitely let you know in more ways than you may want to know.  One of the hazards of being a person who is known to read many books and read them at a fairly rapid clip is that people give you giant books that they read and loved and want you to read so that you can talk about the books with them.  In this particular case, I was loaned this book by someone I know at church whose husband, like me, has PTSD, and who has two adorable ninja children who I occasionally watch while she sings in practice for various women’s choirs and vocal ensembles, and this book took me longer than I thought it would take because it was about 580 pages of main text, which is a pretty serious time commitment even for a prolific reader like myself.  Not only is this book massive, the sort of book that you could use to stop bullets or knock one to sleep when feeling particularly insomniatic, but it is also awkwardly personal, as the author not only talks about Catherine the Great as an immensely able Russian empress, but also as a woman who had a fairly noticeable taste in having younger partners because she liked to believe that she could be attractive enough not only to bed younger and far more attractive men but also engage them in intellectual conversation or have a shared enjoyment in high culture.  As is often the case when friends of mine loan me books, I had plenty of reason to wonder what sort of motives were present.  If the material is less personal and one wants to read an excellent and lengthy biography of a famous historical leader [1], this book will likely be an enjoyable if very lengthy read.

The contents of this book are truly massive, and arranged in a generally but not entirely chronological order, alternating between chapters that focus on Catherine as a ruler in some fashion–dealing with revolts, engaging in high diplomacy, trying to reform Russia’s antiquated legal system and running afoul of the brutality of Russia’s nobles against the serfs and the occasional violence of the serfs against their oppressors–and Catherine as a woman dealing with her husband then the various other men in her life.  Overall, the book contains 73 chapters in its seven parts dealing with, in order, Catherine’s youth as a German princess in an obscure and small German principality, her painful and unpleasant marriage to Peter III, her initial seduction and the rising sense of confrontation with her husband, the coup against her husband and his death, her beginning few years as empress of Russia, the period where Potemkin was her chief adviser and where she had a long train of short-lived favorites, and then a chapter devoted to her family life and the succession of the Russian empire and her twilight and death.  Again, this book will tell you more than you ever wanted to know about Catherine the Great, and the book frequently compares and contrasts her to both Peter the Great as a notable Russian ruler and also Elizabeth I of England, who famously used her restraint with regards to sexuality to hold power over the favorites in her life, even if she may not have been technically a virgin, but that’s another story.  The author certainly has done his research, going to the point of quoting from her personal letters and the accounts of obscure courtiers in court and nearly anonymous critics of serfdom who found themselves spending long periods of time in exile in Siberia as a result of questioning her authority.

All of this would lead to the correct conclusion that while the author is seeking to portray her as a woman that he is not whitewashing her errors, even if he is trying to put the best face on them.  The author, though, does have at least some historical revisionism in mind, though, in this volume.  This is particularly noticeable when the author is speaking about Potemkin and rehabilitating him.  The term Potemkin village is used rather contemptuously to describe a false appearance of something without the reality, but the author shows a substantial amount of evidence to suggest that Potemkin really did build the villages that he showed Catherine and that he was serious about beautifying and populating what had long been an underpopulated frontier region fought over between Russia and the Crimean Khanate.  There is a lot more insight on that level of quality where this came from, as space and time constraints forbid me to do more than briefly mention the author’s praise of Suvorov, his astute analysis of the weaknesses of Poniatowski as a Polish ruler, and his discussion of the counterfactual history of what would have happened if 20,000 Russian cossacks had descended on American revolutionaries as George III wanted.  This book is not padded with waste; it is a genuinely worthwhile history, even if somewhat awkward in its dealings with the personal relationships of Catherine with her family, friends, and lovers.

[1] See, for example:


About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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1 Response to Book Review: Catherine The Great

  1. Pingback: So That We May Better Understand Each Other | Edge Induced Cohesion

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