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Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman

3.93 of 5 stars 3.93  ·  rating details  ·  37,501 ratings  ·  2,499 reviews
Pulitzer Prize winner Massie offers the tale of a princess who went to Russia at 14 and became one of the most powerful women in history.

Born into minor German nobility, she transformed herself into an empress by sheer determination. Possessing a brilliant, curious mind, she devoured the works of Enlightenment philosophers, and reaching the throne, tried using their princ...more
Hardcover, 642 pages
Published November 8th 2011 by Random House, Inc. (NY) (first published 2011)
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Grace Tjan
FROM THE MEMOIRS OF CATHERINE THE GREAT


First things first: that wasn’t my real name. The Empress Elizabeth, who was Peter the Great’s daughter (now, that is a man who truly deserves “the Great” after his name!), changed my name to Ekaterina when she converted me into the Russian Orthodox religion. As for that superfluous title that follows my new name, it was prematurely bestowed on me by the Legislative Commission that I convened to give Russia a more enlightened legal code (more on this later)...more
Tatiana
Like probably every woman of note in history, open about and unashamed of her sexuality, Catherine the Great is primarily remembered as a power- and man-hungry, salacious, perverted woman. Try googling her name and see how high on the list of the results is the ever-pressing question - Did she really sleep with a horse? Does anyone care about her accomplishments in politics, art and science? Not really. But her sexual exploits? Oh, YES!

That's why I appreciate Robert K. Massie's Catherine the Gre...more
Rebecca Huston
This one was clearly a win for me as a biography of Catherine the Great. Massie's writing is clear, brisk and kept the story moving throughout. What I really enjoyed was how he took the time and trouble to show how Catherine carried forward the reforms begun by Peter the Great, and was a monarch who overcame a great deal of adversity to overcome the obstacles of not being Russian, being a woman, and a usurper to boot -- most biographies focus on her time before becoming empress and/or her lovers...more
Matt
Firstly, to answer your most pressing question regarding Catherine the Great, the Empress of Russia from 1762 to 1796: No, she did not die having sex with a horse.

Moreover, if you have an abiding interest in the origins of this rumor, Robert K. Massie’s Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman will not satiate your deviant interest (it certainly didn't satisfy mine). Massie refuses to engage the slander – born during her own lifetime – at any level.

Thus, there is not one sentence of horse sex in...more
Chrissie
I am impressed. Catherine the Great lived from 1729-1796. She was 14 when she first came to Russia, This book covers this entire time period meticulously. I understand how her childhood experiences came to shape her as an adult. I understand her need for love and why she came to have twelve lovers. At the same time she was motivated to seek power. She played a huge role in European history. All of this history is detailed in the book. You meet her as a person and as a leader. Everything one coul...more
Madeline
"She sat on the throne of Peter the Great and ruled an empire, the largest on earth. Her signature, inscribed on a decree, was law and, if she chose, could mean life or death for any one of her twenty million subjects. She was intelligent, well-read, and a shrewd judge of character. During the coup, she had shown determination and courage; once on the throne, she displayed an open mind, willingness to forgive, and a political morality founded on rationality and practical efficiency. She softened...more
Cheryl
The Romanov dynasty of Russia spanned three hundred years ending with the abdication and murder of Tsar Nicholas, his wife Alexandra and their five children in 1918. This dramatic turning point in governing was chronicled by Robert K. Massie to critic's applause in "Nicholas and Alexandra". The Pulitzer Prize was awarded the octogenarian author for his narrative biography of Peter the Great.

Continuing his half century Russian history focus, Massie offers the extraordinary life of a fourteen yea...more
Dem
Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K Massie is the extraordinary story of an obscure young German princess who travelled to Russia at the tender age of fourteen and rose to become one of
the most powerful, and captivating women in history.

I had previously read Massie's Nicholas and Alexandra which was wonderful and I was really interested in reading about Catherine the Great.

Massie did extensive research on this book. It is Catherine’s detailed and excellent memoirs and letters f...more
Carol
I wish Robert Massie had written this book before my trip to Russia in 2008. One thing I was looking forward to seeing on that trip was Catherine’s Palace and The Amber Room. Of course, I also visited The Hermitage and between these settings, I did get to see some the incredible art collection that Catherine amassed during her reign. Ah, but there is so much more to this woman.

Robert K. Massie certainly delivers on the subtitle of his book: The Portrait of a Woman particularly in the opening ch...more
Athens
Maybe this book is very excellent at what it wanted to be, but I wanted it to be something different. I wanted a history book.

1) In trying to be accessible, the prose comes off as simplistic at times.

2) A quibble is the repetition of statements from only a few chapters prior. Those statements do help set the scene for the current action, but are sometimes overdone and unnecessary if the reader had been paying any attention at all to what was just recently covered.

3) At one point in the book tow...more
Laura
Massie's research into the life of Catherine II is extensive (for example, he used three different translations of her Memoirs) and wide-ranging and the writing style is engaging enough to almost make one forget this is a nearly 600 page book (it's the weight that gives it away).

While I knew something about her life, there was much I hadn't and was fascinated to learn. I knew she was a German princess, but not that it was of some small, unimportant state. I knew she and her mother didn't get alo...more
Clif Hostetler
I was surprised how interesting I found this book to be. I had no particular interest in Catherine the Great and the only reason I read it was to reinforce my knowledge of history in preparation for a trip to Europe to trace the route of my wife’s ancestors' migrations. Their movements included a number of years in both southern Poland and Ukraine, both regions are within the sphere of influence of Catherine’s Russian Empire.

Since I didn’t know that much about Catherine, I was easily surprised...more
Jennifer (JC-S)
‘She sat on the throne of Peter the Great and ruled an empire, the largest on earth.’

Sophia Augusta Fredericka of Anhalt-Zerbst was born into a minor German noble family on 21 April 1729. Sophia was brought to Russia as a teenager, converted to Orthodoxy, renamed Catherine, and married off by the Empress Elizabeth Petrovna to her nephew and heir Peter. As Catherine II, she was Empress of Russia from 28 June 1762 until her death on 6 November 1796. She came to power following a coup d'état and th...more
Sara
ARC received through the First Reads program.

Like many people, the most I knew about Catherine the Great was that she was a Russian queen with some persistent saucy rumors attached to her. This narrative history sheds a lot of light on the life of the German princess who became Empress of Russia in her own right. For example, the Russian royals didn't necessarily come to the throne by right of primogeniture, which is how Catherine was able to become Empress.

Catherine's marriage to Peter III was...more
Clif
A flowing, engaging portrait of a remarkable person. Curiously, around mid-book, the author gets repetitive, as if the manuscript proofreader lost a section, then Massie gets right back into the groove.

Monarchy is always an interesting subject. We all fantasize at some point about what life would be like if we were fabulously rich and powerful. The history of monarchies gives us many examples of this wish becoming reality and it isn't comforting. When we look back on it we can see that those bor...more
Jaylia3
This gripping, well written book about Russian Empress Catherine the Great introduced me to a non-England and France centered European history that I knew almost nothing about, and to the very human but inspiring Catherine II. Catherine was born to a German family of minor nobility, and being a girl she was a disappointment to her poor but socially ambitious mother. The lack of affection she experienced during her childhood prepared her well for the marriage her mother managed to arrange to the...more
Faith Justice
Massie delivers a wonderfully researched and readable book. My knowledge of Catherine the Great was vague to the point of mythical. I had hazy memories of multiple lovers, a (possible) scandal about her and a horse, and a movie starring Greta Garbo. The lovers were real, but few; there was no mention of the horse; and the movie turned out to be about Queen Christina of Sweden who lived a century earlier. So much for memory.

To say Catherine is a fascinating character is to do her a disservice. Ma...more
Donna
Massie's much anticipated biography of the only female Russian ruler accorded the title "the Great" is as compelling as his previous biographies.

This biography of Sophia Augusta, later known as Catherine, is a deeply researched and masterfully told story.

The book begins with an explaination of Sophia's early childhood. She was not a much loved child, being born a female and not the son her mother wanted. "Johanna could not find or express any maternal feeling. She did not nurse or caress her lit...more
Jane
Jan 28, 2012 Jane rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Lovers of history and biography.
Shelves: biography, history
Where I got the book: ARC from LibraryThing Early Reviewer Program

A good biography needs to be chunky, informative and as exciting as a novel. Massie does well on all three counts. Catherine The Great is a lively account of both Catherine's life and the slice of European and Russian history into which she was born, and I greatly enjoyed it.

Catherine, I learned, began life as a princess in an obscure German minor royal household. By the time she died, she had achieved great things for her vast Ru...more
Eva Stachniak
I have read all biographies of Catherine The Great I could find and they all have something in them that is unique. Robert K. Massey's Catherine includes extensive excerpts from her memoirs, letters, and other primary sources--adding authentic voices to the narrative. Massey calls his biography "a portrait of a woman" and he is consistent in showing Catherine's feminine side.
I found his discussion of historical background very illuminating--he cleared a few mysteries for me--however I found that...more
Allizabeth Collins
Description:[return][return] Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie is the biography of Sophia Augusta, later known as Russian Empress Catherine the Great. It details Sophia's childhood, marriage, children, affairs, rise to power, famed coup, and eventual death. It is based on recorded historical documents and on Catherine's memoirs.[return][return]Review:[return][return] I have never read any other books by Robert K. Massie, but now I'm hooked. Catherine the Great: Portrai...more
MAP
I won this from a Goodreads Giveaway.

Phew! This was a very long book that I am of two minds about. The first half of the book, before Catherine becomes empress, I found wonderful. I tore through it. I mean, I was really really caught up in every page, every paragraph, every sentence. But as soon as Catherine became empress, the book really slowed down. Several chapters in the second half of the book I skimmed over. Pages and pages of Catherine trying and failing to come up with a document to mod...more
Nancy Petralia
For a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, I found this book disappointing. Massie has indeed done an incredible job of research, but as a storyteller, he's missed the mark. To begin with he starts in the wrong place. The opening sentence is a bore and the following paragraphs, all about Catherine's father, do nothing to entice the reader. A few pages later there's a terrific paragraph that begins:

"Traveling toward an unknown country, propelled by an empress's sentimentality, a mother's ambition and t...more
Gaby
Pulitzer Prize winning Robert Massie adds Catherine the Great to his earlier biographies of Russian leaders (Peter the Great, Nicholas and Alexandra, and the Romanovs). This meticulously researched narrative biography is tells us the story of Sophia Augusta Federicka, daughter of minor German nobility, her fortuitous marriage to the grandson of Peter the Great, and her climb to become Catherine II, Queen of the Russias.

Sophia's mother, Johanna, was from one of the great Ducal families in Germany...more
Amelia
As biographies go this one is pretty interesting (if a little hard to follow through all the genealogies in the beginning) and I might go back and finish it someday as an audiobook if ever I am stuck for something to listen to. I just got a little fed up when I reached the part of Catherine's life where her husband Peter II takes power. I know he has been ridiculed by many historians as a poor leader with a tactless and uncouth personality, but I couldn't escape the feeling throughout the first...more
Sera
Oct 20, 2011 Sera rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Anyone
Massie is clearly the master of all things Romanov. I hope that he continues to write these wonderful, comprehensive biographies of various members of this interesting family.

I read Catherine the Great  Love, Sex, and Power by Virginia Rounding by Virginia Rounding a couple of years ago and found the book to be very good - 5 stars to be exact. However, what I really like about reading Massie is that he provides much detail around the subject matter while keeping the book immensely readable. Rounding's book was more dense than Massie's, which may make it d...more
Jean-Paul Adriaansen
The few things I knew about Catherine the Great were that she was an enlightened despot and that she devoured lovers as cookies.
Robert Massie made it very clear that Empress Catherine II was indeed one of the greatest Tsarinas of Russia and one of the most enlightened rulers of the world.
Growing up as a “lower class” princess in Germany she was called into Russia at a very young age to become the wife of the crown prince.
While her future husband, also from German origin, didn’t show any ambitio...more
Kimberly
I've been a fan of Robert Massie for a long time, having read all his books on Russian history. This book revolves around the remarkable life of Catherine the Great, a German princess who traveled to Russia at the age of fourteen and became one of the greatest leaders in history.



Born into a minor noble family, Catherine became empress by sheer determination. Once on the throne, she attempts to follow the ideals of Enlightenment philosophers such as Montesquieu and Voltaire. She soon discovers, h...more
Catherine Woodman
Ok, I admit that I know essentially nothing about Russian history, and less about the czars and how they came to power. What I knew about the empress Catherine was even more suspect, and fell into the category of titillating rather than historical--multiple lovers, died having sex with a horse.
Well, if Robert Massey is to be believed, this is not the case. She did have a series of lovers throughout her adult life, but fewer than most college students rack up these days, and she appears to have...more
Judy
Who wouldn't be fascinated by the story of a German princess from a minor German state who was taken to Russia at the age of 14 to marry the heir to the Russian throne--who, by the way, was also German(on his father's side and he was born in a small German state), Lutheran, and a great admirer of Frederick the Great--and ended up becoming one of the greatest rulers in Russian history? In this biography of Catherine the Great, Robert Massie is successful in portraying Catherine as a woman who too...more
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Robert Kinloch Massie (born 1929) is an American historian, writer, winner of a Pulitzer Prize, and a Rhodes Scholar.

Born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1929, Massie spent much of his youth in Nashville, Tennessee and currently resides in Westchester County, New York in the village of Irvington. He studied American history at Yale University and modern European history at Oxford University on his Rhode...more
More about Robert K. Massie...
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“The love of power and the power to attract love were not easy to reconcile.” 8 likes
“To prove to [her friend, Swedish diplomat Count] Gyllenborg that she was not superficial, Catherine composed an essay about herself, "so that he would see whether I knew myself or not." The next day, she wrote and handed to Gyllenborg an essay titled 'Portrait of a Fifteen-Year-Old Philosopher.' He was impressed and returned it with a dozen pages of comments, mostly favorable. "I read his remarks again and again, many times [Catherine later recalled in her memoirs]. I impressed them on my consciousness and resolved to follow his advice. In addition, there was something else surprising: one day, while conversing with me, he allowed the following sentence to slip out: 'What a pity that you will marry! I wanted to find out what he meant, but he would not tell me.” 7 likes
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