Goodreads helps you keep track of books you want to read.
Start by marking “Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman” as Want to Read:
Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman
Enlarge cover
Rate this book
Clear rating
Open Preview

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman

(The Romanovs #2)

3.91  ·  Rating details ·  102,066 ratings  ·  4,130 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, First edition, 625 pages
Published November 8th 2011 by Random House, Inc. (NY)
More Details... Edit Details

Friend Reviews

To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up.

Reader Q&A

To ask other readers questions about Catherine the Great, please sign up.
Popular Answered Questions
Suem Our entire book club decided that the book was about Catherine, and that trying to keep up with the names and lineage of all the other characters was …moreOur entire book club decided that the book was about Catherine, and that trying to keep up with the names and lineage of all the other characters was probably not allowing us to enjoy the book as much. Keep that in mind, and you will like it more! Enjoy.(less)
Diane Actually, I thought the author did a good job of placing her love life in perspective. I didn't think he emphasized her dalliances excessively. He spe…moreActually, I thought the author did a good job of placing her love life in perspective. I didn't think he emphasized her dalliances excessively. He spent a great deal of time considering who she was as a person and a woman, as well as a monarch.(less)
Steve Jobs by Walter IsaacsonUnbroken by Laura HillenbrandEinstein by Walter IsaacsonInto the Wild by Jon KrakauerJohn Adams by David McCullough
Best Biographies
1,230 books — 2,737 voters
John Adams by David McCulloughThe Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L. Shirer1776 by David McCulloughTeam of Rivals by Doris Kearns GoodwinThe Guns of August by Barbara W. Tuchman
Best History Books
3,057 books — 3,387 voters

More lists with this book...

Community Reviews

Showing 1-30
Average rating 3.91  · 
Rating details
 ·  102,066 ratings  ·  4,130 reviews

More filters
Sort order
Start your review of Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman
Grace Tjan
Nov 18, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: ebook, history, 2011, biography

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)
Jan 11, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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
Sep 06, 2011 rated it really liked it
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
Jun 18, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: russian-history
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
Apr 05, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Recommended to Matt by: BAM Endlessly Booked
Shelves: audiobook, buddy-read
My ongoing exploration of biographies has pushed into yet another realm; women of power. What better way to begin than with a woman who held much power in her time and about whom I know very little? Bring on Catherine the Great of Russia! Robert K. Massie does a sensational job of pulling out a strong and well-rounded story of this most interesting Empress of Russia. She faced hurdles and impediments throughout her life, but always found a way to succeed. While Massie offers the reader numerous ...more
Rebecca Huston
Feb 26, 2011 rated it it was amazing
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
Feb 24, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-2017, nonfiction
This book is hard to place on a scale. At times, it’s a 5 and other times it’s a 2 or even a 1. After some debating in my head I’m going to give it a 3.5, but it’s not enough to round it up to a 4.

This book started off as a 5 and I loved it. The story of Catherine (then Sophia) growing up, being picked as the bride for the heir to the Russian Empire, and her years spent in Russia was great. Massie interspaced entries from her own memoirs into these years and it really added a great personal fla
Feb 27, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Sep 11, 2012 rated it really liked it
"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
Primrose Jess
Jul 11, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Whew. What a densely loaded book about a fascinating woman. If you have an interest in Catherine the Great, this is most definitely a biography to add to your repertoire. When the audiobook has 19 "chapters" which are just over an hour in length... you know you are getting your book's worth of material. My interest is still piqued in Russian history and this woman.

I also appreciated the time devoted to her predecessor Elizabeth, her sort of technically uncoronated predecessor Peter, as well as
Alice Poon
Feb 15, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: favorites, history

This engaging and well-researched historical tome about one of Russia’s greatest rulers merits 4 full stars. Apart from painting a memorable and respectable portrait of the dramatic life of Catherine the Great, the book also accounts succinctly for the labyrinth of European/Eurasian politics at play in the 18th century, and depicts Russia’s participation in the Seven Years’ War, its carving up of Poland, its two major Wars with Turkey and its putting down the Pugachev Rebellion.

As a child German
The Colonial
Mar 06, 2020 rated it really liked it
The late and revered historian Robert K. Massie has provided biographies on a phenomenal list of historical subjects, bringing some of Russia’s greatest leaders to the forefront of history—and he spares no expense with his intimate biography of Catherine the Great. He elegantly portrays a courtly woman with much more depth, power, and cunning than what is usually provided upon with the generic and typical musings on her romantic liaisons and exploits. Born in the shadow of royalty and with a blo ...more
Jan 20, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: those interested in Russian history, and/or history of monarchs
This was such an enjoyable read and I felt that I learned so much. I barely knew anything about Catherine the Great and Russian history before reading this. She was born to a minor noble German family. She married Peter, the only living grandson of Peter the Great, when she was fourteen.

The story takes off from there. She was an incredible ruler and truly wanted what was best for Russia and its peoples. She improved hospitals and revised a code of laws. Her hours were intense – working from six
Dec 03, 2011 rated it it was ok
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
Mar 27, 2013 rated it really liked it
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
Jul 04, 2017 rated it really liked it
Robert K. Massie does a convincing effort to tell us Catherine the great, or the tale of how a small German princess became one of the greatest monarch during the Enlightenment era.

Born to a low noble German family, Catherine's life got turned upside down when she was betrothed to Paul I, the adopted son of Empress Elizabeth of Russia. However, the betrothal and subsequent marriage was not a happy one, and due to the eccentric behaviour of Paul I she was quickly able to seize the throne in 1762.
Kiwi Begs2Differ  ✎
This is a beautiful and very readable biography of one of the most fascinating and influential women in history. The author did not limit his book to Catherine’s story nor to her family and the Russian imperial line but included many important figures from the Russian political world and the wider European courts and culture (for example wonderful cameos of Voltaire and Diderot). In this way, Massie successfully provides a 360 degree view of historical period in which Catherine lived and an enjo ...more
Ashley Marie
Historical Fictionistas Group Read starting 1Feb15!

Started reading this in February, got roughly 30 pages in and put it down... Found the audio through my library and I'm SO GLAD I did, otherwise I might never have finished this. Not because it's boring, but because the research is simply EXHAUSTIVE. If you're interested in Russian history, I highly recommend this book. It's my first Massie book but I have two more waiting at home (thankfully shorter than this one). He presents history from all
his the biography of Catherine the Great written by Robert K. Massie.

In reality, her birthday’s name was Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg.

Her father, Christian August, Prince of Anhalt-Zerbst was a German prince of the House of Ascania. He was a ruler of the Principality of Anhalt-Dornburg.

Her mother, Joanna Elisabeth of Holstein-Gottorp was a princess of the House of Holstein-Gottorp and later the Princess of Anhalt-Zerbst.

By being born in Stettin - a small principality call
Sep 20, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Sophia, daughter of humble Prince Augustus of Anhalt-Zerbst, Prussia, spends an lonely childhood, unloved by a scheming mother, recommended by Frederick the Great and subsequently summoned to Russia by Empress Elizabeth, married to the heir Peter III (also a German) who would not consummate the marriage for 9 years, produces an heir to the throne (just who is the father?), then relegated to the background, eventually forces her unbalanced husband to abdicate while she assumes the throne of Russi ...more
Elizabeth May
Jul 11, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I raved about Robert Massie's biography on last Russian tsar and tsarina, Nicholas and Alexandra, and it was one of my favourite reads last year. In it, Massie briefly mentioned that Peter the Great had abolished the law of primogeniture, which required succession of the throne to be male only, starting with the first-born son. As a result, Russia had three empresses in succession: Anna Ioannovna, Elizabeth Petrovna, and Catherine II. The latter two rose to become autocrat through seizing power ...more
Rachel Aranda
Mar 21, 2017 rated it it was amazing
"Catherine the Great" by Robert K. Massie helped me realize that I could greatly enjoy lengthy biographies when I first read it back in December 2011. I'm so happy I have read this in depth biography because Catherine the Great, the woman, is someone I learned a lot from. She helped me realize I needed to not be afraid of making changes in my life that took me outside of what I've known and to NEVER settle for an unhappy romantic partner.

That being said this book is very detailed about Catherine
Jun 07, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
A superb piece of historical nonfiction. An easy and engrossing read--as easy as 625 pages of history can be. I do wonder if Massie glossed over some of the more critical theory of Catherine, but regardless I got a lot out of it. I'd been disappointed by my last read that it couldn't spend more time on her, so this book was the perfect solution. And I'll definitely dive into another Massie soon! ...more
A.L. Sowards
This was a thorough, well-written biography of a very interesting woman. I listened to the audio book, and enjoyed both the narrator’s and the author’s style.

Catherine (born Sophia) received very little love from her mother, who was very young and very disappointed to have birthed a daughter instead of a son. But her mother was excited to marry her off to the Empress of Russia’s nephew and heir, Peter.

Peter had an even worse childhood than Sophia/Catherine did. He and his future wife were frien
Jan 25, 2013 rated it really liked it
Mr Massie has again brought one of the members of the ruling dynasty of Russia to life. He draws a complex picture of the woman who became known as Catherine the Great. She however resisted using the term Great and preferred to referred to as Catherine II.

Massie starts his narrative with Catherine – then known as Sofia, a minor German princess, and the maneuverings of her mother to get her married off. She ends up traveling with her mother to the court of Elizabeth of Russia as a potential bride
Jul 26, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a really good overview of Catherine's live and - in my opinion - a good, first biography to read. Indeed, this is the first biography I have read about Catherine the Great and there was little that I already knew, outside of some hearsay and hints from other books I have read about Russian history.

Catherine, or rather, Sophia, was the first child of Prince Christian Augustus of Anhalt-Zerbst, and his unhappy young wife, Joanna Elizabeth of Holstein-Gottorp. Sophia's mother loved her youn
Yelda Basar Moers
I just finished this biography of Catherine the Great and I have to say it was riveting-- a real page turner. I didn't want it to end-- even after 570 pages of it!!! The author won a Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Peter the Great (the famed European style reformer who made Russia a great power). His writing is so engaging that I couldn't put this book down!

Catherine's story is remarkable: She was an obscure German princess (of a tiny principality!) who rose to become the Empress of Russia (
Jan 28, 2012 rated it really liked it
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
Emma Deplores Goodreads Censorship
I enjoyed this book a lot: it’s an entertaining and accessible biography that is nevertheless serious and thorough, and with a fascinating subject to boot. Born a princess in a tiny German principality in the early 18th century, Catherine (actually named Sophia, until the then-Empress of Russia renamed her upon her conversion to Orthodoxy) was brought to Russia at the age of 14 to marry the heir to the throne. Unfortunately, her early friendship with her deeply damaged teenaged husband soon sour ...more
Jennifer (JC-S)
Feb 01, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: librarybooks
‘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
« previous 1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 next »
topics  posts  views  last activity   
The Official Hist...: Final Discussion 7 31 Aug 29, 2018 04:31PM  
The Official Hist...: Empress of Russia 4 25 Aug 28, 2018 01:00PM  
The Official Hist...: Childbirth 6 37 Aug 08, 2018 04:03AM  
The Official Hist...: Book Choice 1 46 Jul 13, 2018 07:44PM  
Robert K Massie's next book? 1 17 Jun 16, 2018 12:36PM  
Play Book Tag: (+Listopia) Catherine the Great / Robert K. Massie. 3 stars 10 19 May 02, 2018 04:31AM  

Readers also enjoyed

  • Cleopatra: A Life
  • Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens
  • The Six Wives of Henry VIII
  • Marie Antoinette: The Journey
  • Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln
  • Washington: A Life
  • The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
  • Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire
  • Catherine de Medici: Renaissance Queen of France
  • Benjamin Franklin: An American Life
  • American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House
  • Alexander Hamilton
  • Leonardo da Vinci
  • Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy
  • The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt
  • Becoming Queen
  • Lincoln
  • Einstein: His Life and Universe
See similar books…
See top shelves…
Robert Kinloch Massie was an American historian, writer, winner of a Pulitzer Prize, and a Rhodes Scholar.

Born in Versailles, Kentucky, Massie spent much of his youth there and in Nashville, Tennessee. He studied American history at Yale University and modern European history at Oxford University on his Rhodes Scholarship. Massie went to work as a journalist for Newsweek from 1959 to 1964 and then

Other books in the series

The Romanovs (4 books)
  • Peter the Great: His Life and World
  • Nicholas and Alexandra
  • The Romanovs: The Final Chapter

Related Articles

As this strange summer of staying put winds down, one thing remains truer than ever: Books offer us endless adventure and new horizons to...
60 likes · 30 comments
“The love of power and the power to attract love were not easy to reconcile.” 20 likes
“Books were her refuge. Having set herself to learn the Russian language, she read every Russian book she could find. But French was the language she preferred, and she read French books indiscriminately, picking up whatever her ladies-in-waiting happened to be reading. She always kept a book in her room and carried another in her pocket.” 12 likes
More quotes…