Matt's Reviews > Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman

Catherine the Great by Robert K. Massie
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it was amazing
bookshelves: biography, russian-history

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 nearly 600 pages of text.

Of other sexual encounters, though, there are many.

The story of Catherine the Great is filled with sex. There are enough romantic entanglements, sordid liaisons, and passionate affairs to fuel several television seasons on premium cable. There are also dozens of the betrayals, murders, coups, plots and palace secrets that underlie so much of Russia’s imperial history. Massie gives life to them all in a book that balances the literal hugeness of Russia – a stage 1/8 the size of Earth – with an intimate, warts-and-all portrayal of her leaders.

Born Sophia Augusta Fredericka, a minor German princess, Catherine eventually traveled to Russia to be the wife of Peter III, the future tsar. Her early years in Russia were extremely difficult. She had a volatile relationship with the reigning Russian monarch, Empress Elizabeth, a relationship that actually looks much better in relation to her husband, Peter III, an immature boy of few gifts who treated Catherine horribly. (Massie supports the theory that Peter’s mood, as well as Catherine’s and Peter’s inability to consummate the marriage, stemmed from Peter’s phimosis, a condition marked by a painful tightening of the foreskin).

In 1762, Empress Elizabeth died and Peter ascended the throne, where he performed as poorly as expected. Just six months into his rein, an alienated Imperial Guard revolted and proclaimed Catherine the Empress. Seizing the moment, Catherine had her husband arrested; Peter III was killed by Alexei Orlov just eight days later, while imprisoned. (Massie finds no evidence that Catherine was involved in ordering Peter’s death).

Catherine reigned until 1796 in a manner best described as the personification of Montesquieu’s “benevolent despot.” She liked to compare herself to Peter the Great, and she worked to further modernize/Europeanize Russia. She was a patron of the arts and literature; she believed in the value of education; she paid service to enlightenment values and even carried on a lengthy correspondence with Voltaire. During her 34 year reign, she dealt with wars, rebellions, and the fallout of the French Revolution.

Despite her dalliances with liberalism, though, she was deeply pragmatic. She made some changes to Russia’s serf laws, but left serfdom – a pretty way of saying slavery – firmly in place.

Massie tells this sweeping story from the ground, through the eyes of those who lived it. This is first and foremost a story about people. The narrative belies the Tolstoyan view of history as an impersonal force. Instead, it focuses on how history is shaped and shifted by ordinary folks with recognizably human abilities and failings, ambitions and desires.

I am a huge fan of Massie’s books, and I have always appreciated this about him. For this same reason, he his disliked by academics and “serious” students of Russia. After all, Massie is a writer, not a researcher. He relies on secondary sources and translations in crafting his books. He does not write scholarly works.

For the most part, I think the criticism is generated by Massie’s success. He has amassed an enviable career without ever having to worry about tenure, which certainly must aggravate his critics. But that is not to say that Massie is beyond reproach. Certainly, his lack of facility with primary sources (he uses 4 different translations of Catherine’s Memoirs) gives me pause.

More importantly, I question Massie’s objectivity in dealing with his subjects. He tends to be less a biographer than a booster. This is a failing in all of his books. In Peter the Great, Massie delights in telling of Peter capering about Europe incognito, but glosses over the Tsar’s order to torture his own son. Similarly, in Nicholas and Alexandra, Massie provides an overly-sympathetic portrait of Nicholas as an inherently decent man in over his depth, rather than the anti-Semitic blunderer he actually was.

Here, too, Catherine is given the benefit of every doubt. If Massie is required to make a historical judgment call, you can be certain that it will inure to Catherine’s advantage.

These concerns, however, are a bit esoteric, and are overwhelmed by the sheer joy of being in the hands of an absurdly good storyteller. Quite simply, Massie is on a very short list of authors who have that rare gift of giving life to history. You finish this book with a sense not only of what these famous people have done, but what these famous people were like.

Massie’s writing style is engaging and graceful, if not elegant. Like Robert Caro, he does not simply focus on his subject, but gives ample time to all the people in his subject’s life. As such, Catherine the Great treats the reader to fascinating mini-biographies of Johanna, Catherine’s scheming, petty, small-minded mother; Empress Elizabeth, the mother-in-law from hell; and Gregory Potemkin, the greatest of all Catherine’s lovers, who for many years was the most powerful man in Russia.

The result of Massie’s focus on intertwining personalities is a sense of history unfolding as it happens, rather than a discrete event that happened long ago. The larger perspective tends to get lost, but that’s okay. If I have to choose between a more formal and rigid survey of Catherine’s reign or a detailed recounting of the soap operatic machinations of Catherine’s court, I’m choosing the latter.

As I said before, this is a book of sex and violence (but no horse sex or horse violence). It provides all the prurient joys of the trashiest novel, yet comes cloaked in the respectability of a weighty tome by a respected author. I don’t know about you, but this is a win-win for me. I’m always on the lookout for a way to satisfy both my lowbrow instincts and my highbrow pretensions. Robert K. Massie’s Catherine the Great does both.
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Reading Progress

January 11, 2012 – Shelved
Started Reading
December 24, 2012 – Finished Reading
April 26, 2016 – Shelved as: biography
April 26, 2016 – Shelved as: russian-history

Comments Showing 1-5 of 5 (5 new)

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Sarah (Presto agitato) I've enjoyed Massie's books in the past, and I've had this one on my to-read list for a long time. Great review! It's made me think I need to get moving and read the book.


Matt Sarah wrote: "I've enjoyed Massie's books in the past, and I've had this one on my to-read list for a long time. Great review! It's made me think I need to get moving and read the book."

Funny you should mention that. I had Catherine the Great physically on my shelf for months, and I just couldn't get myself into a Russian state-of-mood. Finally, I said to myself, self, it's Massie. Just read it. Of course I enjoyed it immensely.


message 3: by Mmars (new) - added it

Mmars "I’m always on the lookout for a way to satisfy both my lowbrow instincts and my highbrow pretensions"

Story of my life.


message 4: by Bevan Lewis (new) - added it

Bevan Lewis Will have to read this one - she was an amazing lady alright, although the lack of horse sex could be a problem! It is amazing an HBO series hasn't been made yet - perhaps a successor to Game of Thrones.


Matt Bevan wrote: "Will have to read this one - she was an amazing lady alright, although the lack of horse sex could be a problem! It is amazing an HBO series hasn't been made yet - perhaps a successor to Game of Th..."

Love the point about HBO!

I have always thought you could make a dozen incredible Game of Thrones-like series based on Russian history. All that sex and violence and larger-than-life characters, all in the public domain!


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