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

Catherine the Great by Robert K. Massie
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really liked it
bookshelves: biography, history
Recommended for: Lovers of history and biography.

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 Russian empire, introducing a much higher level of education and artistic achievement and furthering the social and political ideas of the Enlightenment (although, terrified by the French Revolution, she eventually reined back some of the freedoms she had encouraged). Even the lovers for which she was famed were sometimes given opportunities to serve their country in admirable ways (and when you read about her marriage, you understand the lovers).

I knew very little about Russian history, but by the time I finished this biography I felt I had a reasonable grasp of the period, aided by Massie's habit of reminding the reader who a character is in a brief sentence, every time we encounter him or her after an absence. Some may find that annoying--and sometimes I did--but for the general reader, it's helpful.

Less helpful, I found, was Massie's arrangement of his material into topical, rather than chronological, chapters. I did understand why he would want to do this; when you're describing the life of a head of state it's inevitably mixed up with the history of the time, and history has its themes. Still, it was disconcerting to have a character die in one chapter and then suddenly be alive again in the next.

There was also the chapter on the French Revolution, which contained very little about Catherine and Russia. Still, I'll forgive it because it's one of the most succinct and elegantly written accounts of the Revolution and Terror that I've ever read.

Although this biography is obviously aimed at the general audience rather than historians, I did wish the publisher had waited to include the index in the ARC so that I could judge it (it's rather an important factor for me in deciding whether to buy a history book).

On the whole, very good stuff, although I'd have liked just a tad more description of costume and manners. But that might have padded a book that's already nearly 600 pages long. I ended up considerably more interested in Russia than before, and a fan of this great ruler, so I'm satisfied.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
January 28, 2012 – Shelved
January 28, 2012 – Shelved as: biography
January 28, 2012 – Shelved as: history
January 28, 2012 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-6 of 6 (6 new)

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Misfit Excellent review, and I agree with your thoughts on how he broke things down. There was too much backtracking to previous periods in her life. Same with the Revolution, while he set the facts down in a most understandable way, I was scratching my head at the need for so much information that didn't really add to Catherine's story.

PS, my favorite book still on Catherine's early life is Men on white horses by Annette Motley. Good fun and she seems to stay close to the facts.


Jane Thanks for the suggestion - I see it's out of print, but maybe someone will e-publish it (or already has). I have noted it as a possible read.

I thought Massie was a bit hard on Peter, and even on Paul. If I were as whipped by Mommy as they were, I might also be a bit peculiar.


Misfit I probably would as well if I'd had a mommy like her. *shudders*


message 4: by Jean (new)

Jean Gordon Sounds like a book I could really get into. I'm going to check for it in my local library.


Catherine I don’t get on here as much as I should, but I had to add it after beginning to read this book. I love it Jane! I have not been able to put it down. I’ve not read a biography before and my mother told me she named me for “Catherine the great” so I would be strong-so I was intrigued. During a visit to the Hillwood estate and gardens here in DC, where a lot of Russian decorative art is displayed, the tour guide mentioned this book and how good it was so I picked it up. I’m only a third of the way done, but I’m enjoying it tremendously.
How would you compare it to other biographies out there?


Jane It certainly wasn't the best one I'd ever read. The one I enjoyed most recently was Bertie: A Life of Edward VII.


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