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Book Review: Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie

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So I don’t know what it is with me and things Russian, but in addition to favoring Russian literature over all other classics, I’ve also always had quite an interest in Catherine the Great. When I heard the buzz on Robert K. Massie’s new biography Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, I downloaded it immediately. There’s just something about her, the intelligent German girl who somehow became one of the greatest Russian Tsar`(inas?) of all time.  Her attraction to enlightened thinking and the concept of benevolent autocracy, mixed with her obvious desire for and love of power and the belief that autocracy was the only proper way in which a country could be run, are just some of the aspects that make for her fascinating and complex character.

I did read a book about her a long time ago, but I remembered little about Catherine’s story (or who authored the book) other than that she was not Russian by birth.  I also vaguely remember some racy rumors about her love of horses (and the even nuttier rumor that her death was the result of this ‘affiliation’ and she was crushed by a horse) and that she used to go out naked on her balcony and shoot at whatever was moving in the nearby woods.  True stories?  Massie’s work makes her seem far more normal than other accounts have suggested, and a quick search on the internet reveals these stories to be fabricated.  Oh well.  I used to think I hated learning about history.  It was my least favorite subject in high school.  Then, at some point in college my father gave me a book about the Yom Kippur War in Israel, written by two journalists, and I learned that it had been the fault of the boringly presented textbooks and the not the content of the history itself.  Quite the revelation.

Catherine the Great reads almost like a novel.  I was rarely bored, except during the wartime descriptions and explanations of territory exchange or conquerings.  I had a hard time visualizing the shifting landscape.  I wish there had been some kind of interactive map on the Kindle that, upon reading the descriptions, I could click and see how the map was changing and which territory belonged to whom at the time.

Massie’s work also has a phenomenal level of detail, sometimes so minute that I wondered how he could have known such things.  I certainly didn’t check sources (while my feelings toward historical works may have changed, my aversion to the type of work that goes into history research papers did not), but I hope that they were based on specific descriptions found in primary sources.  Additionally, I sometimes wondered when he would describe Catherine’s state of mind or something of her character, whether he was extrapolating from her diaries and action or whether it was something that was clearly evident or explicitly stated in her journals.

Either way, Catherine the Great is clearly an extensively researched work, written very well, that presents a fascinating portrait of the empress as well as a rich contextual history.  Get thee to this book.

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About Nili Wexler

  • mayceegreene

    I am a little nervous about the size of this one but I have loved
    Massie’s books that I have read thus far, so I am excited for this one.

    Maycee (Local Search Engine Optimization Houston)