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

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Robert Massie, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Nicholas and Alexandra, Peter the Great, and The Romanovs, has created a wonderful new narrative of Czarist Russia with Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman. This biography reads more like a novel full of greed, jealousy, eccentrics, infidelity, murder, sex, and war, and has extensive details about the imperial family and their court.

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman begins with minor German nobles whose arranged marriage produces Sophia Fredrika von Anhalt Zerbst, a child mostly ignored by her teenaged mother. At age 14 Sophia is sent to Moscow to marry her second cousin, Peter III of Russia, and from there the book carries the reader through the cunning, persistence, and devotion to Russia that helps Sophia become one of the most powerful rulers in European history, Catherine the Great, Empress and Autocrat of all the Russias.

The book takes the reader from her early life of isolation, with her mother ignoring her, to the similar treatment from Empress Elizabeth once she gets to Russia. Her husband ignores her, refuses to consummate their marriage for seven years, and spends much of his time playing with toy soldiers in bed. To escape this treatment, she immerses herself in French literature and takes 12 lovers – and for those who have heard the rumors, none of them were equines.

Her three children were each fathered by different lovers and all were taken away from her by Empress Elizabeth to be raised under her hand. In turnabout is fair play, she did the same thing with her own grandchildren, naming them and separating them from their parents to provide tutelage and gain their love.

Of the 12 men, Gregory Orlov and Gregory Potemkin were her principal lovers. She had a son with Orlov, Aleksey, Count Borbrinsky, and there is speculation that later in life she secretly married Potemkin.

If you love history, and even if you aren’t a history buff, Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman reads like a good novel and is hard to put down.

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