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


Born a German princess in a relatively obscure family, at fourteen Catherine was brought by her mother to Russia to marry the future czar Peter III. An intelligent young woman, Catherine embraced her new homeland, converting to their faith and learning the Russian language. Although these actions endeared her to the people, it did little to help her rocky marriage, and she suffered under the abuse of her husband and the Empress Elizabeth. But after the death of empress, Catherine seized power from Peter and took the throne for herself, becoming one of the most powerful and influential women in Europe and continuing the legacy of Peter the Great by moving Russia towards modernization.

Catherine the Great was a fascinating woman. Her rise to power is quite impressive, although perhaps less surprising in Russia, where she had been immediately preceded by two Empresses: the Empress Anna, who ruled as regent for ten years, and the Empress Elizabeth, the daughter of the impressive Peter the Great who overthrew Anna’s son, Ivan VI. So the Russian public was prepared to embrace a woman reigning in her own right, a fact that could not be said for other European countries at the time. Massie describes the life of Empress Elizabeth in great detail, and it becomes clear that many of Catherine’s behaviors during her reign are modeled on Elizabeth’s behavior, most notoriously her manner of taking lovers one after another.

Without discounting Catherine’s talent for governing, she would also not have succeeded as she did without the aid of her advisors. In her early years, Grigory Orlov proved invaluable as he led the coup that placed Catherine on the throne and served as her right-hand man as she established herself as empress. Eventually he was supplanted by Grigory Potemkin, who served Catherine for many years both as a military leader and bedroom manager – after their love affair fizzled out, it seems he was involved in picking many of his replacements for the position of Catherine’s “favorite”.

For a woman like Catherine, six and romance was intertwined with governing her vast empire, and Massie does a good job of balancing her relationships and sexual escapades with the empress’ interest in Enlightenment principles, government reformations, and expansion of the Empire. He paints a picture of a very complex woman, and does so in an engaging, almost novelistic approach that makes the book quite difficult to put down. Although a hefty tome of 656 pages, the book reads quickly and draws the reader deeply into the life of one of Europe’s most influential monarchs.


4.5 out of 5 stars


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Peeking into the archives...today in:
2013: The Iron Queen (Iron Fey #3) by Julie Kagawa
2012: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
2011: Frauds, Myths & Mysteries by Kenneth Feder
2010: Little Women and Werewolves by Louisa May Alcott & Porter Grand
2009: Valeria's Last Stand by Mark Fitten

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