Born into a minor noble family, Catherine transformed herself into Empress of Russia by sheer determination. Possessing a brilliant mind and an insatiable curiosity as a young woman, she devoured the works of Enlightenment philosophers and, when she reached the throne, attempted to use their principles to guide her rule of the vast and backward Russian empire. She knew or corresponded with the preeminent historical figures of her time: Voltaire, Diderot, Frederick the Great, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, Marie Antoinette, and, surprisingly, the American naval hero, John Paul Jones.
Reaching the throne fired by Enlightenment philosophy and determined to become the embodiment of the “benevolent despot” idealized by Montesquieu, she found herself always contending with the deeply ingrained realities of Russian life, including serfdom. She persevered, and for thirty-four years the government, foreign policy, cultural development, and welfare of the Russian people were in her hands. She dealt with domestic rebellion, foreign wars, and the tidal wave of political change and violence churned up by the French Revolution that swept across Europe. Her reputation depended entirely on the perspective of the speaker. She was praised by Voltaire as the equal of the greatest of classical philosophers; she was condemned by her enemies, mostly foreign, as “the Messalina of the north.”
Catherine’s family, friends, ministers, generals, lovers, and enemies—all are here, vividly described. These included her ambitious, perpetually scheming mother; her weak, bullying husband, Peter (who left her lying untouched beside him for nine years after their marriage); her unhappy son and heir, Paul; her beloved grandchildren; and her “favorites”—the parade of young men from whom she sought companionship and the recapture of youth as well as sex. Here, too, is the giant figure of Gregory Potemkin, her most significant lover and possible husband, with whom she shared a passionate correspondence of love and separation, followed by seventeen years of unparalleled mutual achievement.
The story is superbly told. All the special qualities that Robert K. Massie brought to Nicholas and Alexandra and Peter the Great are present here: historical accuracy, depth of understanding, felicity of style, mastery of detail, ability to shatter myth, and a rare genius for finding and expressing the human drama in extraordinary lives.
History offers few stories richer in drama than that of Catherine the Great. In this book, this eternally fascinating woman is returned to life.
My Thoughts: I love Catherine the Great, I do. She really was an amazing woman for her time. I think she is one of the most interesting female rulers in history. I have read a lot about her so to me this book was a little boring simply because none of the information was new. That being said, it this was a really great biography. Robert K. Massie's writing style is very readable, even for non-fiction and he organizes his information in such a manner that it is almost as though you are reading a work of fiction. I have read several of Massie's other books and his writing style is what made me want to read this one.
This biography has a TON of information about Catherine's life from birth to death. It felt like Massie left no stone unturned and he painted a fair picture of Catherine. He made it clear that she was not without faults but that she did try to rule Russia to the best of her abilities. He also clearly laid out both her successes and her failures so I felt like there wasn't a very obvious bias in this work. I enjoyed that he included parts of her correspondence with different people like Voltaire, Potemkin, etc. as I liked being able to see her own words and thoughts. I also appreciated that he didn't make her out to be a total whore which is common in some works about her. It makes me crazy when I read something about her that only emphasizes how many lovers she had and her sexual proclivities (there are a lot of stories about her and many of them aren't true. Overall, this was a good biography of Catherine the Great and if you are interested in her life, I recommend it. 3 1/2 stars.