Wednesday 15 May 2013

Catherine the Great

Finished May 15
Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K Massie, read by Mark Deakins

This biography is extensive and covers many aspects of Catherine's life and reign. She was born a minor Prussian princess and was named Sophie. She was born in 1729, and brought to Russia by the Empress Elizabeth as the potential bride for her nephew Peter (later Peter III). She was only 14, and was expected to marry as she was told. She had to convert to the Orthodox religion, against her father's wishes. Her husband Peter III, was a immature and many believe the marriage was never consummated. Catherine did have three children, but they are all believed to be illegitimate. She came to power in 1762 as a result of a coup d'etat, and what is believed to be an assassination of her husband Peter III. She was definitely more knowledgeable about politics, foreign affairs, and culture than Peter, although he was fascinated by the military, playing with toy soldiers even after their marriage.
This book covers her early life, her betrothal and marriage to Peter and how she gained the love and respect of the Russian people. Her lovers, her political maneuverings, the wars she was involved in, are all covered here. We see how she became Europe's biggest art collector, beginning a collection that eventually became that of the Hermitage Museum. We discover her interest in the enlightenment and her high goals for change in the country. Some of these she found she could not accomplish, such as the abolishment of serfdom, others took longer than she anticipated. Ruling until her death in 1796, she is still known along with Peter the Great, as one of Russia's best rulers. She expanded the Russian empire to the Crimea, into Poland, and the far east. She initiated lengthy correspondences with Voltaire, Diderot, and other members of the Enlightenment. She was an early adopter of inoculations against disease and was herself inoculated against smallpox as an example to her people. She was also a strong proponent of education for the people.
I found this book fascinating. Catherine was an extremely interesting woman.


  1. If you have a bias toward reading contemporary works instead of dusty classics, you may prefer Massie's Catherine over those other books on the shelf. But, in the end, I wish Massie had applied his tools to some interesting but inadequately explored character he could have brought to life rather than writing what is really just another capable book on an already heavy shelf, adding a pound or two but not much more to what is already there. He gets a solid three stars, but no more.

  2. Since this is the first book I had read on Catherine, that I'd the point of view I was coming from. I'd be glad Houston if you could recommend some you thought were better. I found this one very readable yet still very informative.