Robert Massie specializes in European history, focusing primarily on Russian royalty. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Peter the Great, the heralded biography of Catherine’s husband’s grandfather. And now we have the pleasure of reading about Catherine the Great. An enormous amount of information is packed in this tome that reveals intimate details of Catherine’s life from cradle to grave: her relationship with family and friends, her love life, her philosophy, and descriptions of her clothing, jewelry and living quarters. In addition to using Catherine’s memoirs as a source of information, Massie also used over 60 references to compile this richly entertaining biography.
What really astounds me is the substance of Catherine’s life. My husband frequently says to me, “truth is stranger than fiction”, and indeed, it is. I always imagined the royalty of yore, at the very least, to accept the responsibility of leading their country in good faith. Never in my wildest imagination did I visualize a Czar admitting he hated his country, calling it a “vast, primitive, foreign empire”, and demonstrating the level of immaturity of Catherine’s husband Czar Peter III.
The first half of the book describes the trials and tribulations (of which there were many) of Catherine waiting to become the Czarina. Catherine was a German Princess, born as Sophia Augusta Fredericka of Anhalt-Zerbst. She left home at the age of 14, traveling to Russia in preparation for her pre-arranged marriage to her second cousin Peter… heir to the throne of the Romanov dynasty, whom she had only met one time. The second half of the book features Catherine as an empress. She was 33 years old when she took the throne and single-handedly ruled over 20 million people.
Catherine’s personal story spills over into French history as the French Revolution dominates European news and threatens to change the structure of government in all the surrounding monarchies. But Catherine, while living in obscenely extravagant luxury, managed to maintain control of the Russian people… of which approximately 10 million were enslaved serfs. And amazingly, after numerous love affairs and rumors that she participated in her husband Peter’s murder, she managed to go down in history with the title “Catherine The Great”.
Massie is a master story teller and can inject lengthy side stories involving other people and other nations without disrupting the flow of the story of Catherine’s life. In fact, it is mind boggling to read about the genealogy of European’s royalty, where everyone seemed to be related in one way or another. And there was so much intrigue and back-stabbing, it is a challenge stay on top of who was loyal to whom. It becomes evident early in the book that no matter how powerful one was, it was always a precarious situation. Power came and went… allegiance to the wrong person or supporting the wrong cause could strip one of title and power, and life it-self, instantaneously.
This is a remarkable account of the extraordinary life of Catherine the Great.
Rated 5 Stars. I use a rating scale of 1 to 5. Books rated 1, I seldom finish; books rated 2, I usually finish but would never recommend to anyone. 5 is the highest rating.