Monday, February 6, 2017

Catherine the Great - Robert K. Massie

Catherine the Great
Title: Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman
Author: Robert K. Massie
Publication Date: 2011
Pages: 625
Genre: Biography / Historical / Royals / Nonfiction
How I Found It: Some list of royal biographies
Date Completed: 1/18/17

Summary: Catherine the Great is one of the most well-known Russian rulers. The role of Empress, however, was far from her birthright. She reigned for 34 years, creating a strong legacy for herself in a time when absolute monarchy was falling out of fashion.

What I Thought: Before reading this book, I knew very little about Catherine the Great. My AP European History teacher in high school was particularly interested in Russian culture and history (lately, I find myself wondering his thoughts on current foreign affairs), so I got a fairly robust look at Russian history. Then promptly forgot most of it. For whatever reason, I have not ever been as engaged by Russian history as that of its European neighbors.

But, I'm trying to change that - especially in light of everything happening on the world stage right now. I think understanding a country's history is a good start to understanding their modern pursuits. So, I'm reading books like Russka and like Between Shades of Grey and like this.

Massie's biography of the Russian Empress is exhaustive, but never overly dense. You'll walk away feeling as if you know about everything there is to know about Catherine the Great. Of course, this is just one person's research and perspective, but it's well-researched and Massie stays pretty neutral on anything even relatively controversial.

Catherine is particularly famous for her litany of lovers. The whole story of her love life is fascinating. She and her husband never consummated their relationship, despite being married for over a decade. There are a lot of theories about why this is, and Massie covers them. After nine years of marriage, Catherine took her first lover. It was that man, not the Russian heir, who fathered her son. Her other two children were also the offspring of her lovers, rather than her husband. Over the course of her life, Catherine had at least twelve lovers. It appears that she was faithful to each one in their time. It is theorized that she even married one, Grigory Potemkin. Also, in case you were wondering, Massie gives no mention of the rumor that Catherine engaged in bestiality with a horse. Catherine's sexual history seems to be much of what she is remembered for. However, while definitely not something I'm ok with morally, it was no different from that of the male monarchs of the age. 

More importantly, Catherine did so much for the Russia culture and people. She brought art and philosophy to the country like no Russian monarch had before. She corresponded with the likes of Voltaire and other Enlightenment minds. She traveled much of her expansive country on a famous tour set up by Potemkin (who, interestingly, died just after the exhausting project ended). She even received one of the first smallpox vaccines ever, thus making it clear to the Russian people that the new procedure was safe. She was an incredible monarch, a point proved by the fact she held on to absolute power in an age when revolution was quite in vogue. 

I learned a lot about Catherine and Russia from Massie's work. It was well-written, not too dry, and extremely informative. I definitely recommend this book to anyone wanting to learn more about Catherine or that era of history. 

Rating: ★★★★☆
Will I Re-Read: Nope

A Reduced Review: An interesting, exhaustive biography of Russia's last empress, Catherine the Great.

1 comment:

  1. This book has been on my list for a while! I'm glad you enjoyed it.