Catherine the Great is an iconic female monarch, known even to those who have never glanced at Russian history. Her reign ushered in something of a golden age for much of Russia, symbolized by cultural and physical expansion, the effects of which were felt for decades after her reign had concluded. In this biography of Catherine, Robert K. Massie covers the entirety of her life, from her origins as a relatively modest German daughter of a prince, through her disastrous marriage to the heir to the Russian throne, until her death as one of Russia’s greatest rulers.
Massie’s biography looks intimidating, at almost 600 pages long in hardcover in my edition, but his narrative of the flow of Catherine’s life is incredibly smooth and easy to read. I actually managed to read a lot in one sitting and in parts it could almost read like fiction, which makes this a very accessible non-fiction read. I can imagine most readers enjoying this if they have an interest in imperial Russia and Catherine’s long reign. Massie also makes Catherine easy to relate to; he draws from her letters and her own memoirs to try and build her character and explore how she might have been feeling through her life.
I didn’t like that there seemed to be little connection to Massie’s sources aside from the originals, though, and the notes aren’t marked in the text, which I didn’t like either. A lot of the start of the book is based on Catherine’s memoirs, which means that we have to take her word for the way that things happened, and I’d have liked some sort of evidence of external sources corroborating what she says. In reality Massie consulted a lot of sources, but it’s really hard to see what’s coming from where. It made it difficult for me at least to trust what he was saying.
That said, though, I liked how comprehensive this book was and how well it was structured. It roughly follows Catherine’s life chronologically as the book is separated into sections, but each chapter within those sections tends to deal with just one subject. This made it very easy to follow what was happening in Catherine’s life at any given time, but also allowed the author to delve deeper into each subject. As I said earlier, it’s very easy to feel sympathy for Catherine, and the frequent quoting from her memoirs and letters helps us as readers feel as though we are actually learning about the real woman. Because Massie starts at the beginning of her life, we can understand some of the motivations she’s had for later actions. In addition, Massie never passes judgement on her for any of her actions, which makes him a valuable biographer for a woman who often gains undeserved negative press for the number of “favorites” she had (when male monarchs did the same without any note).
He follows the shifts in her political focus easily, too, and traces how the relative enlightened idealism of her youth is crushed by the realities of ruling a country, an aspect of the book that I found particularly fascinating. But again, he doesn’t pass judgement on her; he doesn’t judge her for her inability to free Russia’s serfs, for her eventual censoring of the press after the French Revolution, or for any of her other political actions which don’t particularly match up with current beliefs. Catherine’s actions were not always ones that we would agree with, but Massie leaves it to readers to decide, without attempting to influence them. I found this quite valuable.
A riveting biography, Catherine the Great is a complete picture of the last, and greatest, female monarch of Russia. For anyone who enjoys history, this book would be an exceptional choice.
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