Catherine The Great : Portrait Of A Woman / Robert K. Massie

Born as Sophia Augusta Fredericka, Catherine’s life might seem a fairy tale come true when seen from afar.  Raised in a minor (and poor) noble Prussian family, at age fourteen she travels to Russia where her second cousin, Peter, is in line to become the next tsar.  Betrothal to Peter follows and they marry.  Fourteen years later, she becomes Empress Consort, and shortly after, the Empress of Russia.  Catherine’s reign continues for the next thirty-four years until her death.  But when the details are examined, the fairy tale aspects of her story evaporate.  The marriage was an arranged one and her husband did not love her.  In fact, during their fourteen-year marriage, he never had sexual relations with her.  Nonetheless, the result of taking other lovers, she bore him two children.  Once Peter became tsar, he indicated wanting to have his mistress to replace Catherine as Empress Consort.  However, before he could act, a coup d’état led to Catherine being named Empress.

From the first, Catherine was a determined young woman, intent on succeeding in her adopted country.  She quickly learned Russian, converted from German Lutheran to Eastern Orthodoxy, and did everything she could to win the hearts of the Russian people.  An intelligent, well-read woman, one key to Catherine’s success was an ability to find and surround herself with powerful, talented men who were devoted to her.  The first half of the book, describing her rise to power, held my interest entirely.  Less so the second half.  Even though the period of Catherine’s rule is considered the Golden Age of the Russian Empire, the telling is not nearly as gripping.  Too much of the focus is on the many different lovers she had throughout her life, all men much younger than herself.  Massie also wanders off-point to pursue side stories that have little to do with Catherine.  Those quibbles aside, this biography brings the era of Catherine’s reign alive in a comprehensible manner.  She expanded the empire by winning wars against Turkey and Poland.  Became a patron of the arts, literature, and education.  Believing in enlightened autocracy, tried to improve the lives of the serfs.  Catherine was indeed a remarkable woman who led a charmed life.

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