Book Review: Catherine the Great by Robert K. Massie

Catherine the Great by Robert K. Massie
Catherine the Great by Robert K. Massie


As part of my venturing off into the non-fiction section I picked up a biography of Catherine the Great. My hunch that reading biography would be closest to the fiction books I am used to proved correct: although at over 600 pages it’s hardly a light read, I became intrigued by Catherine as a character and I read this book in every spare moment for about a week in order to learn her whole story.

Massie tells Catherine’s story more-or-less in chronological order, but subdivided by topic, so you might first find out about Catherine’s lovers over a certain period, and then about the war that occurred in the same time frame. This leads to a slightly less narrative approach but makes it easier to get a full picture of all aspects of Catherine’s life without getting confused.

One of my favourite things about the book is the windows into how extraordinary humans can be. Massie reports that Catherine’s loyal valet, Shkurin, set his own house on fire in order to distract Peter, her husband, when she was in labour with her lover’s child. I think that sentence alone should convey how deliciously gossip-worthy aspects of Catherine’s life could be. Another part that I loved was the description of Catherine’s relationship with Potemkin, how they may have been secretly married, and how they continued to be devoted to one another even after they appeared to have moved on to sleeping with other people. I am a believer in being friends with exes, but this was a whole other thing, as her relationship with Potemkin clearly continued to be more important that her successive lovers.

I learnt so much about politics and philosophy in the 18th century! Massie is good at explaining everything you need to know and giving you lots of context (for example taking time to outline the events of the French Revolution as context for Catherine’s censorship towards the end of her reign) without making you feel condescended to. Also, I was continually amazed at how little I knew – in school we mostly studied WWII, the Victorian Age, or the Tudors, and usually from a fairly social history, at home in the U.K. kind of approach. I had NO IDEA that Poland used to border Turkey/The Ottoman Empire and Russia. Or that Poland as a country actually CEASED TO EXIST for over a century, after Prussia, Austria and Russia divided it up.

This book made me really want to reread Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles, which is equally stuffed with political intrigue between European powers. One book is actually set in Russia! The series follows Francis Crawford, a fictional Scottish nobleman, as he gets embroiled in 16th century politics and has adventures. Aside from diving back into my historical fiction collection, can anyone recommend any more good biographies? Ladies being awesome and complex but well-explained political situations preferred. ^_^


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