Catherine the Great

Robert Massie has written several books about the Romanov dynasty in Russia, including a biography of Peter the Great for which he won a Pulitzer Prize. After years of research, Massie recently released a biography of Catherine the Great. This biography follows her from her birth as a relatively impoverished, minor German princess to wife of the heir of the Russian throne, through the coup that gave her power over Russia, and through the rest of her long and eventful reign.

Massie is a wonderful author who makes the intricacies of a world so foreign from our own in both custom, language, and social structure seem understandable. European geography was quite different in Catherine's time; several countries and empires that no longer exist are the major players, so the included maps are very helpful. (I read this on a Kindle and found that was one of the major downfalls of reading this in e-book form.) The story begins with the marriage of Catherine's parents in Germany. The description of her childhood is rather stark and allows readers to understand the unpleasant and precarious position her family occupied in Germany. From the very beginning, Massie allows readers to empathize with Catherine. Her difficult, disastorous marriage, her brilliant but terrifying grab for power, and her ensuing battle to balance Enlightenment thought and the reality of ruling a vast empire make for satisfying drama.

I would highly recommend this biography for anyone who likes to read about powerful women, the Enlightenment, Russian history, or simply likes to read biographies. This was a solidly written book that moves quickly; it certainly doesn't feel as long as it is. After reading this you'll likely be interested in all things Russian, so check out Massie's other books too.

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