Reviewed by Colleen Turner

I remember, like many people I am sure, briefly reading about Catherine the Great and her unique place in Russian history while in school, smashed together with so many other historical figures. But who was she really, and what experiences lead her to become such a dynamic woman and leader? Robert K. Massie does a wonderful job giving us a well rounded, complete history of not only this unique persona but the people, country and world around her from her birth into a German family of minor nobility in 1729 to her death as empress of Russia in 1796.

While it is impossible to discuss all aspects of this rather large tome (the book tips the scales at over 600 pages), it is important to note that the author not only highlights the political, religious and professional aspects of this sovereign but gives us a clear view of who Catherine was as a woman and what shaped her decisions in every avenue of life.

Raised under her mother’s ambitious wings and without much familial affection, Catherine was shuttled off to Russia at fourteen to become the wife of Peter Ulrich of Holstein, the designated heir for the current Empress Elizabeth of Russia. Catherine was excited to escape her unhappy childhood and ambitious for how high her star might rise. What she faced, however, was a man-child of a husband who preferred military toys and humiliation to showing his young bride any love, and an empress who kept her isolated and lonely. She had been brought to Russia for one purpose: to produce an heir to the throne. Since her marriage remained unconsummated for nine years, this was not an easy task.

Catherine sought passion, companionship and happiness with twelve lovers over her lifetime (three of which are believed to have fathered her three children and one of which played a key part in bringing her to the throne) but power struggles, jealousies and an inability to balance her personal life with her role in society made it impossible for Catherine to find the love she had so often sought.

It wasn’t until Empress Elizabeth died and Peter became Emperor in her place that Catherine was able to glimpse how her many years of loneliness and abasement at their hands would come to an end. Her intelligence, humor, grace and compassion endeared her to the nobility, church, military and the vast Russian population, all of whom were angered by the changes made by Peter III, and a coup successfully placed Catherine II on the throne as Empress in her own right. While Catherine’s thirty-four years as Empress faced difficulties such as war, disease, religious conflicts and the horrific issues of serfdom and peasant uprisings, she also worked to establish a world of Enlightenment with improvements in tolerance and justice, medicine, education and the arts. While she refused to rule alongside anyone (including her son and heir) she did establish herself, to the best of her abilities, as a “benevolent despot” and took her role as mother of the Russian people to heart. She loved her adopted people and did her best to leave Russia a better place than she came to at fourteen.

While historical non-fiction can so often come across as dry, boring and riddled with excessive facts not necessary to the key topics of the book, I didn’t find this to be an issue with Catherine the Great. I won’t say for a minute that this is a quick and easy read (there is simply too much information to declare that) but I will say that the book flows well and is organized in a way that never made me feel bogged down in the facts. If you take the time and savor the experience, you should come away from this book feeling satisfied that you thoroughly know one of the greatest women in history.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

Colleen lives in Tampa, Florida with her husband, son, their dog Oliver and their fish Finn. When not working or taking care of her family she has her nose stuck in a book (and, let’s face it, often when she is working or taking care of her family as well). Nothing excites her more than discovering a new author to obsess over or a hidden jewel of a book to worship.

Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Random House. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.