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Portrait of a Woman

A-Catherine-the-Great-1American historian and former journalist Robert K. Massie, whose works include Nicholas and Alexandra (1967) and The Romanovs: The Final Chapter (1995), won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography for Peter the Great: His Life and World (1980). He returns to Imperial Russia with his latest book, an in-depth biography of Catherine II, who reigned from 1762 until her death in 1796.

The Topic: Born in 1729, Sophia Augusta Fredericka, a minor German princess, was only 14 when she traveled to Moscow to marry the infantile and physically stunted 16-year-old heir to the Russian throne. Renamed Catherine upon her conversion to Orthodoxy, she shrewdly ingratiated herself with her future subjects by embracing their language and customs, and, in return, they unseated and imprisoned her ineffectual husband, Tsar Peter III, and installed her as empress only six months after Peter had assumed the crown. Plagued by violent rebellions, disease, war, and scandals arising from her many affairs, Catherine's astonishing (if somewhat notorious) 34-year reign in a stratified, male-dominated world was nevertheless characterized by great strides in art, education, medicine, and the modernization of Russia's feudal laws and institutions.
Random House. 656 pages. $35. ISBN: 9780679456724

NY Times Book Review 4.5 of 5 Stars"At a heft befitting its subject, his long-awaited Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman is a consistently nimble and buoyant performance, defying what might in a lesser writer's hands prove a deadly undertow of exhaustively researched historical facts. ... One of the unexpected pleasures of Catherine the Great is that the degree to which Massie invites us to identify with his subject as she grows and changes in a role she began cultivating herself to attain at the age of 14." Kathryn Harrison

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars"While Massie is smitten with Catherine (1729–1796), who ‘beneath her title and her diamonds ... was only a little German girl brought to Russia for the sole purpose of providing the son of the house with an heir,' the reader, sympathetic or not with some of the grown-up empress's pragmatic inaction and actions, will always be fascinated. That she wrested the crown of all Russia from her husband, Peter III, and with the help of her lover placed it on her own head, and then tried to keep it from her son's head and place it on her grandson's, is forgivable--or at least, understandable--in the context of the Sopranos-style skullduggery and double-crosses and murders that characterize royal history." Bob Blaisdell

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars"This is indeed a Portrait of a Woman, as the subtitle declares, with plenty of attention paid to Catherine's emotions and psychology. ... Historians may wish Massie had devoted more time to underlying forces in Russian society that defined the limits of Catherine's achievements, but general readers will find this an absorbing, satisfying biography of the old school." Wendy Smith

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 of 5 Stars"Certainly no biographer writes better. The pleasures of this biography are evident as Massie deftly introduces Catherine, a rather plain-looking daughter of an obscure noble family whose prospects would hardly forecast her illustrious future." Carl Rollyson

USA Today 4 of 5 Stars"The author, 82, is clearly enraptured by his extraordinary heroine and by the end, so is the reader. Even bone-deep anti-monarchists will find themselves cheering on this absolute despot. What a woman, what a world, what a biography." Deirdre Donahue

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars"She wrote diligently, to her lovers, to her diplomats, to friends, and left detailed memoirs, all put to good use by Robert K. Massie, biographer of the tsars, who brings great authority to this sweeping account of Catherine and her times. His story of this epic life is warm, sure and confiding, even when plowing through yet another war with the Turks." Kathy Lally

Cleveland Plain Dealer 3 of 5 Stars"Catherine the Great is ... exhaustively detailed. The reader must shovel through piles of jewel-encrusted portraits, Sevres porcelain and brocade cloth to find a thesis, or (often) a narrative thread." Alex Nalbach

Critical Summary

Peering behind the closed doors of both assembly rooms and bedrooms, Massie dismisses baseless rumors and sets the record straight in this "better-than-any-novel tale" (USA Today). No stranger to Russia's imperial court, he immerses readers in its history, its traditions, and its culture, nimbly steering a course through its tangled web of princes, aristocrats, wars, schemes, and scandals. Massie, "a biographer with the instincts of a novelist" (New York Times Book Review), succeeds in bringing Catherine to vivid life with his keen sense of story and warm, confiding tone. The Cleveland Plain Dealer complained that Massie is too forgiving of Catherine's weaknesses, and other reviewers questioned whether he contributes anything new to the topic. Nevertheless, Catherine the Great--"juicy and suspenseful" (New York Times Book Review)--will delight and fascinate.

Supplementary Reading

The Memoirs of Catherine the Great | Catherine the Great (2005): In her own words, the indomitable monarch tells the story of her obscure youth, her rise to power, and her troubled but glorious reign during the Golden Age of the Russian Empire.