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Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman

by Robert K. Massie

Random House

I must admit, historical biographies are not typically the type of fare I gravitate towards.  Once in a blue moon, however, books come around that not only pique my interest and capture my imagination, but also latch onto the academic in me which is usually dormant.  Robert K. Massie’s masterful and thoroughly researched biography on Catherine II is one of those books, and it’s a perfect fireside companion for winter reading.

Her story is one of the most remarkable tales ever told, and not just in the history of Russia, but in the history of the modern world.  Catherine was actually born as Sophia, a German princess of minor nobility, and only found her way to a life at court due to politics and circumstance.  As a young woman, she was a vehicle for maintaining the chain of succession in her cousin Peter’s lineage. Her early marriage to the young heir was a cold one; he would rather play with toy soldiers than show her any sign of affection or even friendship.  But Catherine – despite her youth – knew to play her part, with patience and charm and as much grace towards her elders as she could muster.  Her perseverance and pluck placed many of her subjects at her mercy, and soon she was given the throne and became Empress of Russia in the middle of the eighteenth century when the world was changing.

The United States was just coming into its own, the Enlightenment was speaking out against the sometimes savage ways of old Europe, and for a worldly woman like Catherine, it was the perfect time to be in power.  There are wars and lovers and incredible opulence in her story.  It’s an amazing tale, and Massie is a master at telling it and giving just enough historical context so that we don’t feel like we’ve walked into the middle of a conversation we can’t possibly hope to catch-up on.

So get out your muff and head down to your local bookshop, because this is a fantastic winter’s tale.