Catherine The GreatAt 574 pages, this biography of the legendary Russian Empress is a history of  Russia as well as a thorough analysis of  her reign.  From a relatively humble birth as Sophia, a German princess, through her journey to become one of the most important monarchs of the Eighteenth Century, Catherine displayed a remarkable sense of politics. Wed at a young age at the behest of then Empress Elizabeth of Russia to the pathetic and dull Peter, the only surviving heir to Peter the Great through his mother, Catherine spent miserable years as the Emperor-to-be’s unloved wife.  It is doubtful that the marriage was ever consummated.  Therefore, Catherine took lovers, bearing a son to her first lover, the rake Sergei Saltykov.  This child would later become Emperor Paul himself. Through political croneyism and intrigue worthy of an epic movie, Catherine became Empress of Russia after the abdication and then murder of her husband. Here is where the real tale begins.  Catherine read widely and was greatly influenced by the Age of Enlightenment.  She encouraged relationships with famous philosophers like Voltaire and Diderot of France.  Taking her role as the guardian and monarch of the Empire of Russia to heart, Catherine worked incessantly.  One of her early accomplishments was  summoning an assembly to create a new code of laws and write them down.  She made improvements in medical care and was the first to be inoculated against smallpox, a disease which killed and maimed huge numbers of her subjects. An accomplished horsewoman all her life, Catherine rode alongside the troops in battles when she first took over the throne. Catherine comes across as a remarkable woman and even more, a remarkable sovereign.  She knew instinctively when to go along with whoever was in power–cases in point Empress Elizabeth and her husband Peter the Third–then when to take advantage of upheaval, as when she, supported by military leaders, took over the throne.  She was wise enough to sense what her country needed and then act on it.  She invited the finest minds of Europe to advise her.  She became a quintessential Monarch of the Enlightenment herself. Perhaps the most engaging aspect of this ambitious biography is the portrait we get of Catherine as a human being, and as the subtitle states, a woman.  Massie shows us her longings for her lovers, her disappointments in them, her sensible treatment of their foibles and jealousies.  We get to look into her heart. Rejected by her own ambitious mother, she was an aloof mother herself but ironically a much more interested grandmother. The density of detail and unfamiliar Russian names can thwart the flow of reading at times in this book, but getting to know such a talented, exceptional woman as Catherine makes sticking to it well worthwhile.  Borrow this book.

About Leslie Brown
My ocean physicist husband and I raised two wonderful sons, my proudest accomplishment. For many years I taught writing at a university, my job of a lifetime, and worked as a freelance writer for local publications. I am an ocean girl, sometimes profane, who loves animals, reading, and creative projects. I am curious about nearly everything. Loyal and caring, I make a good friend.