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on 30 March 2015
I bought this book as I am giving a history lecture on this subject and I was told that Robert Massie was the acknowledged expert on Catherine. I approached it with not a little trepidation as often books written by ‘experts’ are a nightmare. What a pleasant surprise! It was an easy book to read, the facts were presented clearly and concisely and not embellished with the author’s own viewpoint. I particularly liked the excerpts from Catherine’s own diaries and letters, and where information came from third parties this was mentioned. There was enough information without going into minute detail and besides using this book as a source of reference, I also enjoyed it was an entertaining book and I would recommend it to any student interested in the Russian royal family.
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VINE VOICEon 29 May 2017
This is an excellent biography of one of the greatest of Russian rulers, by an author who has already written major biographies of Peter the Great, the last tsar Nicholas and his wife Alexandra, and a book about the post-revolutionary Romanovs in exile. It is rich and colourful and, the title notwithstanding, covers all aspects of Catherine's life and rule, the personal, political, military and social. Catherine was an unlikely ruler of the biggest empire in the world, being a princess of a minor German state with no Russian blood. Called to Russia at the age of 14 to marry the heir to the throne, Peter, Empress Elizabeth's nephew, she quickly, unlike her husband, adopted Russian customs and language and joined the Orthodox church, renouncing her Lutheranism against her father's protests. She quickly eclipsed Peter in all areas. He was unstable and unfit to rule, and Elizabeth worried for the succession, so much so that, after nine years of unconsummated marriage, the way was cleared for Catherine to have a child by another man, with the result that Grand Duke Paul was very probably not Peter's son.

After Elizabeth's death, Peter became emperor Peter III, but Catherine overthrew him six months later and assumed the imperial title (Peter died suddenly a week later, very probably bumped off by Catherine's supporters, the Orlovs). Catherine was a ruler of contrasts. A follower of Voltaire and Diderot, she was genuinely liberal by the standards of rulers of the time, and made some attempts at constitutional and other political and economic reform, which however she could not progress in the face of opposition from the nobility, on whose support she depended. For an autocrat she was sparing in the use of force and consistently opposed the use of torture, even against her bitterest opponents. However, her liberal instincts weakened in the face of the Pugachev rebellion, whose leader the Cossack Yemelyan Pugachev claimed to be Peter III; and withered almost entirely after the French Revolution, when the fear of a bloody upheaval against established authority caused her to become suspicious of reformers, including the first true Russian reformer Alexander Radischchev. It also led her to what was surely the most outrageous and longest-lasting injustice of her reign, that of the dismemberment and destruction of the Polish state, after its legislature had tried to assert some independence against Russian domination; Poland did not emerge again until after the First World War.

The book also of course charts Catherine's colourful love life and her many favourites, including most prominently Grigory Potemkin, the love of her life, to whom she may have been secretly married; and the other significant relationships (with each of whom she had a child) Stanislaus Poniatowski, whom she later made her puppet king of Poland, and Grigory Orlov, one of the brothers who helped her win the throne. Ironically, history repeated itself and Catherine regarded her son Paul as largely unfit to rule and may have planned to name her eldest grandson, Paul's son Alexander, her successor in his place. She died at the age of 67 in 1796, one of the longest lived rulers of Russia, not a breed known for their longevity. Always a fascinating character, one of the genuine greats of European history.
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on 31 August 2014
This is an excellent read. I thoroughly enjoyed it for being informative as well as reading as grippingly as a good novel. I love reading history books but often find myself struggling with worthy but academic works. This is the antidote to those. It's the second book I've read by Massie and I'm looking forward to reading Peter The Great next.
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on 26 June 2017
Well researched and written
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on 30 September 2014
An interesting read. Massie delivers his story like a romantic historical novel. Only one gripe. No footnotes in the text.
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on 4 June 2017
Excellently researched & written with great detail both regarding the life of CTG& the history of Russia - it's a long book but very worth while x
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VINE VOICEon 17 July 2012
Massie has written an accessible and very informative biography of Catherine II of Russia, after her death (and against her will) called 'the Great'. This book shows you why she was indeed great, albeit with drawbacks! Coming to Russia as a young bride-to-be at fourteen, she had to endure eighteen years of more-or-less isolation before she became an, and flowered as, Empress; and Russia flowered with her. She introduced literature and education, founded a world-class art collection, divided Poland not once but three times, got Russia the Crimea and ports on the Black Sea; and in general continued the tradition of Peter the Great.
I have enjoyed Massie's biography of Peter the Great before, as well as his magisterial books 'Dreadnought' and 'Castles of Steel'; I found this volume on Catherine slightly more difficult to get into than these others. The beginning of the book comes over a bit more belaboured, and with bits of what I thought were cod-psychology; but soon that fades and Massie's usual style takes over. Tthe reader is swept along with the story, being educated as s/he goes, what with the effortless prose and mastely treatment of complex subjects; Massie makes it look easy and accessible, with asides on politics elsewhere in Europe that have a bearing on the main story. After that initial hiccup, very well written and hugely informative for a novice like me!
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on 11 December 2012
Have read all of Dr Massie's books over the years and the style and detail certainly appeal to me. Once again the subject matter (Catherine) comes to life and one gains a true insight as opposed to the much-maligned character she is often portrayed as. Dr. Massie provides the historic context so one can see why Catherine behaved as she did.
Anyone who is interested in history (any period) will find this book a little (actually not so little) gem.
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on 24 August 2016
Closing the cover on this fascinating title, I couldn't help but think about the extreme degrees that current avenues of pop-culture alters and skews lasting impressions of historic figures that deserve to be remembered better. I also couldn't stop berating myself because I'm as guilty as any blithe individual that paid attention to slack and cheap tidbits of "history". I admit, for years all I really knew (and really cared to know) about Catherine the Great was far and in between the truth (I waited far too long to learn the actual facts and real history). I wish to foremost apologize for my past ignorance and to strongly encourage any potential reader that may think that particular myths concerning parades of male company and possible equine bedfellows are all there is to be remembered or commented on about this remarkable woman to please pick up or purchase a copy of Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie as quickly as possible.

Mr. Massie is a master of his craft and in Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman he deftly shares his extensive research and approaches his subject in a respectful manner that shows why he has earned so many awards for his non-fiction works. In this incredible work he pulls away the embellished myths and rumors to reveal an individual who rightly deserves "the Great" forever attached to her name. He also illustrates how such exaggerations and opinions of this historic lady could have been created and spread as he takes the reader to each fascinating stage and event of Catherine the Great's life with richly textured facts and quotes from Catherine's own memoirs and those who personally knew or had the privilege of meeting her before or after the German princess became a grand duchess and finally the Imperial Empress of Russia. It may be a good idea to pace yourself when you choose this book. This biography never means to be quick glossed over read but if you have the time and patience this can be quite the rewarding experience with the trove of minute details and a unbiased view of a truly remarkable woman who changed her adopted country forever and made her stamp in history books concerning politics, art and science.

For this reader, I am so happy I finally read this biography. I learned so much and this book allowed me the opportunity to attach a strong voice and clearer picture to a name I have only vaguely read about before. It was also an unexpected surprise to find this book momentarily left details of Russia and ambled down the blood-soaked streets of the French Revolution for a chapter (even going into the mechanics of the guillotine and its continued history and a little about experimentation) but then returned and shared how Catherine reacted and feared the same happening in Russia. Even though I overall enjoyed this non-fiction title, I did find the middle became a bit repetitious with events and it seemed more emphasis was put on Catherine's early life versus her thirty-four year reign but I can see why that would be so (a lot happened that shaped her into the woman she was later to become). I wish there was some sort of glossary of names and a regional map at the beginning (there are so many names, places and titles to try to remember). I was also a little disappointed in the small section of pictures in the back, I was really hoping to see more pictures of Catherine or even a couple of the palaces where she lived at times and couple other names mentioned in this work. Still this is one read I think could benefit anyone who has an interest to learn real facts about Catherine the Great, an important portion of Russian history and even a little about 18th century Europe.

Reviewed in June 2015, review written June 2015/ copy of CATHERINE THE GREAT: PORTRAIT OF A WOMAN borrowed from local library
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on 12 April 2017
A nice neat book, that is well written and seems easy to read.
One note of fault a reduced sticker from a high street store was left on the cover which spoilt the look slightly.
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