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Portrait of a Woman

by Robert K. Massie

Pub Date: Nov. 8th, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-679-45672-8
Publisher: Random House

Roughly every decade since Nicholas and Alexandra (1967), popular historian Massie (Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea, 2003, etc.) publishes a fat volume of European history for an eager readership; his latest will not disappoint.

Catherine the Great (1729–1796) was princess of a minor German state whose big chance arrived when she married Russian Czarina Elizabeth’s nephew and successor, a minor German duke who was unattractive, immature and lazy. Catherine was the opposite, so she passed a stormy, mostly unhappy 17 years before Elizabeth’s death in 1761; six months later Catherine snatched the throne from her husband. Under her energetic leadership, Russia modernized, expanded its empire and became accepted as one of the great powers of Europe. As attracted to Enlightenment ideas as contemporary monarchs, Catherine corresponded with and showered honors on Voltaire, Diderot and other French philosophers, and considered herself an enlightened despot but quickly gave up reform efforts in the face of aristocratic resistance. In the end, she ruled with an iron fist, tolerated little opposition and brutally suppressed several rebellions. Massie writes old-fashioned politics-and-great-men history, but few readers will resist his gripping description of colorful national leaders, their cutthroat rivalries and incessant wars. Most of this occurs after the 250-page mark, when Catherine takes power. Until then, the author recounts interminable petty intrigues, love affairs and itineraries of overprivileged, underemployed Russian aristocrats. His portraits of Catherine and other leading figures reveals a seemingly clairvoyant knowledge of their thoughts, emotions and conversation.

Despite these lowbrow historical techniques, Massie delivers a fascinating account of dog-eat-dog politics in 18th-century Europe and the larger-than-life Russian empress who gave as good as she got.