9 reviews

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman
by Robert K. Massie

Published: 2012-09-18
Paperback : 672 pages
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19 clubs reading this now
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Recommended to book clubs by 9 of 9 members
“[A] tale of power, perseverance and passion . . . a great story in the hands of a master storyteller.”—The Wall Street Journal
The Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Peter the Great, Nicholas and Alexandra, and The Romanovs returns with another masterpiece of narrative ...
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“[A] tale of power, perseverance and passion . . . a great story in the hands of a master storyteller.”—The Wall Street Journal
The Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Peter the Great, Nicholas and Alexandra, and The Romanovs returns with another masterpiece of narrative biography, the extraordinary story of an obscure German princess who became one of the most remarkable, powerful, and captivating women in history. Born into a minor noble family, Catherine transformed herself into empress of Russia by sheer determination. For thirty-four years, the government, foreign policy, cultural development, and welfare of the Russian people were in her hands. She dealt with domestic rebellion, foreign wars, and the tidal wave of political change and violence churned up by the French Revolution. Catherine’s family, friends, ministers, generals, lovers, and enemies—all are here, vividly brought to life. History offers few stories richer than that of Catherine the Great. In this book, an eternally fascinating woman is returned to life.
“[A] compelling portrait not just of a Russian titan, but also of a flesh-and-blood woman.”—Newsweek
“An absorbing, satisfying biography.”—Los Angeles Times
“Juicy and suspenseful.”—The New York Times Book Review
“A great life, indeed, and irresistibly told.”—Salon
The New York Times • The Washington Post • USA Today • The Boston Globe • San Francisco Chronicle • Chicago Tribune • Newsweek/The Daily Beast • Salon • VogueSt. Louis Post-Dispatch • The Providence Journal • Washington Examiner • South Florida Sun-Sentinel • BookPage • Bookreporter • Publishers Weekly

Editorial Review

Amazon Best Books of the Month, November 2011: Once upon a time, there was a minor German princess named Sophia. In 1744, at the age of 14, she was taken by her ambitious mother--removed from her family, her religion, and her country--to a foreign land with a single goal: marry a prince and bear him an heir. Once in Russia, she changed her name, learned the language, and went on to become the world's richest and most powerful woman, ruler of its then-largest empire. She is remembered as Catherine the Great.

There may be no better author than Robert K. Massie to take on the daunting task of documenting this most rare of human lives. Massie, a former president of the Authors Guild, is a seasoned biographer of the 400-year Romanov dynasty, most notably with Peter the Great: His Life and World, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1981 and remains one of the most arresting biographies I've even encountered.

In his page-turning chronicle of Catherine II, Massie (now 82) compiles the most complete and compelling narrative to date of this singular woman. Married to an incompetent man-child who was unwilling or unable to help her fulfill her primary role--giving birth to a son--she ultimately grew to become a trailblazer among monarchs: friend of philosophical giants, incomparable patron of the arts, prosecutor of multiple wars, pioneer of public health, maker of kings, and prodigious serial lover.

Indeed, her accomplishments and shortcomings as an autocrat and a woman make for a remarkable saga, but that's not to say that just any author could do justice to Catherine's lasting legacy. (Many have tried.) Massie situates Catherine's early life and three-decade reign as empress amidst the tumult of the European Enlightenment, enriching his own narrative with telling excerpts of her letters and rich discussions of her political environment and personal motivations.

Put simply, Massie is just the man to take this endlessly fascinating life and craft an utterly memorable book. Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman is a towering accomplishment, one of the year's best books in any genre. --Jason Kirk

Featured Images from Catherine the Great

The imperial coronation crown designed for Catherine. The crown was used in all six of the Romanov coronations that followed.

Catherine's coronation portrait. She is wearing her new imperial crown.

Paul, Catherine's son, in one of the Prussian uniforms he delighted in wearing.

Portrait of Peter III

Gregory Orlov, Catherine's third lover, who was with her for eleven years and helped to put her on the throne.

Gregory Potemkin, covered with medals, titles, land, palaces, and responsibilities by a passionately loving Catherine.


No Excerpt Currently Available

Discussion Questions

Suggested by Members

World politics then and now.
Russia's unique culture.
by wlreader (see profile) 06/17/14

Woman Monarchs
compare and contrast to Elizabeth I
by annick (see profile) 02/22/12

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

"Massie once again delivers a masterful, intimate, and tantalizing portrait of a majestic monarch."—Publishers Weekly, starred review

"[A] rich, nuanced examination of Russia's lone female leader..."—The Daily Beast

“What Catherine the Great offers is a great story in the hands of a master storyteller.”—The Wall Street Journal

“Dense and detailed, enriched by pages of full-color illustrations, Massie’s latest will transport history lovers.” —People

“What a woman, what a world, what a biography.” —USA Today

“[Massie] hasn’t lost his mojo. . . . a consistently nimble and buoyant performances . . . [Massie] has always been a biographer with the instincts of a novelist. He understands plot—fate—as a function of character, and the narrative perspective he establishes and maintains, a vision tightly aligned with that of his subject, convinces a reader he’s not so much looking at Catherine the Great as he is out of her eyes. . . juicy and suspenseful.” — Kathryn Harrison, The New York Times Book Review

“A meticulously, dramatically rendered biography…” —O, The Oprah Magazine

Book Club Recommendations

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
by Elisa J. (see profile) 07/04/20

  "Fascinating read be ready to commit your energy"by Amber L. (see profile) 10/15/14

Everyone who read this book was glad they had but many just didn't make it. It is long and READS like a non-fiction book - heavier than it may have had to be. Very interesting.

  "Catherine the Great"by Helen D. (see profile) 06/17/14

An amazing life coupled with an excellent snapshot of the times. The book is well-written and easy to read.

  "Facinating read"by Brenda B. (see profile) 05/14/13

A very facinating book which gives great insite into Catherine's life. It is a long book, but if you can stick with it, it is really worth it!

  "Catherine the Great"by Anne O. (see profile) 01/19/13

A well written book about a fascinating woman. Full of intrigue and information about 18th Century Europe, especially Russia. Well worth the effort to plough through the cast of characters. Not my top... (read more)

  "Catherine the Great"by Marti S. M. (see profile) 07/11/12

Very informative and interesting biography of the greatest woman to ever rule Russia and her many accomplishments.

  "Great Biography"by Laurie Kaye D. (see profile) 05/31/12

Well written and thorough depiction of Catherine the Great. Took a bit of time to finish...

  "A portrait of a woman that many do not know about ..."by Mary B. (see profile) 05/14/12

I found this biography of Catherine the Great to be very well written and interesting .. and also very informative! Catherine was a fascinating woman and was very liberal and forward-thinking in her views.... (read more)

  "The biography of Russia's great Catherine."by Corrine S. (see profile) 03/25/12

Massie has no equal as a biographer and Catherine was a fascinating leader. Great read.

  "Catherine the Great"by annick k. (see profile) 02/22/12

If you love history, you will love this book. Strong and powerful just like Catherine the Great.

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