Catherine the Great

By Robert K. Massie,

Book cover of Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman

Book description

The fascinating true story behind HBO's Catherine the Great starring Dame Helen Mirren as Catherine the Great.

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…

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Why read it?

5 authors picked Catherine the Great as one of their favorite books. Why do they recommend it?

Before reading this book, I did not know that much about Catherine the Great. 

I knew that Euler-the dominant force in 1700’s mathematics-spent the last part of his life under her sponsorship.  In addition, a few years ago, I enjoyed watching on Netflix a Russian-made mini-series on her early life. So last year, when I saw that this book was a Kindle Daily Deal, I was more than willing to risk a few bucks. 

Her story is fascinating. She somehow managed to turn herself from being mere the daughter of a minor Prussian nobleman to becoming the empress of all…

This was a page-turner and a great introduction to Russian history. Massie described her so vividly that years later, I can still visualize Catherine. The most fascinating aspect of the book for me was how a German child named Sophie reinvents herself to become Catherine the Great, the longest-serving Russian empress. 

I was once casually asked, “Who is Sophie Frederikke Auguste, Prinzessin von Anhalt-Zerbst?" Curious, shortly thereafter I discovered her identity in Robert Massie’s extraordinary biography of her whom history remembers as Catherine the Great, the last Empress Regnant of Russia. Daughter of an obscure German prince, through the tireless efforts of her mother Sophie, arrived in Russia in her early teens with a prospect of marriage to the then heir to the throne.

I find Massie a brilliant chronicler; he fascinates me – almost as much as does Catherine herself. He effortlessly writes non-fiction as were he a novelist,…

While the connection between Sweden and France played a bigger part in my own book, Russia was another major player in Gustavian politics. Bribery, spies, influence peddlers, and diplomatic posturing were all part of the scene in Stockholm. To make it even juicier, Catherine the Great was Gustav III’s cousin! She had her eye on Sweden as an extension of her empire and arranged to have her 13-year-old granddaughter marry Gustav III’s son. This brilliant biography was a delightful period rabbit hole to dive into when primary research was done. 

Because it’s the celebrated biography of a remarkable young woman born into a minor German noble family, who, through her ingenuity and determination, transformed herself into the Empress of Russia, defined a Golden Age in her adopted country’s history and culture, and became one of the most influential figures in late 18th c. Europe. Robert Massie’s masterful narrative encompasses dozens of vivid portraits of Catherine’s associates and places them into a sweeping historical canvas.

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