Robert K. Massie, Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman (New York: Random House, 2011), 656 pp., $35.00.
THE SUBTITLE of Robert K. Massie’s biography announces the book’s keynote: it is to be a “portrait of a woman,” perhaps with a nod to Henry James. The epigraph, in the words of the Earl of Buckinghamshire, the British ambassador to Russia in the first years of Catherine’s reign, concurs: “Perhaps the best description of her is that she is a woman as well as an empress.” Massie’s focus is on Catherine’s personal life. More than half the book’s pages are devoted to the period before her accession. Describing Catherine as a woman allows him to exercise the formidable perceptive and stylistic gifts that have distinguished his previous biographies, Nicholas and Alexandra: The Classic Account of the Fall of the Romanov Dynasty and Peter the Great: His Life and World, works that bring Russian rulers and their courts to life and give the reader a sense of witnessing scenes from the past.