Great Catherine's Many Dimensions

With his usual literary lilt, Robert K. Massie captures Catherine the Great's stirring story. But by focusing on her personal life, he slights her role as absolute monarch obsessed with the enlightenment and power of her adopted Russia.

Issue: Mar-Apr 2012

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.

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