Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman - Robert K. Massie I am impressed. Catherine the Great lived from 1729-1796. She was 14 when she first came to Russia, This book covers this entire time period meticulously. I understand how her childhood experiences came to shape her as an adult. I understand her need for love and why she came to have twelve lovers. At the same time she was motivated to seek power. She played a huge role in European history. All of this history is detailed in the book. You meet her as a person and as a leader. Everything one could possibly wish to know about her life is in this book........except gossip that is unsubstantiated.

Do yourself a favor - read the book! You will learn a lot and enjoy yourself most of the time. I think every time you reread the book you would enjoy it more. The parts that were most difficult for me where those where my knowledge is lacking.


Through 45%: The NYT Sunday Book Review has an article on the book this week. Here is the link: I must warn you that there are spoilers. One reason alone to read this book is to laugh at crazy Peter. I mean this guy is so juvenile, it is mind boggling. In to his 20s he plays with toy soldiers in his/their bed. He even has real people marching up and down his room. Marching drills, tight uniforms, whips........ Is he real? Unfortunately - yes!


At 35%, the beginning of Part IV: I believe this book will appeal to a different group of people than those who appreciated Nicholas and Alexandra. Catherine the Great is a strong politically minded person. The book does not focus upon a child with hemophilia. Although you do learn details of Catherine's childhood, and it certainly is essential to know these details to understand who she became as an adult, politics must be the central theme of this book.

Empress Elizabeth is reaching the end of her life. Catherine, who has never been allowed contact with her children, is now considering her next step toward power. It is power that she seeks.

Panin, believing that Peter was unfit to rule and should somehow be removed, wished Paul (Catherine's first child) to be placed on the throne as a boy emperor with Catherine as regent. Catherine pretended to agree with Panin; "I had rather be the mother than the wife of the emperor," she told him. In reality, she had no desire to be subordinated to her own child; her ambition was to occupy the throne herself. (35%)

If you are not interested in a woman seeking power and a place on the political stage, perhaps one should look elsewhere. I am curious to know how many stars I will finally give this book on completion.


I have now read 30% of the book. I am somewhere in Part III. The difficult job of keeping track of who is who is not a problem any more. For me, I get most enjoyment from the book when I am left undisturbed. What I want to mention here is that perhaps you think that life of the nobility is a piece of cake. Forget that. There is no way you will envy their lives. I do not want to tell you why I say this, because that would be a spoiler. I will give you one example. Moscow in the 1750s was a city constructed primarily of wooden houses. Sometimes the fancy houses were painted to look like stone. Even the nobility lived in houses of wood. Houses that were cold and infested with vermin. Even the palaces burned. Yes, I think it was in 1753 that the palace where Elizabeth and Peter and Catherine were residing burned. Then they moved to the governess' and governor's house, the house of their arch-enemies, the Choglokovas Only these two were no longer arch-enemies at this point. The description of their residence, that one would assume would be of high quality, is utterly deplorable! During the fire, what is most interesting is to observe what valuables are "lost/saved" by each. Elizabeth lost the most - thousands and thousands of dresses. Peter, he was embarassed when a cabinet was hauled out of his room and it opened with liquor and wine bottles spilling out over the mud. And Catherine? Her pile of books by Voltaire and other such authors - they were saved. The articles most important to each says volumes! The author has direct quotes from existing diaries.

Catherine's birthing experience and the way her child is kept from her are heart wrenching, even considering usual customs of the times. Contact between mother and child was made impossible. Elizabeth had brought Peter and Catherine to Russia. It took years for an heir to be "produced"! Now Catherine and Peter had little significance to Elizabeth. They role was finished, as far as Elizabeth was concerned.

I find the book fascinating. Massie's choice of the specific details to include are balanced, descriptive and engaging.


I have begun part two and am at 15%: Oh, I so liked Empress Elizabeth, but now I despise her. Sophia, now called Catherine after her official conversion to the Orthodox faith, has married Grand Duke Peter Ulrich. Neither her or haer husband were told absolutely anything about sex. This is rather ironic given all the hullabaloo and planning behind the wedding! Rather essential bits were skipped! What is shocking is Elizabeth's volatile personality. Fortunately, Catherine is intelligent and is learning quickly. She is only seventeen and completely on her own. In a sense she has always been on her own with so one tor rely on since her birth. Lives are destroyed on the whims of Empress Elizabeth.

Met me take this opportunity to give you an excerpt concerning Empress Elizabeth:

...Elizabeth, whose concerns and fears were personal: she feared for the security of her person, her throne, and the future of her branch of the dynasty. In her plans, of course, Catherine, Peter, and their future child were of supreme importance. For this reason over the years ahead, Elizabeth's attitudes toward both the young husband and the young wife oscillated dramatically between affection, concern, disappointment, impatience, frustration and rage.

Not only in appearnace but in character, Elizabeth was her parents' child. She was the daughter of Russia's greatest tsar and his peasant wife, who became Empress Catherine I. Elizabeth was tall, like her father, and she resembled him in her energy, ardent temper, and sudden impulsive behavior. Like her mother, she was quickly moved to sympathy and to lavish spontaneous generosity. But her gratitude, like her other qualities, lacked moderation and permanence.

I appreciate how the author summarizes the descriptive incidents previously depicted. The reader is first part of the whirlwind events and then stands back and looks at what these events say about the individuals.

I do not think I have properly shown you Elizabeth's character/ Listen to this:

To maintain her dazzling preeminence at court, Elizabeth made certain that no other woman present could shine as brightly. Sometimes, this required draconian coercive measures. During the winter of 1747, the empress decreed that all of her ladies-in-waiting must shave their heads and wear black wigs until their hair grew in again. The women wept but obeyed. Catherine assumed that her own turn would come, but to her surprise, she was spared: Elizabeth explained that Catherine's hair was just growing back after an illness. Soon, the reason for the general pruning became known: after a previous festive occasion, Elizabeth and her maids had been unable to brush a heavy powder out of her hair, which became gray, coagulated, and gummy. The only remedy was to have her head shaved. And because she refused to be the only bald woman at court, bushels of hair were cropped.

What do you think of her now? I have seen tender moments too.


I have read 12% of the book. I am somewhere in chapter 11. I have noted that several say that alhough they enjoy the book, they put it aside and read other lighter books occasionally. I take the opposite approach. I came to a point where the future husband of Sophia, who will later come to be called Catherine, died....... What! I obviously had something confused. The truth is that if you bother to try and understand the different family members and how they are all related, you do need to pay attention. If I had chosen to put the book aside for a while, I would have had to start over from the beginning. My head leaks. Instead I backtracked to the beginning of the chapter and determined that I would sit and pay close attention for at least one hour. No breaks, nothing, just reading. And this did the trick. That was a different Peter, who died! I would not recommend reading this book on a noisy metro, or in a noisy room while the kids are looking at TV. No, read it when you can pay attention, at least in those parts where the complicated family relations are discussed. You run into such sections and then you do need to pay attention. Other sections are not at all as difficult.

Or maybe you don't have to pay close attention. What I most enjoy in this book so far is the way the author describes the people in a nuanced manner. Take Empress Elizabeth. She was the daughter of Peter the Great. She did not seek power. She was vivacious and fun loving. Yes and had several affairs. But no kids. However there comes a point where either the regent Anna Leopoldovna is going to stick her in a nunnery or she had to fight for the reign. She had no intention of sitting in a nunnery. When she fights to become Empress you are rooting for her. As all people, she had kind, wonderful characteristics and others qualities less admirable. You see all the different sides of her personality. It is the author's ability to show us who the characters really are that I most enjoy. So maybe you can just forget the difficult sections that are hard to follow. That is another approach.

You will come to understand Elizabeth and Sophia and her future husband Grand Duke Peter Ulrich. It is important to know of what happened to them in their childhood. They both had very difficult family situations. Wait till you hear of how Sophia's mother, Johanna, treats her daughter. When they leave on a secret trip, in the winter to travel to St. Petersburg absolutely no clothes are bought for Sophia. Johanna spent the money on clothes for herself! Sophia was off to meet her future betrothed with the fewest of garments imagineable. This is just one indication of the horrible mother/ daughter relationship. And Peter, put under the supervision of Brümmer. You will be shocked. Peter is not particularly handsome or stable, but you will understand why. He was practically starved to death as punishment for slight misdemeanours. Both Sophia and Peter are starving for kindness. I will not say more, but their lives are very interesting. I have only come to the point where they are betrothed. Peter is still sexually immature so marriage must be delayed. But the clock is ticking for Elizabeth. There are scenes that will make you laugh - men dressed as women and women as men and dancers falling over each other! All so that Elizabeth can display her shapely legs. Well, read the book and you will understnad.

So I like the book. Either you see that you are left in peace to understand the sections that are a bit complicated, or you don't worry too much and just enjoy that which is easily engaging. Your choice depends on your own personality. But don't skip the book! So far, I think it is fascinating.


BEFORE READING: This WILL be available in Kindle format on November 8, 2011!!!!!! YAY! Does fussing help? I have also requested his Peter the Great book on Kindle......