Book Review: "Catherine the Great" by Robert K. Massie


So let me tell you about Catherine the Great. She's every nerdy girl who survives by believing she's meant to rule the world. She has no voice, no power, but still reads every book that comes her way, forges relationships with her professors (in her case, Voltaire and Rousseau), and bides her time. Against all odds, she actually becomes queen.

She turns Russia into the first Enlightened European nation; what's merely philosophy in France becomes law in Russia. She establishes the first democratic body in the West, which is doubly astonishing for a woman with a firmly held belief in constitutional monarchy. She funded the arts out of a belief that art reflects humanity, not her own ego (though she had plenty of that, to be true). She knows she's hot stuff, and leaves a trail of broken-hearted lovers behind her.

I would tell you more, but you should read it yourself. Historian Robert K. Massie brings a world to life that barely even exists in our imagination; this is not the Russia of Tsars or communism, or even the Russia of Tolstoy or Dostoevsky.

Somewhere towards the end of this complicated life, dearest Ekaterina takes a turn toward radical conservatism; a lifelong commitment to human rights and just leadership suddenly shifts into angry despotism, and only here does Massie's narration fail. He hints at the reasons for her transformation, but never gets to the root of it. We know its more complicated than the loss of Potemkin or the loss of Poland or even the loss of her entire family.

But until that point, which we come to in the last 30 pages or so, the book is pure perfection. Massie aims to set the story of this great woman straight, and admirably succeeds.

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