“Catherine the Great” by Robert K. Massie
Robert K. Massie knows a thing or two about writing biographies. Dude won the Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Peter the Great, so it should be no surprise that his most recent work, “Catherine the Great,” is a spectacularly crafted work of non-fiction.
Catherine (who was actually born Sophia) rises from a lower-level Princess to Empress of Russia, thanks to her savvy understanding that in order to attain the position of power she desires, she must humor her strange and childlike husband, Peter III. (He’d rather play with toy soldiers in bed than deal with more intimate matters. Yeah, he’s a wackjob.) It’s Peter’s assassination that makes her empress, and takes her from being a girl living a Cinderella in jail life to Empress of the land. Along the way, she finds herself gaining a parade of lovers, becoming one of the most prolific art collectors in the world, as well as a political powerhouse.
And, she was a book nerd. (Even a friend of Voltaire.)
And, her crown also had a 389 carat ruby in it. Beat that.
There’s court intrigue, seduction, political plays, and children out of wedlock. Also, there’s a heck of an emotional grande dame/diva in the form of Elizabeth, Peter’s aunt and the previous Empress. Coming off like a nurturing version of Cruella DeVille, Elizabeth is a train wreck of mood swings, ego, and tricks. Still, she remains a better mother to Catherine than Catherine’s actual biological mother Justine. Justine, and her own issues, are also documented in this book. With a history of family issues and complications, Catherine’s struggles with her own children – Nicholas and Alexander, of course – are also detailed.
Massie’s book, pulled from Catherine’s own memoir and letters, is a beast. It’s also fascinating, and a fast read despite it’s size. It’s definitely one of the best biographies I’ve ever read.