While there are numerous biographies about Catherine the Great (I've had one sitting unread on my Kindle for about two years), I read this one by Robert K. Massie because it was for book group. He based the book on many of her letters, so the book is from her viewpoint. This skewed the book a little in her favor, but it was really interesting to read her actual words.
The first thing I need to say about Catherine the Great was that she was a freakin' badass. I went into this book completely blind to her history, and Russian history previous to the Revolution in 1917, for that matter. (For some reason, that time period fascinated me when I was around 11. I randomly picked Nicholas and Alexandra out of my parent's bookshelf and read it in a weekend. I was in the 5ht grade, and told my teacher about it when I went back to school. She didn't believe I read the book. Teachers - if a student tells you they read an interesting, non-assigned book - believe them.)
Anyway - back to Catherine being a badass. Here is her story in a nutshell:
- Born a minor German princess.
- Gets shipped off to Russia at 14 to marry the heir to the Russian throne (who is her second cousin) and produce an heir. She never sees her father again.
- Marries Peter III, who is the grandson of Peter the Great. It is not a happy marriage for many reasons, but two primary are that he loves someone else, and she thinks he's an idiot. While the history books claim they had two children, there is evidence that their marriage was never consummated.
- Peter III becomes Emperor after 16 years of marriage. Catherine believes he is going to divorce her and marry his mistress. And, as previously mentioned, she thinks he's an idiot and will be a weak leader.
- Six months into Peter III's reign, Catherine stages a coup d'état while her husband is out of town. Remember - she's German and has no claim to the throne. But since she is the mother of the heir, Paul, (though Paul might not be Peter's child), and she knows she'll be a better leader, she gets the nobility, clergy, and military on her side and takes the throne. See - Badass. Peter was imprisoned and was assassinated soon after. Whether Catherine was to blame for the assassination hasn't been determined. (Some reports claim suicide.)
- She then led Russia into what is known as the "Golden Age." She was heavily influenced by the ideals of the Enlightenment, and was a proponent of science, literature and art.
- She also expanded Russia by 200,000 square miles. Part of this land came from partitioning Poland, whose King was put on the throne by Catherine and was her ex-lover.
And those are just the highlights. She led a fascinating life, and I'm annoyed I didn't know more about her when I was a child. She was a "take no shit" kind of woman, and while I don't agree with some of her tactics, she did what she thought was best for Russia, and I appreciate her tenacity and dedication to her country. Though, as being from Polish descent, I'm a little annoyed about the partitioning of Poland thing.
While reading this book took several months, and I think it could have been edited by about 100 pages, I highly recommend reading it. Yes, it got a little dry here and there, but Catherine's story is so fascinating that the dry parts don't last very long. If you like history - or badass women - read this book.
End Note: I just spoke to my Mom and had her find the Nicholas and Alexandra book from home. It's written by Robert K. Massie! What a coincidence!