Catherine the Great: Portrait of a WomanCatherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

this review refers to the audiobook version (unabridged) of this work.

i bought this audiobook because i’d run across a review of it just gushing with praise for Massie’s writing.

i’m not a history buff (altho i like certain historical periods), nor a fan of things russian (altho now i might become one), nor an admirer of monarchies or ruling elites. but i do like tales of powerful women.

my #1 response to this book is: wow, i wish i could have hung out with Catherine. what a woman! intelligent, erudite, sensitive, sensual, funny. Massie’s portrait of her is so thorough, Catherine really does come across as a whole woman–all the admirable qualities and the not-so-admirable.

the writing as a story is also incredibly accessible. Massie does a great job of informing the reader of the events of Russian history of the time, but never lets the story lose its forward momentum. he keeps the throughline firmly where it belongs: in Catherine’s story itself. i’ve no idea how much of what must be immense complexity of Russian history got left on the cutting room floor to maintain this focus, but speaking as a person with no grip whatsoever on Russian history, i feel he hit a perfect balance.

Massie uses quite a lot of primary source material in this book: writings, letters, political declarations, and so on. doing so gives the book a wonderful immediacy and suspense. one almost begins to wonder how it’s all going to turn out, until one remembers the Russian revolution.

Catherine was truly an extraordinary woman, indisputably. after reading this, i genuinely wish i could have met her. i bet we could have had a good time.

about the narration: the narrator of this book does a generally wonderful job, reading with feeling and sympathy. the book reproduces letters from across europe, and the narrator reads them accented according to their origin, which works out ok sometimes and not so ok others. but on the whole it is a warm and fluid reading.