Catherine the Great by Robert Massie

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: She’s not even Russian! 

Quick synopsis: An in-depth biography of Catherine the Great of Russia. 

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: There is a rumor Catherine died while having sex with a horse. No, she didn’t, you sicko.  

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Catherine is one of the greatest (if not the greatest) monarchs in Russian history. She wasn’t Russian. She was Prussian.  

My Take: Catherine the Great was a badass. She really earned her epithet. She was thrown into Russian politics at a very young age as a Prussian. Bear in mind, Russian politics was ruthless and there was a high probability of ending up dead. Drop a foreign woman into the middle of this and it can be a rough situation. 

She didn’t even know the language when she arrived. She also hated her betrothed. Catherine did what she would become famous for throughout her life. She picked up books and started reading. She learned Russian as soon as possible and immersed herself in her adoptive home. It made her very popular to the masses and made it much easier for her to depose her husband.

Yes, she led a coup and took the throne. She then proceeded to be an enlightened despot. It is an oxymoron, but she is one of the few who makes it seem less so. She modernized Russia in many ways and made education the forefront. 

Don’t be fooled into thinking she was a saint, though. She was enlightened, but she was a despot. After all, she probably had her husband murdered. She wasn’t especially kind to the Jews and war was never far away. 

What I always found most fascinating was her love life. After her marriage (ahem) ended, Catherine would take on various lovers the rest of her life. However, she never (officially, maybe) married any publicly. She was her own woman back when that was unheard of. 

Verdict: This is a big book, but it is so well done you won’t notice. 

If You Liked This Try: 

  • Andrew Roberts, Napoleon 
  • Ron Chernow, Hamilton and Washington 
  • Robert Massie, Peter the Great 
  • Kristen Downey, Isabella 

Special mention: “The Great” on Hulu. It’s loosely based on Catherine’s life but more of a farce. It is hilarious, though. It also gets the history right way more than you would expect.

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Catherine the Great by Robert Massie
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