Catherine the Great (Massie) - Discussion Questions

Discussion Questions
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Also consider these LitLovers talking points to help get a discussion started for Catherine the Great:

1. The subtitle of Robert Massie's biography is "Portrait of a Woman." Is the author's attempt to fashion his portrait successful? Does he imbue Catherine with enough color—complexity and depth—to bring her to life?

2. Follow-up to Question 1: What kind of a woman was Catherine? How did her upbringing shape the woman she would later become?  Consider, in particular, Catherine's mother, Johanna, and her influence over her daughter, known then as Sophia Augusta Fredericka?

3. How did Johanna, married to a minor German prince, manage to jostle her daughter to the forefront of European princesses in order to catch the eye of the Russian empress? Talk about Johanna's stratagems.

4. Follow-up to Question 3: What was it about Sophia that made the empress take note? Which of sophia's virtues impressed Elizabeth and inspired her to consider Sophia a suitable match for her nephew?

5. Massie says that Sophia understood early on that people preferred "to talk about themselves rather than anything else." How did Catherine use that insight to benefit herself—and ultimately to gain and maintain power over others? Was Catherine's use of this basic human trait cold and calculated? Or was it a result of her own sympathetic personality which she simply put to use? Or...something else?

6. Discuss young Peter and his ineffectual qualities—both as husband and czar? What mistakes did he make in his short reign? Consider, especially his desire to remake both the Russian church and army.

7. How do you view Catherine's coup d'etat and arrest of her husband? Were her actions justified? Regarding Peter's death, what do you make of Massie's assertion that "the circumstances and cause of death, and the intentions and degree of responsibility of those involved, can never be known.” Is Massie exculpating Catherine and her involvement because, as a biographer, he has lost objectivity for his subject? Or is his assessment correct?

8. Catherine made it her practice to appear in uniform at military parades, to wear plain apparel in public, to mingle with her subjects in the park, and to inoculate herself with a new, untried small pox vaccine. Talk about how she used those actionas as symbols in order to secure her position as "the mother of all Russia." Were her actions born of manipulation...or of a genuine understanding of the needs of her subject?

9. Massie writes that Catherine's need for adulation from her subjects grew out of a "permanent wound" as a result of her mother's rejection. Do you agree? Or is it an oversimplification?

10. Talk about the Pugachev revolt and its outcome. What effect did the rebellion have on Catherine's idealism, her desire to end serfdom and relax her hold over her subjects.

11. Overall, how would you describe Catherine's reign as Czarina of the Russian people? What were her greatest accomplishments...and her failures?

12. What did you know about Catherine the Great before you began this biography? Were your views of her altered by the end? If so, in what way?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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