Catherine the Great: the Book and the Miniseries

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman

By Robert K. Massie

Random House (2012)

Book Review

In reading this book, I was quite shocked to realize how little I learned about Russian history in the course I took as an undergraduate.

The Russian history class I took in college also never made it completely clear that Russian serfdom was a form of slavery (the word “slave” is derived from the medieval Latin word for “Slav”) virtually identical to that in the early US. Very different from medieval feudalism, serfdom wasn’t adopted in Russia until the 16th century. Its primary purpose was to prevent farm laborers from walking away from unfavorable working conditions. In Russia, serf owners could sell them away from their families, choose who they married, and force them to work in mines and factories. They were also legally permitted to engage in coercive sex with female serfs.

Russian serfs were emancipated in 1861, two years before Lincoln issued the emancipation proclamation.

For some reason, there was also no mention in our class of the Pugachechina. This was , the Pugachev-led revolt of 1773-74 (which made it contemporary with both the French and American revolutions). Led by disaffected Cossacks and serfs, it was the most violent internal upheaval in Russian history. At the the time the Russian army was embroiled in a war with Turkey, and the Pugachechina very nearly succeed.

In contrast the 1917 October Revolution (according to Massie, Trotsky and John Reed – see Report by US Journalist Who Witnessed Russian Revolution and What We Didn’t Learn About the Russian Revolution in School) was a peaceful coup d’etat to remove from power the Duma ministers who had replaced Nicholas II in February 1917.

At present British Actress Helen Mirren is starring in the miniseries Catherine the Great streaming on HBO:


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