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Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman Paperback – September 18, 2012
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“Gripping.”—The New York Times Book Review
“Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman has it all: jealous mothers, indulgent eccentrics, greedy social climbers, intrigue, infidelity, murder, political coups, sex, war and passion.”—Bookreporter
“Exhaustively researched and dramatically narrated.”—The Boston Globe
“[Robert K. Massie] brings great authority to this sweeping account of Catherine and her times. . . . a compelling read.”—The Washington Post
“Meticulously, dramatically rendered.”—O: The Oprah Magazine
“Reads like an epic Russian novel.”—San Antonio Express-News
“Will transport history lovers.”—People
“Massie makes Catherine’s story dramatic and immediate.”—The Kansas City Star
“Graceful and engrossing.”—Minneapolis Star Tribune
“A biography as captivating as its subject.”—MacLean’s
About the Author
- Publisher : Random House Trade Paperbacks; 1st. edition (September 18, 2012)
- Language: : English
- Paperback : 672 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0345408772
- ISBN-13 : 978-0345408778
- Item Weight : 1.59 pounds
- Dimensions : 6.09 x 1.41 x 9.16 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #25,919 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
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Top reviews from the United States
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A contemporary of Montesquieu and Jefferson and loyal correspondent with Voltaire and Diderot, she took the first few steps toward reform of her country’s peculiar form of slavery, serfdom.
Equaling the military success of Peter the Great more than half a century before her, and his opening to Europe with the establishment of St. Petersburg, she extended Russia’s span of control to the Black Sea, humbling the Turkish empire and building Crimea’s two great ports, Odessa and Sebastopol.
She amassed the nearly 4,000 works of art that formed the foundation of the legendary Hermitage Museum and sponsored the creation of Falconet’s towering masterpiece, the equestrian statue of Peter the Great that dominates St. Petersburg.
She had been a minor German princess yanked from childhood at the age of 14 to marry the future tsar of Russia. The then 17-year-old Peter, grandson of Peter the Great, was a boorish fool disfigured by smallpox and obsessed with toy soldiers who slept with her for eight years without once touching her. Virtually imprisoned by his side, she took the time to read every book her friends could sneak to her. The result was an admirably wide-ranging education.
Catherine II, Empress of Russia
In the course of her 67 years, the Empress Catherine II of Russia took a dozen lovers, giving birth to three children, none of them by the one man who was indisputably married to her. The greatest love of her life and possibly her second husband, Gregory Potemkin, was a temperamental genius who elevated her reign with breakthroughs as a military leader, a city-builder, and a master showman.
In an age of celebrated monarchs — Frederick II of Prussia, Maria Theresa of Austria, George III of Britain — she was arguably the greatest. She was, in any case, the richest. More importantly, she displayed consummate skill in moderating the rapidly shifting currents of domestic Russian politics, in evaluating military strategy, and in maneuvering through the shoals of European diplomacy. In short, Catherine the Great was a brilliant exemplar of leadership.
This extraordinary woman is the subject of Robert K. Massie’s brilliant biography, Catherine the Great. Her 33-year reign (1762-96), contemporaneous with the American and French Revolutions, began with a rush of enthusiasm for the principles of the Enlightenment and ended in disillusionment after a succession of tragedies and disappointments.
This is biography at its best.
Nearly half a century ago, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Robert K. Massie gained wide recognition with the publication of Nicholas and Alexandra (1967), a biography of the last tsar and his family, who perished at the hands of Lenin’s Bolshevik soldiers. Tsar Nicholas II was Catherine’s great-great-great-great-grandson, the last of a long line of direct descendants that constituted both the high and the low points of the Romanov Dynasty.
Top reviews from other countries
After Elizabeth's death, Peter became emperor Peter III, but Catherine overthrew him six months later and assumed the imperial title (Peter died suddenly a week later, very probably bumped off by Catherine's supporters, the Orlovs). Catherine was a ruler of contrasts. A follower of Voltaire and Diderot, she was genuinely liberal by the standards of rulers of the time, and made some attempts at constitutional and other political and economic reform, which however she could not progress in the face of opposition from the nobility, on whose support she depended. For an autocrat she was sparing in the use of force and consistently opposed the use of torture, even against her bitterest opponents. However, her liberal instincts weakened in the face of the Pugachev rebellion, whose leader the Cossack Yemelyan Pugachev claimed to be Peter III; and withered almost entirely after the French Revolution, when the fear of a bloody upheaval against established authority caused her to become suspicious of reformers, including the first true Russian reformer Alexander Radischchev. It also led her to what was surely the most outrageous and longest-lasting injustice of her reign, that of the dismemberment and destruction of the Polish state, after its legislature had tried to assert some independence against Russian domination; Poland did not emerge again until after the First World War.
The book also of course charts Catherine's colourful love life and her many favourites, including most prominently Grigory Potemkin, the love of her life, to whom she may have been secretly married; and the other significant relationships (with each of whom she had a child) Stanislaus Poniatowski, whom she later made her puppet king of Poland, and Grigory Orlov, one of the brothers who helped her win the throne. Ironically, history repeated itself and Catherine regarded her son Paul as largely unfit to rule and may have planned to name her eldest grandson, Paul's son Alexander, her successor in his place. She died at the age of 67 in 1796, one of the longest lived rulers of Russia, not a breed known for their longevity. Always a fascinating character, one of the genuine greats of European history.
This is not a breathless hero-worshipping book, but a considered narrative which is, if anything, rather light on psychological interpretation or wondering why the empress took a particular action. With so long and fascinating a life story to deal with, Massie wisely concentrates on the facts of the narrative. But that doesn't mean this is a pedestrian or merely factual account. As a newcomer to Russian history I was utterly engrossed by his descriptions of landscape, or of the atmosphere in St Petersburg and Moscow at certain crucial moments. The glamour of the court, the epic scale of the Russian empire and its different regions, the personality of important players like Catherine herself, or her fantastically capable second-in-command, lover and ally Potemkin, are all written so compellingly that we understand them fully, and are infected by Massie's own deep interest in the Russian empire of the eighteenth century. A different biographer might have been intimidated by the scale of the task, or bogged down by irrelevant details - this one concentrates on the personalities and the impact of particular key events. These include military actions and rebellions, but also Catherine's impact as one of Europe's greatest art collectors, and perhaps most illuminating of all, the intimate connections between her and the monarchs of Poland (an ex-lover), Prussia and Austria.
What interests me most is how differently Catherine behaved and how differently her behaviour was regarded, by comparison with other great queens. Elizabeth I held her power by resolutely remaining a virgin; Catherine, at first married to an idiot whom she supplanted in taking the throne (almost unopposed), took a succession of 'favourites' in a way much like any European king. Everyone understood that these were her lovers, and she had children by some of them, but her own legitimacy as monarch seems never to have been seriously in doubt because of her eminent suitability for the job of governing a vast empire.
It's not a quick read of course, and it's a hefty tome - how could it be otherwise to do justice to its subject? But the great virtue of a Kindle is that a 656-page book becomes portable (and very cheap, in this case). I haven't enjoyed any book as much as this, including novels, for a long time. I expected another of the boring lightweight biographies with which the Kindle Store is littered; instead, I'm grateful to discover a biographer who engrossed me wholly in this fascinating life, and made me sad to turn the last page.
Catherine, or rather, Sophia, was the first child of Prince Christian Augustus of Anhalt-Zerbst, and his unhappy young wife, Joanna Elizabeth of Holstein-Gottorp. Sophia's mother loved her younger brother, who sadly died at only twelve, much more than her daughter. She criticised Sophia constantly and was unimpressed by the social standing she felt marriage had brought her. Sophia gained warmth and encouragement from her tutor; perhaps one reason why she loved learning so much as an adult, and why she craved love.
When she was chosen by the Empress Elizabeth of Russia to marry Grand Duke Peter, sadly, love was not to be gained. Peter was childish, resentful and the two young people were ignorant of the facts of life. With the marriage unconsummated, the heir that Empress Elizabeth craved was not forth-coming. This, then, is the story of a young girl, renamed and married to a man who did not love her, who, nevertheless, had ambition, intelligence and the desire to embrace the country she called her own, in a way that Peter never did.
It is a story of love affairs, of politics, philosophy and power. Mostly, though, Massie does an excellent job in balancing the historical with the personal, so you have the background, but never lose sight of Catherine as a woman. An excellent introduction and a very readable account of her life.
The author starts with Catherine's childhood and her difficult mother who has great ambitions for herself and her daughter. We see how Catherine (or Sophia as she was then) jumps at the marriage in order to escape from home and then finds herself wedded to man who ignores her and has an obsession with soldiers and military strategy. Catherine grows strength and independence during this period despite being watched by the empress's chosen minions and begins to make her own decisions including finding an alternative father for her son who will be the next heir. The author gives the background information about the empress Elizabeth and her aims as well as giving a picture of the court and its politics - whatever you think about Catherine's decision to commit adultery you can see how it was almost inevitable for her survival.
Catherine's decision to seize power and her attempts to be the best ruler possible for Russia are gripping tales and the author makes it clear where Catherine succeeded and where she failed and also where her inability to act stored up problems for the future. He gives as much detail as is known about her lovers during her reign and doesn't just list them but attempts to give them life and to help us to understand why she stayed with them. He explores the possibility that she was secretly married and also her non-sexual relationships with senior political figures.
It is true to say that the author seems to have a soft spot for Catherine and he argues eloquently that she had no option in many circumstances and that what she did was always to benefit Russia. He paints a picture of a strong and ruthless woman who has been wounded by her childhood, her marriage and the separation from her children (we hear nothing of her second son after he is taken away - I assume she never saw him again ? Her mother also disappears from the narrative in the same way and I would like to know what happened to her.).
This is an engaging biography. It is clear and explains background and context well for the general reader. It gives life to the people and issues of the time and helps us understand the nature of Catherine's greatness.