Catherine the Great: Portrait of a WomanHardback
- Publisher: Random House Inc
- Format: Hardback | 656 pages
- Dimensions: 157mm x 236mm x 41mm | 1,157g
- Publication date: 2 January 2012
- Publication City/Country: New York
- ISBN 10: 0679456724
- ISBN 13: 9780679456728
- Illustrations note: COLOR PHOTO INSERT; 4 MAPS
- Sales rank: 57,350
The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Peter the Great, Nicholas and Alexandra, "and" The Romanovs "returns with another masterpiece of narrative biography, the extraordinary story of an obscure young German princess who traveled to Russia at fourteen and rose to become one of the most remarkable, powerful, and captivating women in history. Born into a minor noble family, Catherine transformed herself into Empress of Russia by sheer determination. Possessing a brilliant mind and an insatiable curiosity as a young woman, she devoured the works of Enlightenment philosophers and, when she reached the throne, attempted to use their principles to guide her rule of the vast and backward Russian empire. She knew or corresponded with the preeminent historical figures of her time: Voltaire, Diderot, Frederick the Great, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, Marie Antoinette, and, surprisingly, the American naval hero, John Paul Jones. Reaching the throne fired by Enlightenment philosophy and determined to become the embodiment of the "benevolent despot" idealized by Montesquieu, she found herself always contending with the deeply ingrained realities of Russian life, including serfdom. She persevered, and for thirty-four years the government, foreign policy, cultural development, and welfare of the Russian people were in her hands. She dealt with domestic rebellion, foreign wars, and the tidal wave of political change and violence churned up by the French Revolution that swept across Europe. Her reputation depended entirely on the perspective of the speaker. She was praised by Voltaire as the equal of the greatest of classical philosophers; she was condemned by her enemies, mostly foreign, as "the Messalina of the north." Catherine's family, friends, ministers, generals, lovers, and enemies--all are here, vividly described. These included her ambitious, perpetually scheming mother; her weak, bullying husband, Peter (who left her lying untouched beside him for nine years after their marriage); her unhappy son and heir, Paul; her beloved grandchildren; and her "favorites"--the parade of young men from whom she sought companionship and the recapture of youth as well as sex. Here, too, is the giant figure of Gregory Potemkin, her most significant lover and possible husband, with whom she shared a passionate correspondence of love and separation, followed by seventeen years of unparalleled mutual achievement. The story is superbly told. All the special qualities that Robert K. Massie brought to "Nicholas and Alexandra" and "Peter the Great" are present here: historical accuracy, depth of understanding, felicity of style, mastery of detail, ability to shatter myth, and a rare genius for finding and expressing the human drama in extraordinary lives. History offers few stories richer in drama than that of Catherine the Great. In this book, this eternally fascinating woman is returned to life.
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Robert K. Massie was born in Lexington, Kentucky, and studied American history at Yale and European history at Oxford, which he attended as a Rhodes Scholar. He was president of the Authors Guild from 1987 to 1991. His previous books include "Nicholas and Alexandra, Peter the Great: His Life and World "(for which he won a Pulitzer Prize for biography)," The Romanovs: The Final Chapter, ""Dreadnought: Britain, Germany, and the Coming of the Great War, "and" Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea."
By Julie Smith 04 Feb 2012
I don't read a lot of biographies, mainly because they tend to be dry and difficult to really get into.
This biography is a wonderful exception. Written as a narrative biography and impeccably researched, you will come away feeling as though you know almost everything there is to know about Catherine the Great - her life, her marriage(s)? (there is one that may or may not have been a marriage - Mr. Massie offers up excerpts from letters that indicate that she may have had a second marriage), her lovers, her family, her first husband Peter - his personality, overthrow, imprisonment and subsequent death - her children, the intrigues between Prussia, Austria, France, England and Turkey - just a plethora of information that includes information gleaned from letters, writing, and other historical accounts.
Peter didn't consummate his marriage to Catherine for nine years
None of Catherine's children were biologically Peter's
Elizabeth, a fickle empress, kept Peter and Catherine under her thumb with harsh overseers and virtually no outside sommunication
Catherine's own written memoirs end on her 29th birthday
When Catherine first took the throne, she had a goal of gradually freeing the serfs, but found that it would be almost impossible to do. The French Revolution and the mayhem and executions that followed put that idea completely out of her mind.
Catherine may or may not have been married to Gregory Potemkin
I had only a few quibbles with this novel - there were a couple of instances of fact repeating, where something would be stated on one page and a few pages later, the same thing would be repeated. There was also mention of her three children, all born from different lovers, but two of them disappear from the pages, so much so that midway through:
Except for her son, Paul, and, later, her grandchildren, she had no family, and to Grimm alone she could pour out her thoughts and feelings as she might have done with a fond uncle or an older brother.
I would have liked to know a bit more about what happened to her other son and daughter.
The book almost faithfully follows a chronological sequence, except toward the end, when quite a few non-related items that weren't mentioned earlier in the reading are gone into.
I applaud this book as a wonderful, fully fact-based representation of a fascinating woman.
QUOTES (from an ARC; may be different in final copy):
On Diderot: The man she saw before her possessed a "high brow receding on a half-bald head; large rustic ears and a big bent nose, firm mouth ..[and] brown eyes, heavy and sad, as if recalling unrecallable errors, or realizing the indestructibility of superstition, or noting the high birth rate of simpletons."
On love: Desire for love and sex played little part in attracting her lovers to her; they were motivated by ambition, desire for prestige, wealth, and, in some cases, power. Catherine knew this.
It was Catherine's wish, however, that the deterioration of their private relationship be kept hidden. Peter, lacking both the inner resources and Catherine's consuming ambition, could put on no such show. Smallpox had delivered a shattering blow to his mental as well as his physical health; his gross disfigurement had affected his psychological balance.
Catherine soon realized that the harsh treatment of Maria Zhukova was a clear signal to everyone in the young court that those who were suspected of closeness to either Catherine or Peter were liable to find themselves, on one pretext or another, transferred, dismissed, disgraced, or even imprisoned.
BOOK RATING: 4.75 out of 5 stars
PRAISE FOR CATHERINE THE GREAT "Massie once again delivers a masterful, intimate, and tantalizing portrait of a majestic monarch.""--Publishers Weekly," starred review "[A] rich, nuanced examination of Russia's lone female leader...""--The Daily Beast " "What "Catherine the Great" offers is a great story in the hands of a master storyteller.""--The Wall Street Journal" "Dense and detailed, enriched by pages of full-color illustrations, Massie's latest will transport history lovers." "--People" "What a woman, what a world, what a biography." "--USA Today" "[Massie] hasn't lost his mojo. . . . a consistently nimble and buoyant performances . . . [Massie] has always been a biographer with the instincts of a novelist. He understands plot--fate--as a function of character, and the narrative perspective he establishes and maintains, a vision tightly aligned with that of his subject, convinces a reader he's not so much looking at Catherine the Great as he is out of her eyes. . . juicy and suspenseful." "--" Kathryn Harrison, "The New York Times Book Review" "A meticulously, dramatically rendered biography..." "--O," The Oprah Magazine "What a Woman!" "--Elle" magazine "In "Catherine the Great," Massie has created a sensitive and compelling portrait not just of a Russian titan, but also of a flesh-and-blood woman.""--Newsweek" "[A] meticulously detailed work about Catherine and her world...Massie makes Catherine's story as gripping as that of any novel. His book does full justice to a complex and fascinating woman and to the age in which she lived." "--""Historical Novels Review"