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Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman (edition 2011)

by Robert K. Massie

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1,313965,926 (4.18)175
Member:thecaptivereader
Title:Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman
Authors:Robert K. Massie
Info:Random House (2011), Hardcover, 656 pages
Collections:Read but unowned
Rating:****1/2
Tags:Non-fiction, Biography, Topic: Royalty, Source: books as food, Location: Russia, Read in 2012

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Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie

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Showing 1-5 of 95 (next | show all)
It seems like it's probably difficult to humanize a larger-than-life historical figure like Catherine the Great without either giving in to rumors and gossip, or practically deifying her. The author here manages it, though. Catherine was born a princess to a minor German principality, and probably wouldn't have made any big waves in history if not for the fact that Russia desperately needed a bride for the heir to their throne, and he had also been raised in Germany. At 14, Catherine (then Sophie) was trundled off to Russia to meet her future husband, Peter. She agreed to convert to Eastern Orthodox and the rest, as they say, was history.

Her practicality in dealing with a husband who was childish in the extreme was partially a self-preservation mechanism and partially a manifestation of her own ambition to sit on the throne one day. By the time the title of Emperor eventually fell to Peter, it was clear that he was not the ruler Russia wanted or needed, and Catherine took over. It was quite a bold act for a woman, and for a German one who had no direct claim to power at that. She had become Russian, though, spending long years learning the language and attitudes of her adopted country. One of Peter's many failings was his insistence on remaining German. Catherine was mother to the heir (Paul, officially although questionably Peter's son), but she ruled as Empress outright rather than as regent.

Most interesting to me were her early years, when she showed a level of poise and self-assurance that is hard to fathom, up to the early part of her reign. As she became settled in her position and was looking to the future, wondering who was capable of taking over for her, I found the writing (or perhaps just the story) got a little stagnant. Overall, though, I really enjoyed how the author showed Catherine's humanity, including her need to have a romantic relationship at all times and her willingness to laugh and have fun, without taking anything away from the force that she was in power. ( )
  ursula | Jan 16, 2015 |
Interesting biography about the life of the Empress Catherine II of Russia in the late 1700s. This is a very long book and it got bogged down in a lot of details. I probably would not recommend it unless there was a special interest in this time period or region. ( )
  cindyb29 | Jan 13, 2015 |
I've had Massie's biography of Peter the Great on my shelf for some time, and probably should have read it first, but I came across this in audiobook form at the library.

Catherine (nee Sophia) was an usurper, deposing her incompetent husband, Peter III. Massie appears a little too enamored with her colorful love life, and cuts short some of the achievements that made Catherine great -- such as bringing Russia out of the feudal era and bringing an enlightened Russia into equality with the rest of Europe. Militarily, she expanded the empire to the Black Sea, first gaining concessions from Ottoman Turkey and then defending them in war. Catherine was a very intelligent, well educated women that had the fortune of having a lot of strong, loyal men who weren't quite as sharp and could be counted on to do her bidding (real or imagined -- it seems she really didn't want them to kill her husband, Peter).

Catherine was the third and last empress of Russia. Peter the Great's widow, Anne, was the first. Upon her death, her son, still a child, was imprisoned by Elizabeth, Peter the Great's grand daughter who enjoyed a long reign as empress. After Peter III's brief reign where he sidled up with state enemy Frederick II (The Great) from Prussia and abandoning a long alliance with Austria; Catherine took firm control and held it through her 34 year reign. The change during this span was profound -- but not always in the interests of the clergy or the nobility and after her death laws were changed that ensured Catherine was the last female ruler of that nation.

In war, peace and culture, Catherine the Great's reign matched much of what was going on elsewhere in Europe. It was a golden age for their culture; starting with the Napoleonic Wars fought by her grandson Alexander, Russia started having a hard time keeping up with the rest of Europe, eventually becoming a classless bully of an autocracy under Stalin and his successors. One wonders how European history would have turned out had Catherine's successors continued her initiatives. ( )
  JeffV | Dec 20, 2014 |
I enjoy Massie's writing (I've also read Peter the Great). I highly recommend this book for anybody interested in strong women or history, or a good biography. I loved this story of a girl plucked from the lower nobility to become wife and queen consort to the next in line for the Russian throne. Through astute maneuvering, she grabbed the reins of power from her hopeless husband and guided Russia for more than 30 years. ( )
1 vote AuntieClio | Dec 14, 2014 |
Sophia Augusta Fredericka (later renamed Catherine) was born in 1729, the daughter of a minor noble in a minor German kingdom. She was chosen at age fourteen by Elizabeth, Empress of Russia, to be the bride of her son Peter and travelled to Russia with her determined and scheming mother. But in a Russian court full of ambition and jealousies, Sophia managed to maneuver herself onto the throne in 1762 through her charm and intelligence (and a generally bloodless coup). Once there, and inspired by the enlightenment philosophies of Voltaire, Diderot, and others, she sought to institute many changes in a society considered backward and primitive by other European countries and rulers. And while her sweeping and lofty reforms were rejected, she managed to leave her imprint on Russia in so many other ways throughout her 34 years as ruler – so much so that her people called her “Great.”

Mr. Massie writes an engaging and fascinating biography of Catherine II, and makes her intensely (and sometimes uncomfortably) human in the process. He brings her to life as a young woman in a foreign court faced with earning acceptance from the Empress, her future husband, power-hungry courtiers, and the Russian people. In her first few years on the throne she tried to gradually eliminate serfdom (slavery) but was opposed by the nobility (to which she owed in large degree her ascension to power). Interestingly, she also found that the serfs themselves were not progressive thinking enough to imagine such freedom – a rather rude awakening for her enlightenment beliefs – instead being more concerned about broken fences and small grievances like that. Later her views on emancipating the serfs turned completely around when she saw the violence and chaos of the French Revolution and the parallels to the Pugachev Rebellion she herself had faced. Another aspect of her life that was explained in a way that made her a sympathetic character was the different "favorites" (lovers) she had and her deep-seated desire just to be loved.

With excerpts from Catherine's own writings this bio offers a very insightful look into the politics and intrigue and the lives of European rulers and nobles during the latter half of the 1700s, and for being such a long book (nearly 600 pages before the index and bibliography) it's incredibly interesting. I thought pedigree charts explaining the relationships of the characters would have been helpful (mine was an advance copy from Amazon Vine, so perhaps the final book has them) and it would have been nice if a little more background had been given on nations outside Russia (only Poland and the French Revolution are explained in much detail, but little on Prussia, Germany, and Austria). Still, this was a remarkable book and didn't often show life as a princess or queen in a very charming manner. I'll definitely be looking to add Mr. Massie’s other books on the Romanovs and Russian history to my reading list.

(Modified from the original review posted on 11/5/11 on my blog: bookworm-dad.blogspot.com) ( )
  J.Green | Aug 26, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 95 (next | show all)
Imperial biographer Robert K. Massie paints a satisfying portrait of Catherine the woman and Catherine the ruler, and her attempts to modernize and westernize Russia.
 

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Robert K. Massieprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Deakins, MarkNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Epigraph
"the best description of her is that she is a women as well as an empress." - The Earl of Buckinghamshire, British ambassador to Russia, 1762-65
Dedication
For Deborah.

And for Bob Loomis. Twenty-four years, four books. Thank you.
First words
Prince Christian Augustus of Anhalt-Zerbst was hardly distinguishable in the swarm of obscure, penurious noblemen who cluttered the landscape and society of politically fragmented eighteenth-century German.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Book description
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.

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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This narrative biography tells 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.… (more)

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