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

by Robert K. Massie

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1,176876,861 (4.18)155
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 86 (next | show all)
Beautifully written story of a most remarkable woman. Massie places us firmly and sympathetically in the life of Sophia, to become Catherine II of Russia. Despite the years covered and the in-depth attention to Russia's legal, political, and military history, the book reads easily and the reader becomes enmeshed in Catherine. I found her, and the story, quite fascinating. Highly recommended. ( )
  wareagle78 | Jul 21, 2014 |
Few studies offer its disciples more opportunity for misguided assumptions than history. Existing records are only as accurate at the writer (and are often as biased). And more often then not, the fragile word and questionable word simply does not exist. The realm of biography heightens these perils as researches move from listing mere action (complex enough) to answering the immortal question: what was that person thinking?

As a biographer, [a:Robert K. Massie|40882|Robert K. Massie|http://photo.goodreads.com/authors/1321494482p2/40882.jpg] writes with a command of 18th Eurasian history that reveals both his passion and his knowledge of the subject. His grasp of narrative allows him to explore apocryphal anecdotes like the veracity of Catherine's secret marriage to General Potemkin, with a storyteller's engaging style, but an investigator's take on circumstantial evidence. Fans of
[a:Simon Schama|695|Simon Schama|http://photo.goodreads.com/authors/1250448182p2/695.jpg]'s documentaries will appreciate Massie's style, although literary hipsters who claim to enjoy the imposingly dense (although brilliant) essay's of [a:Bhabha, Homi K. Bhabha, Homi K.|3924671|Bhabha, Homi K. Bhabha, Homi K.|http://www.goodreads.com/images/nophoto/nophoto-U-50x66.jpg] will find Massie a bit light.

Regardless of the author's skill, however,
[b:Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman|10414941|Catherine the Great Portrait of a Woman|Robert K. Massie|http://photo.goodreads.com/books/1327884954s/10414941.jpg|15319151] covers a complex, wide ranging cast Eurasian nobility, all of whom had complex relations with each other to a degree that makes the cliché Appalachian gene pool look positively Atlantic in dimensions. Family trees, political and personal time-lines, and other visual aids would have proven invaluable for readers.
( )
  IsotropicJoseph | Apr 28, 2014 |


What a great book. I knew nothing of her. Catherine overcame a bad marriage, ruled Russia, became a beloved Queen. To read how she turned so much around, is amazing. She was a great ruler in such bad times. I was totally blown away by what I learned! ( )
1 vote cbilbo | Apr 8, 2014 |


What a great book. I knew nothing of her. Catherine overcame a bad marriage, ruled Russia, became a beloved Queen. To read how she turned so much around, is amazing. She was a great ruler in such bad times. I was totally blown away by what I learned! ( )
  cbilbo | Apr 8, 2014 |
I really struggled with how to respond to and review this book, which has received wide acclaim from critics and LTers whom I respect. I had expected, based on the title, a holistic picture of Catherine II of Russia that included her personal and political life. What I got instead was a book that dawdled over each love affair in Catherine's life, no matter how insignificant the man in question; gave short shrift to Catherine's political accomplishments; and - despite Massie's extensive use of Catherine's memoirs and letters - left me feeling that the woman at the center was still a cypher.

The book begins promisingly enough, with Sophia's (as Catherine was known before her marriage) inauspicious birth to an "obscure, penurious" German prince and a shallow, status obsessed train wreck of a mother. But quickly it become clear where we are headed: "Her rejection as a child helps to explain her constant search as a woman for what she had missed." I should have considered myself warned by this bit of amateur psychology.

Oddly, the book is most engaging when focusing on the period of time before Catherine ascends the throne. Massie is great when describing Catherine's marriage to the feckless and creepy future Peter III; the power struggles between Catherine, Peter, Empress Elizabeth and the retinue of court lackeys jockeying for influence; and the foreign intrigue swirling about the Russian throne.

One gets a good sense of the forces and faces that shaped Catherine as she and Peter waited for their coronation and how Catherine transformed herself from a German nobody to someone who was perceived as more authentically Russian than Peter, the grandson of Peter the Great. All of this draws on memoirs written by Catherine herself, so we are at least on historical ground as she saw it.

After Elizabeth's death, Peter's disastrous efforts to make Russia a Prussian vassal state (again Catherine's memoirs) are cut short when Catherine and her devoted advisers - including Catherine's military officer lover - depose him in a coup. This is where Massie starts to let the motives and actions of the people surrounding Catherine really overpower her in the narrative and she becomes essentially a weepy, lovelorn middle-aged woman.

Catherine's affairs begin before Peter ascends to the throne and are actually in some sense forced upon her by Empress Elizabeth, who realizes that Peter cannot be relied upon to produce an heir with Catherine. Peter is aware of - and even amused by - Catherine's affairs. At one point he arranges a dinner for himself, his mistress, Catherine, and her current lover, which amuses the future tsar greatly. Catherine's affair with Russian aristocrat Sergei Saltykov eventually produces the future Paul I. This was a fascinating little tidbit of information.

While Massie occasionally drops in a chapter or two on Catherine's efforts to reform the church, experiments in proto-democratic government, feelings about serfdom, or Russia's foreign relations, most of the book from here on out will be extensive excerpts from Catherine's tedious letters to her assorted paramours and overlong biographical sketches of these paramours, whether they are towering historical figures like Gregory Potemkin or merely attractive faces like so-and-so, whose name I can't even remember, who was packed off to the country with an annual allowance after even Catherine found him too tedious to bear.

Massie's decision to focus so much on Catherine's romantic life left me irritated and angry, especially because he frequently brought up and superficially explored so many more fascinating aspects of her character, such as her infatuation with Enlightenment philosophers and her desire to reform Russia's political and religious systems as contrasted with her ultimate inability to do so and her decision to enact stringent censorship laws, or her role in the partitions of Poland. Massie explains away changes in Catherine's ideas with a nod to peasant revolts in Russia and the French Revolution: "More than any other European monarch, she felt that the ideology of radical France was also directed at her, and the more radical France became, the more defensive and reactionary were her responses."

Ultimately, I felt like this book was filled with so much chaff that it was hard for me to appreciate the good parts. It made me sad, because I enjoyed Massie's book Nicholas and Alexandra and had been thinking about picking up his Peter the Great - one has to wonder if the biography of a male leader would have focused more on that leader's emotions than on his accomplishments. ( )
2 vote fannyprice | Jan 19, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 86 (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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