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Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by…

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman (edition 2012)

by Robert K. Massie

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Title:Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman
Authors:Robert K. Massie
Info:Random House Trade Paperbacks (2012), Paperback, 672 pages
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Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie


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This is an excellent biography of one of the greatest of Russian rulers, by an author who has already written major biographies of Peter the Great, the last tsar Nicholas and his wife Alexandra, and a book about the post-revolutionary Romanovs in exile. It is rich and colourful and, the title notwithstanding, covers all aspects of Catherine's life and rule, the personal, political, military and social. Catherine was an unlikely ruler of the biggest empire in the world, being a princess of a minor German state with no Russian blood. Called to Russia at the age of 14 to marry the heir to the throne, Peter, Empress Elizabeth's nephew, she quickly, unlike her husband, adopted Russian customs and language and joined the Orthodox church, renouncing her Lutheranism against her father's protests. She quickly eclipsed Peter in all areas. He was unstable and unfit to rule, and Elizabeth worried for the succession, so much so that, after nine years of unconsummated marriage, the way was cleared for Catherine to have a child by another man, with the result that Grand Duke Paul was very probably not Peter's son.

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. ( )
  john257hopper | May 29, 2017 |
Catherine the Great was a self-made ruler, courageous, strong and moral. Historian Massie’s research is meticulous and lengthy – in fact at 575 pages (plus 15 pages of bibliography etc.), maybe overdone. I especially liked the first half of the book about the young German princess who became Catherine the Great. The second half bogged down in details of her many lovers (and I’m somewhat of a romantic), the French revolution (interesting, but a subject for another book), and other topics that made the book overlong. Nonetheless this is an enlightening portrait that intertwines with the history of other fascinating figures such as Voltaire and Frederick the Great. ( )
  CindaMac | Mar 26, 2017 |
5408. Catherine the Great Portrait of a Woman, by Robert K. Massie (read 26 Sep 2016) Though I read Henri Troyat's biography of Catherine the Great on 26 June 1987 and John T. Alexander's of her on 1 Jul 1998, I so appreciated the four books by Massie that I read (Nicholas and Alexandra [read 6 Sept 1969], Peter the Great [read 7 Nov 1981], Dreadnaught [read 7 Sep 1992], and Castles of Steel [read 4 Mar 2004]) that I decided to read this 2011 biography of her. Her story is a fantastic one: born in Prussia to a minor German prince on 21 April 1729 she went with her mother to Russia where on 21 Aug 1745 she was married to the heir apparent to the Russian throne, slept with him for nine years but remained a virgin till she found a boyfriend, and when her husband on 25 Dec 1762 succeeded to the throne in July 1763 she overthrew him and he was killed by her "boyfriend's" brother. The book details her some 12 "favorites" (a couple of whom she maybe secretly married) and tells of the events of her reign, which was usually successful, at least for her and the ruling class. I thought the account of the Pugachev revolt full of interest--Pugachev claimed to be her husband Peter III, who was murdered by her then favorite's brother. Since the biographies of her I read previously were read so long ago I admit (sadly) that I did not feel I was treading well familiar territory. ( )
  Schmerguls | Sep 27, 2016 |
I can't say that I knew much about Catherine the Great prior to reading this book. The various odds and ends I'd picked up previously were mostly google-eque quips about her purported sexuality. Though standard fare for the woman in power in most eras, I relegated it to the disappointed and bored with pile and moved on. Luckily this book was mentioned in a GoodReads group I belong to and it caught my attention.

I was impressed with Massie's style and even more impressed with Catherine as a ruler and a woman. Massie does a great job of fleshing out the life and times of a smart, courageous, progressive, responsible, and devoted woman that cared for her adopted home with a strength of passion that I found very moving and enlightening as to her personal character.

I have a couple parts I'd like to read over actually and will probably add to my review as I do. ( )
  lamotamant | Sep 22, 2016 |
Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman ( )
  Calavari | Jun 7, 2016 |
Showing 1-5 of 115 (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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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Robert K. Massieprimary authorall editionscalculated
Deakins, MarkNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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"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
For Deborah.

And for Bob Loomis. Twenty-four years, four books. Thank you.
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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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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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