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

by Robert K. Massie

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Member:jburlinson
Title:Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman
Authors:Robert K. Massie
Info:Random House Trade Paperbacks (2012), Paperback, 672 pages
Collections:Your library
Rating:***1/2
Tags:Her-story

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

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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 |
Good history books are written by two types of authors - historians, that can be forgiven for some weird word choices because of their knowledge and the fact that they can connect the dots between the events, and good authors that know how to tell a story. Massie is from the second type -- he has a historical education but he is an author more than a historian. And this book shows it.

The story of Catherine the Great is one of the most fascinating stories of the 18th century. And when Massie decided to tackle this story he started from the beginning - from her parents and where she was coming from (which reminded me again just how many German princes had been around in the 18th and 19th century... and how interconnected the European royal families are). The first half of the book, the years before Catherine became an empress are smoothly told - with a bit too many details in a lot of places but then this is why new biographies are written for the most popular historical figures. The narrative get a bit repetitive in places (for some reason Massie decides to repeat what he had said a few pages earlier -- maybe afraid that people had forgotten already) but once you get in the flow of the story, all these can be almost forgotten.

And then Catherine becomes the empress. And the book takes a dive down. The previously linear biography now start jumping through times and places and then returning; while in the pre-throne days it was easy to follow what is going up at a certain point of time, in the days of her reign, the reader has to collect pieces and bits from the whole second half of the book in order to figure out what happens at a specific time. For example, while discussing the second Russo-Turkish war (the second one that Catherine yields anyway), the Baltic war and the French Revolution are not mentioned at all. Then a chapter or 2 later, one of the topics comes up. Then the second. Then Massie reminds us what else is happening and he already talked about. And then adds a new fact and reminds of the old ones. He tries to build this part of the book based on topics (wars, favorites and so on) but they are inseparable - and when he tries to reconcile this with the new structure of the books, Massie ends up with a somewhat disorganized mess on his hands.

Despite that, the book is highly readable - although I am not sure how many of the subtle connections will become clear to someone that does not know the history already. One thing that Massie does masterfully is to weave into his narrative seemingly unrelated stories - the French Revolution, the story of Diderot and Voltaire... Some of the details probably could have been spared but these stories do not break the book narrative (probably because it is already disjointed at this point). At the same time, some gaps are hard to be explained - we know that Catherine had 3 children but we hear nothing of Alexis and Anna once they are born. Paul is in the narrative only because he is the heir and because she needs him.

At one point, Massie claims that Catherine's story could have been a lot more like Elisabeth's (the Tudor queen of 2 centuries earlier) if things had started differently for her. I tend to disagree here - the story is so parallel that it takes your breath. Yes - they live on both sides of the continent and 2 centuries apart; Catherine has a lot of lovers while the English queen remain virgin officially (but in the way they select their favorites, the similarities shine again) but their lives and reigns are similar. Maybe this is what it takes to be a female monarch in the centuries when women were considered second rate people.

So did I like the book? The truth is that I actually quite enjoyed it. I wish some things were handled differently -- but it is the author decision to structure his book like this and at the end of the day it works... for the most part. ( )
1 vote AnnieMod | Jan 11, 2014 |
Just like Massie's Peter the Great, this book is also well-written and informative. It contains good pictures and good narration of the life of Catherine the Great. The author provides a good balance between the personal and the political aspect of Catherine's life. This Book is highly-recommended for anyone wanting to learn more about her life. ( )
  zen_923 | Dec 21, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 85 (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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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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