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Catherine the Great: Life and Legend

by John T. Alexander

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399555,148 (3.09)4
One of the most colorful characters in modern history, Catherine II of Russia began her life as a minor German princess, until the childless Empress Elizabeth and Catherine's own scheming mother married her off to the Grand Duke Peter of Russia at age sixteen. By thirty-three, she had overthrown her husband in a bloodless coup and established herself as Empress of the multinational Russian Empire, the largest territorial political unit in modern history. Portrayed both as a political genius who restored to Russia the glory it had known in the days of Peter the Great and as a despotic foreign adventuress who usurped the Russian throne, murdered her rivals, and tyrannized her subjects, she was, by all accounts, an extraordinary woman. Catherine the Great, the first popular biography of the empress based on contemporary scholarship, provides a vivid portrait of Catherine as a mother, a lover, and, above all, an extremely savvy ruler. Concentrating on her long reign (1762-96), John Alexander examines all aspects of Catherine's life and career: the brilliant political strategies by which she won the acceptance of a nationalistic elite; her expansive foreign policy; the domestic reforms with which she revamped the Russian military, political structure, and economy; and, of course, her infamous love life. Beginning with an account of the dramatic palace revolt by which Catherine unseated her husband and a background chapter describing the circumstances of her early childhood and marriage, Alexander then proceeds chronologically through the thirty-four years of her reign. Presenting Catherine in more human terms than previous biographers have, Alexander includes numerous quotations from her reminiscences and notes. We learn, for instance, not only the names and number of her lovers, but her understanding of what many considered a shocking licentiousness. "The trouble is," she wrote, "that my heart would not willingly remain one hour without love." The result of twenty years' research by one of America's leading narrative historians of modern Russia, this truly impressive work offers a much-needed, balanced reappraisal of one of history's most scandal-ridden figures.… (more)
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Few women have been able to rule vast empires in their own right. Catherine the Great was one of these. Incidentally, I use the word “able” not in terms of ability, but the simple fact of access. Catherine achieved her status by removing her husband, Tsar Peter III, in a coup after which she initially justified her position in the name of her underage son.

Catherine ruled from 1762-1796. She corresponded with philosophes, expanded Russian boundaries and influence, and introduced a number of reforms, which didn’t last much longer than her reign. In her free time, Catherine had a succession of lovers. She has fascinated historians and popular culture.

John Alexander published his study of Catherine’s impact on Russia in 1989. It’s an academic, scholarly work. Alexander’s research is prodigious. His need to share everything understandable. The book is well worth reading. But I suggest reading it in small doses. It’s the kind of book to pick up and digest before putting it down again. I started it in January and have now finished in August.

Alexander chronicled an important period in Russian and European history, but he didn’t write a social, intellectual or personal history. Readers won’t learn much about individuals or social movements. But they will learn what happened when, and that’s not a bad result. ( )
  Sandra_Wagner-Wright | Aug 12, 2016 |
Her life and troubles. ( )
  ShelleyAlberta | Jun 4, 2016 |
Catherine II of Russia is one of the most colorful characters in modern history. Born a minor German princess, she was betrothed to the Grand Duke Peter of Russia at 15, through the designs of the childless Empress Elizabeth and her own scheming mother. By 33, she had overthrown her husband in a bloodless coup and established herself as Empress of the multinational Russian Empire, the largest territorial political unit in modern history.
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  Tutter | Feb 20, 2015 |
3087. Catherine the Great / Life and Legend, by John T. Alexander. Due to the generosity of a Florida poster on a book board I follow, I received this book. It is a 1989 book, and I found it quite a serious book--less flippant than Henri Troyat's bio of Catherine which I read in June of 1987. Catherine's career was an amazing one. This book is good academic history, and I was glad to receive it and found it worth reading. (read July 1, 1998) ( )
  Schmerguls | Dec 12, 2007 |
great book
  bhowell | Feb 5, 2007 |
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One of the most colorful characters in modern history, Catherine II of Russia began her life as a minor German princess, until the childless Empress Elizabeth and Catherine's own scheming mother married her off to the Grand Duke Peter of Russia at age sixteen. By thirty-three, she had overthrown her husband in a bloodless coup and established herself as Empress of the multinational Russian Empire, the largest territorial political unit in modern history. Portrayed both as a political genius who restored to Russia the glory it had known in the days of Peter the Great and as a despotic foreign adventuress who usurped the Russian throne, murdered her rivals, and tyrannized her subjects, she was, by all accounts, an extraordinary woman. Catherine the Great, the first popular biography of the empress based on contemporary scholarship, provides a vivid portrait of Catherine as a mother, a lover, and, above all, an extremely savvy ruler. Concentrating on her long reign (1762-96), John Alexander examines all aspects of Catherine's life and career: the brilliant political strategies by which she won the acceptance of a nationalistic elite; her expansive foreign policy; the domestic reforms with which she revamped the Russian military, political structure, and economy; and, of course, her infamous love life. Beginning with an account of the dramatic palace revolt by which Catherine unseated her husband and a background chapter describing the circumstances of her early childhood and marriage, Alexander then proceeds chronologically through the thirty-four years of her reign. Presenting Catherine in more human terms than previous biographers have, Alexander includes numerous quotations from her reminiscences and notes. We learn, for instance, not only the names and number of her lovers, but her understanding of what many considered a shocking licentiousness. "The trouble is," she wrote, "that my heart would not willingly remain one hour without love." The result of twenty years' research by one of America's leading narrative historians of modern Russia, this truly impressive work offers a much-needed, balanced reappraisal of one of history's most scandal-ridden figures.

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