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Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Womanby Robert K. Massie
2012 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction
Synopses & Reviews
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.
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.
The story is superbly told. 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.
"The Pulitzer-winning biographer of Nicholas and Alexandra and of Peter the Great, Massie now relates the life of a minor German princess, Sophia of Anhalt-Zerbst, who became Empress Catherine II of Russia (1729 — 1796). She was related through her ambitious mother to notable European royalty; her husband-to-be, the Russian grand duke Peter, was the only living grandson of Peter the Great. As Massie relates, during her disastrous marriage to Peter, Catherine bore three children by three different lovers, and she and Peter were controlled by Peter's all-powerful aunt, Empress Elizabeth, who took physical possession of Catherine's firstborn, Paul. Six months into her husband's incompetent reign as Peter III, Catherine, 33, who had always believed herself superior to her husband, dethroned him, but probably did not plan his subsequent murder, though, Massie writes, a shadow of suspicion hung over her. Confident, cultured, and witty, Catherine avoided excesses of personal power and ruled as a benevolent despot. Magnifying the towering achievements of Peter the Great, she imported European culture into Russia, from philosophy to medicine, education, architecture, and art. Effectively utilizing Catherine's own memoirs, Massie once again delivers a masterful, intimate, and tantalizing portrait of a majestic monarch. (Nov.)" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
"Written dramatically and almost visually, Massie's Catherine may attain the classic status that his Peter the Great (1980) and Nicholas and Alexandra (1967) already have." Booklist (Starred Review)
"Massie delivers a fascinating account of dog-eat-dog politics in 18th-century Europe and the larger-than-life Russian empress who gave as good as she got." Kirkus Reviews
"[A] rich, nuanced examination of Russia's lone female leader." The Daily Beast
Book News Annotation:
Massie, winner of a Pulitzer Prize, presents a narrative biography of Catherine the Great, the empress of Russia, centering on her 34-year struggle to rule backward Russia using the ideals of the Enlightenment philosophers. Covering her life from childhood to death, the book reveals the human drama of her rule, offering details on her relationships with friends, enemies, family, and lovers, in addition to analysis of how she coped with political crises. The book is illustrated with color photos, color historical paintings, and b&w maps. Annotation ©2012 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
About the Author
Robert K. Massie was born in Lexington, Kentucky, and studied American history at Yale and European history at Oxford, which he attended as a Rhodes Scholar. He was president of the Authors Guild from 1987 to 1991. His previous books include Nicholas and Alexandra, Peter the Great: His Life and World (for which he won a Pulitzer Prize for biography), The Romanovs: The Final Chapter, Dreadnought: Britain, Germany, and the Coming of the Great War, and Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea.
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