Synopses & Reviews
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.
"The best English-languge biography of Catherine in some time." The Dallas Morning News
"An extremely well researched, well organized, and judiciously balanced political portrait of Empress Catherine II." Marc Raiff, Columbia University
"[Alexander] shows his abilities as a story teller by delving into the psyche of this woman, who lived a life of celebrity, isolation, and loneliness." The Richmond Times-Dispatch
"Alexander's carefully researched political biography at last gives Catherine her due as 'the overburdened ruler of an immense and turbulent Empire." W. Bruce Lincoln, The Chicago Tribune
"Alexander fathoms his subject completely, and he writes a most compelling narrative." Booklist
"informed, provocative, and, above all, fair....A major achievement. It succeeds in its goal of bridging the gap between popular biographies and scholarly studies." The Cleveland Plain Dealer
"An excellent book that deserves to be regarded as the best biography of Catherine the Great to date." Choice
"[This] book is undoubtedly based on a much more thorough use of sources than all its predecessors....[Alexander] deals in a sympathetic manner with her affairs of the heart....However, he does not neglect affairs of state....In general, the style in which the book is presented fluctuates somewhat from that of the academic journal to that of the sentimental novel." History Today
About the Author
John T. Alexander
is Professor of History and Soviet and East European Studies at the University of Kansas.