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

Published: 2011-11-08
Hardcover : 656 pages
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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 remarkab...
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Introduction

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.

Amazon Best Books of the Month, November 2011: Once upon a time, there was a minor German princess named Sophia. She went on to become the world's richest and most powerful woman, ruler of its then-largest empire, revered as "Catherine the Great." Her accomplishments and shortcomings as an autocrat and a woman make for a remarkable saga, and though many have tried, there may be no better author to take on the daunting task of chronicling than Robert K. Massie, a seasoned biographer of the 400-year Romanov dynasty, most notably with Peter the Great: His Life and World, which won a 1981 Pulitzer Prize. Massie situates Catherine's early life and three-decade reign amidst the tumult of the European Enlightenment, enriching his own narrative with telling excerpts of her letters and rich discussions of her political environment and personal motivations. The result is an utterly memorable book, a towering accomplishment, one of the year's best in any genre. --Jason Kirk


Featured Images from Catherine the Great


The imperial coronation crown designed for Catherine. The crown was used in all six of the Romanov coronations that followed.

Catherine's coronation portrait. She is wearing her new imperial crown.

Paul, Catherine's son, in one of the Prussian uniforms he delighted in wearing.


Portrait of Peter III

Gregory Orlov, Catherine's third lover, who was with her for eleven years and helped to put her on the throne.

Gregory Potemkin, covered with medals, titles, land, palaces, and responsibilities by a passionately loving Catherine.




Editorial Review

No editorial review at this time.

Excerpt

1

Sophia's Childhood

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 Germany. Possessed neither of exceptional virtues nor alarming vices, Prince Christian exhibited the solid virtues of his Junker lineage: a stern sense of order, discipline, integrity, thrift, and piety, along with an unshakable lack of interest in gossip, intrigue, literature, and the wider world in general. Born in 1690, he had made a career as a professional soldier in the army of King Frederick William of Prussia. His military service in campaigns against Sweden, France, and Austria was meticulously conscientious, but his exploits on the battlefield were unremarkable, and nothing occurred either to accelerate or retard his career. When peace came, the king, who was once heard to refer to his loyal officer as "that idiot, Zerbst," gave him command of an infantry regiment garrisoning the port of Stettin, recently acquired from Sweden, on the Baltic coast of Pomerania. There, in 1727, Prince Christian, still a bachelor at thirty-seven, bowed to the pleas of his family and set himself to produce an heir. Wearing his best blue uniform and his shining ceremonial sword, he married fifteen-year-old Princess Johanna Elizabeth of Holstein-Gottorp, whom he scarcely knew. His family, which had arranged the match with hers, was giddy with delight; not only did the line of Anhalt-Zerbst seem assured, but Johanna's family stood a rung above them on the ladder of rank. ... view entire excerpt...

Discussion Questions

Suggested by Members

Woman Monarchs
compare and contrast to Elizabeth I
by annick (see profile) 02/22/12

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

"Massie once again delivers a masterful, intimate, and tantalizing portrait of a majestic monarch."—Publishers Weekly, starred review

"[A] rich, nuanced examination of Russia's lone female leader..."—The Daily Beast

“What Catherine the Great offers is a great story in the hands of a master storyteller.”—The Wall Street Journal

“Dense and detailed, enriched by pages of full-color illustrations, Massie’s latest will transport history lovers.” —People

“What a woman, what a world, what a biography.” —USA Today

“[Massie] hasn’t lost his mojo. . . . a consistently nimble and buoyant performances . . . [Massie] has always been a biographer with the instincts of a novelist. He understands plot—fate—as a function of character, and the narrative perspective he establishes and maintains, a vision tightly aligned with that of his subject, convinces a reader he’s not so much looking at Catherine the Great as he is out of her eyes. . . juicy and suspenseful.” — Kathryn Harrison, The New York Times Book Review

“A meticulously, dramatically rendered biography…” —O, The Oprah Magazine

Book Club Recommendations

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
 
 
  "Facinating read"by bburget (see profile) 05/14/13

A very facinating book which gives great insite into Catherine's life. It is a long book, but if you can stick with it, it is really worth it!

 
  "Catherine the Great"by ceoceo (see profile) 01/19/13

A well written book about a fascinating woman. Full of intrigue and information about 18th Century Europe, especially Russia. Well worth the effort to plough through the cast of characters. Not my top... (read more)

 
  "Catherine the Great"by Maruta (see profile) 07/11/12

Very informative and interesting biography of the greatest woman to ever rule Russia and her many accomplishments.

 
  "Great Biography"by lkayedavis (see profile) 05/31/12

Well written and thorough depiction of Catherine the Great. Took a bit of time to finish...

 
  "A portrait of a woman that many do not know about ..."by mabook (see profile) 05/14/12

I found this biography of Catherine the Great to be very well written and interesting .. and also very informative! Catherine was a fascinating woman and was very liberal and forward-thinking in her views.... (read more)

 
  "The biography of Russia's great Catherine."by corron (see profile) 03/25/12

Massie has no equal as a biographer and Catherine was a fascinating leader. Great read.

 
  "Catherine the Great"by annick (see profile) 02/22/12

If you love history, you will love this book. Strong and powerful just like Catherine the Great.

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