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Friday, September 14, 2012

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

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

Acquired: Goodreads First Reads

Retail Price: Retails between $17.00 to $35.00

Sale Price: N/A

Number of Pages: 579

Synopsis: 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.
Stars: ★★★★★

Review: Catherine the Great has always been one of the most inspirational stories in history. This woman came to Russia very much disliked for her German roots and became Empress of all of Russia and beloved by all off her subjects. The book did go into the childhood of both Sophia and Peter, as well as the in depth relationships that Catherine had with her Favorites. I'm pretty sure that most people are aware of the story of Princess Sophia Augusta Fredericka, so I am mostly going to speak about how the book was written and my reaction to it.

Firstly, the book is so intimidating. It's a huge book. When I first received the book, I didn't even want to start reading it. The language on the first page was deterring. It's a bunch of really long names that I have never heard before. After a while, I was able to get into the style of the writing and could really enjoy the story. It's a lot more fact driven then I thought it would be. Now I didn't expect it to be historical fiction, but I thought it would be more about her memoirs. Now I should probably explain that I have never read a Robert Massie book before, so I wasn't used to his style.

I really loved the little bits of letters that were quoted from Catherine, Voltaire, Elizabeth, and many others. There was much more about her life that I was able to learn from this book. It wasn't boring like sitting in a history lecture can sometimes be. After getting used to reading the style of writing I was able to bust out the book in three days. I thought it would take me much more then that. I truly enjoyed this book, more so then most books in a very long time. If you really love history and learning more about it then you should really pick up this book.

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