Amazon Best Books of the Month, November 2011: Once upon a time, there was a minor German princess named Sophia. In 1744, at the age of 14, she was taken by her ambitious mother--removed from her family, her religion, and her country--to a foreign land with a single goal: marry a prince and bear him an heir. Once in Russia, she changed her name, learned the language, and went on to become the world's richest and most powerful woman, ruler of its then-largest empire. She is remembered as Catherine the Great.
There may be no better author than Robert K. Massie to take on the daunting task of documenting this most rare of human lives. Massie, a former president of the Authors Guild, is a seasoned biographer of the 400-year Romanov dynasty, most notably with Peter the Great: His Life and World, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1981 and remains one of the most arresting biographies I've even encountered.
In his page-turning chronicle of Catherine II, Massie (now 82) compiles the most complete and compelling narrative to date of this singular woman. Married to an incompetent man-child who was unwilling or unable to help her fulfill her primary role--giving birth to a son--she ultimately grew to become a trailblazer among monarchs: friend of philosophical giants, incomparable patron of the arts, prosecutor of multiple wars, pioneer of public health, maker of kings, and prodigious serial lover.
Indeed, her accomplishments and shortcomings as an autocrat and a woman make for a remarkable saga, but that's not to say that just any author could do justice to Catherine's lasting legacy. (Many have tried.) Massie situates Catherine's early life and three-decade reign as empress 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.
Put simply, Massie is just the man to take this endlessly fascinating life and craft an utterly memorable book. Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman is a towering accomplishment, one of the year's best books 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.
PRAISE FOR CATHERINE THE GREAT
"Massie once again delivers a masterful, intimate, and tantalizing portrait of a majestic monarch."—Publishers Weekly, starred review
“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
“What a Woman!” —Elle magazine
“In Catherine the Great, Massie has created a sensitive and compelling portrait not just of a Russian titan, but also of a flesh-and-blood woman.”—Newsweek
“[A] meticulously detailed work about Catherine and her world…Massie makes Catherine’s story as gripping as that of any novel. His book does full justice to a complex and fascinating woman and to the age in which she lived.” —Historical Novels Review
I really enjoyed this biography of Catherine the Great. Like Robert K. Massie's other biographies, *Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman* is well-researched and well-written. His deep connection and understanding of the ways of Imperial Russia are strangely effortless. He steps into his subject's world and takes us there, too.
I was immediately struck by the way Massie made Catherine *accessible.* I felt empathy for her -- an empathy I didn't feel before. The story of her hideous marriage to Grand Duke Peter has been portrayed often in film and in print. All sources agree he was a monster who preferred his mistress to his wife, was scarred mentally as well as physically by small pox, and had he lived, would have gutted the Russian Orthodox Church -- and probably brought down an entire empire. *Portrait of a Woman* shows not only how badly Catherine was treated by her so-called "husband" but also how quickly she learned the *game* of the Imperial Court. Catherine was beautiful and intelligent -- and frankly, a better ruler than Peter could ever have been. She was well-read and well-educated in a time when most women couldn't read or write. In order to survive in the court, she spent years honing her skills in diplomacy. When her husband didn't produce an heir, she found a lover who would. I felt compassion for this Catherine, *because* she was resourceful and *because* she took action when it was needed. And some of those actions as Empress were taken with her subjects in mind.
Reading *Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman,* allowed me to rediscover a strong, intelligent woman who wanted to bring her Imperial Russia *forward.Read more ›
Catherine the Great is second only to Peter the Great as a great modernizing ruler of Russia, a country which repeatedly falls behind the rest of the world, then races to catch up, at least on the surface, within a few years' time. Catherine's story is even more remarkable than Peter's, since she was not born in Russia and had not a drop of Russian blood, and her original name wasn't even Catherine.
Sophia Fredericka of Anhalt-Zerbst was an impecunious little princess in an insignificant prinicipality buried deep in Germany. In her early years she seemed destined to marry someone just as obscure as she and to remain unknown to the larger world. Her ambitious mother, who had the good fortune to be related by marriage to the Swedish and Russian royal families, had other plans. She kept in touch with the Empress Elizabeth of Russia, whose nephew and heir was just the right age for Sophia, for many years until Elizabeth sent word for mother and daughter to come to St. Petersburg for a visit. Shortly after they arrived, Sophia's mother and the Empress had arranged for a marriage between 14 year old Sophia and the 15 year old Grand Duke Peter, heir to the Russian throne. Sophia converted to Orthodoxy and had her name changed to Catherine, then married the future Emperor.
It sounds like a fairy tale, but it turned into a nightmare. Peter was a snivelling little wretch who hated Russia, his aunt, and Catherine. Covered with smallpox scars, mentally undeveloped and psychologically unbalanced, Peter refused to have anything to do with Catherine and spent night after night playing with toy soldiers. Catherine, tucked into bed beside him but completely ignored, spent her time reading and learning all she could about her new country.Read more ›
Portrait of a WOMAN, not an empress, not an autocrat. In his own highly talented way, Pulitzer Prize winner Massie is going to tell us what made Catherine tick underneath the ermine. Massie feels a huge kinship to the House of Romanov, because his son, Robert K. Massie IV, has hemophilia, the disease that devastated many royal families, the most famous sufferer being Alexei, the only son of Tsar Nicholas II. If you've read "Nicholas and Alexandra" "Peter the Great" and other Massie biographies you know how beautifully he writes about Russian royalty and the reader feels that part of Massie's heart is in Russia. He understands and appreciates the handsome and captivating Catherine well as he brings her to life in this splendid biography.
We are going to see a fourteen year old unknown German princess, Sophia of Anhalt, the future Catherine, morph herself into a ship of state with enormous powers. If it is possible for a royal personage to pull herself up by her own bootstraps, Sophia did.
Sophia was ignored by her own mother, Johanna, who wanted a boy, until Johanna realized Sophia was marketable as a bride and peddled her around Germany and later Russia. Massie points out that Sophia-Catherine, denied love as a girl, had a psyche that was seriously wounded, and as an adult and empress she would demand both love and admiration perhaps to an excessive degree. Nevertheless, at fourteen years old Sophia was astonishingly mature and participated with relish in the search for a husband.
That husband would be Peter, nephew of the Empress Elizabeth. The Empress was the daughter of Peter the Great.Read more ›