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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Catherine the Great's memoirs have long been seen as a self-serving attempt to justify her seizing the throne from her husband, Peter III. This fresh, clean translation (the first in English to be based on the original manuscripts), although it provides insight into the mind of the ruler and the Russian court, is unlikely to change that assessment. The memoirs cover the years before Catherine (1729–1796) became empress in 1762. As the memoir makes clear, Catherine, born a German princess, had a hard time adjusting to life in the Russian court, which she considered backward. Her marriage to Peter III was unhappy from the start, and she makes no bones about her unhappiness with him and his mistresses. At the same time, she rationalizes her own dalliances: "I have just said I was attractive. As a result, I was already halfway along the road to temptation...." The translators provide a substantial introduction, but readers without prior knowledge of Catherine the Great might want to have Isabel de Madariaga's biography of the czar on hand for reference. Color illus., 2 maps, not seen by PW.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Booklist

Catherine II of Russia, who reigned from 1762 to 1796, cultivated an image as an enlightened monarch, an image to which three different memoirs contributed. This new translation from the original French spans a portion of the memoirs from 1744, when she, a German princess, arrived in Russia to marry Grand Duke Paul, heir to the throne, through 1759. But as the translators note, Catherine wrote of this period near the end of her life, which lends her recollections an air of considerable self--justification: after all, her claim to rule was dubious, having come to power in a palace coup in which her husband was assassinated. Although historians will read this work wary of Catherine's biases, general readers can still enjoy the vividness of Russian court life that she supplies. Its appearance, its rituals, its gossip, its hazardous intrigues--Catherine's remembrance of details will interest those who've digested the best current popular biography, Isabel de Madariaga's Catherine the Great (1990). Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Product Details

  • Series: Modern Library Classics
  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Modern Library; Reprint edition (June 13, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0812969871
  • ISBN-13: 978-0812969870
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.7 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #151,620 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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43 of 51 people found the following review helpful By Dai-keag-ity on August 22, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Catherine the Great has long suffered from mixed press. Jeesh, I mean there was the fact she almost certainly had her demented husband, who just happened to be the Czar, conveniently snuffed, she enacted brutal laws in retaliation for a wee bit of disloyalty on behalf of the Russian peasantry, and, well, let's not forget that nasty rumor about how fond she was of horses. Ahem. But you know, this was also one of the greatest rulers in Russian history, a pen-pal of Voltaire, hand-picked agent of Frederick the Great, and above all else, an improbable survivor against whom the deck was stacked pretty high.

I think Catherine used these memoirs to sway the public's feelings about her. That's a nice way of saying I suspect the ol' gal fibbed a time or two. But so what? This is still an invaluable first-hand account of a time and place about which we might otherwise have known far less than we do, but for courtesy of her gifted prose. Sure, Catherine wasn't perfect but she wasn't a monster, either, as so many other Russian rulers have been. She had a good sense of humor, she liked to read and she made an art of political pragmatism. Catherine also tried to do what was right (especially what was right for her) and early in her reign, this German on the Russian throne brought about a number of amazingly liberal reforms that ended laws that were suffocating Mother Russia, even during the Age of Enlightenment.

I say, let historians debate all they want, Catherine deserved to have her say and her point of view is privileged. If for nothing else than the details of her era, this memoir is worth its weight in sable and caviar.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful By G. Stelzenmuller on January 19, 2008
Format: Paperback
This rather large collection can be very absorbing in spite of its "pedestrian" style. Even a bad translation (which it likely was not) couldn't be an excuse to call it good writing, but memoirs are not really known for being Pulitzer material. "Alibiographies," these are sometimes called, and the stories in "Memoirs" are very often told by Catherine to make herself a favorable picture. As historian Will Durant says about the work, it is not so much false, as it is partial. Truthfully, though, it would be hard to name any other autobiography that did not do the same. The most glaring difference between "her version" and the "world's version," for example, has to be her thoughts and descriptions of her husband, Czar Peter III. The reader will find this easy -- and interesting -- to spot all through the memoirs!

Durant also implies, though, that Catherine's memoirs fills many gaps, at least as material for further reading. No matter the partiality shown in the book, it is blindingly clear that Catherine was head and shoulders above almost all her contemporaries in intelligence, energy, curiosity, and shrewdness.

A word of personal annoyance with this book. It took more than three-quarters of the pages to run across the telling of her first non-husband love relationship. Even then the fateful paragraph was extra-long and in an unexpectedly different style, and had to be read twice to catch on. All that work for so little naughty information!
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Michael P. Martin on October 17, 2008
Format: Paperback
This book is fantastic. One third of the book informs you of all the data you need to clarify and comprehend what the memoirs are stating. The memoirs comprise the last two thirds of the book.

Catherine did a lot for the enlightenment in RUSSIA and was a true Russian in heart if not by blood and birth.

The book is easy to read and never boring especially if you are interested in history told by the people that made.
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12 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Michael Greene on July 31, 2008
Format: Paperback
It is often only by making critical use of contemporary or near-contemporary bureaucratic records, military reports, or, in certain auspicious circumstances, personal correspondence, that modern historians are able to fabricate their rough, and frequently simplified, portraits of the monarchs or leaders of old; precious few of this figures, tragically, ever found time or motivation to pen memoirs to illuminate later generations as to their internal drives and personal struggles. With such a near-complete lack of material authored by these historical figures themselves, succeeding generations are frequently left unsatisfied by the dry, one-dimensional, caricatures made possible by unreliable third party accounts often written decades following the figure's demise; such sketches are essentially no more than rote enumerations of the figure's pivotal, outward, deeds. In happy contrasts to this dearth of first-hand historical authorship stands Sophia Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst, more commonly known to English-speaking historians as Catherine II, Empress and Autocrat of Russia from 1762 to 1796; perhaps more so than other other appellation, however, Catherine is remembered as the "Enlightened," for her keen academic interest in the governmental ideals of the Enlightenment, which stressed the freedom and betterment of the masses, particularly in the political sphere. Under Catherine's steady stewardship, during which she clearly displayed a shrewd intelligence and political savvy, the Russian Empire enjoyed one the most prosperous periods in its long and often sordid history, devouring Poland and expanding to its natural southern extend through the annexation of the Crimea.Read more ›
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