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5.0 out of 5 stars The Life Of A Woman And A Nation, September 26, 2011
This review is from: Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman (Hardcover)
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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. She had a quick and agile mind and did an excellent job educating herself through the writings of the French Enlightenment philosophes. However, all this reading and studying was not going to help her achieve her primary purpose, to have children who would continue the Romanov dynasty. After nine years she achieved this goal with the assistance of a Russian nobleman and gave birth to her son Paul.

In 1762 Empress Elizabeth died and Peter III took the throne. Within six months he had so outraged the Russian people that Catherine, with the assistance of her current lover and his brothers and friends, was able to quickly overthrow him and become Empress Catherine II. Her reign of 34 years saw Russia increase in wealth, population, and land area. She fought and won wars with Turkey and Sweden and helped to partition Poland out of existence. Her wide ranging reading had convinced her of the desireability of religious toleration, increased civil liberties, and of representative government, but she was just as convinced that Russia wasn't ready for such Enlightenment principles. When she did try to make reforms she was frightened into limiting or discarding them entirely by serf rebellions and eventually by the French Revolution. She did encourage education and development, assisted by her friendships with Voltaire and Diderot among others, and she was responsible for beginning the magnificent Hermitage art collection and for a number of beautiful palaces and other buildings in and around St. Petersburg.

Of course, what most people think of when they think of Catherine the Great is her colorful personal life. Catherine had a number of lovers throughout her life, but the popular image of a sex crazed hoyden isn't accurate. She seems to have valued her men friends for their intellectual as well as their physical abilities, and to have craved attention and affection above all. She was faithful to each of her favorites (more than they were to her) and when one retired or was replaced he was given money and land and remembered fondly. As she aged she grew in dignity and influence, and by the time of her death in 1796 Russia was a much larger and more powerful nation which, while still backwards in many ways, had made a surprising amount of progress.

Robert K. Massie's newest work is a fitting companion to Nicholas and Alexandra, Peter the Great, and The Romanovs: The Final Chapter. It also compares well to his excellent studies of Anglo-German rivalry before and during World War I: Dreadnought and Castles of Steel. As always, he writes clearly with a good eye for an entertaining anecdote which helps Catherine's life fit into the larger Russian and European context during the tumultuous eighteenth century. Massie introduced me to Russian history when I first read Nicholas and Alexandra at the age of 14 and confirmed me in my love of the subject with his other books. His Catherine the Great is just as remarkable and appealing, and I cannot recommend it too highly.
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Showing 1-8 of 8 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Nov 24, 2011 10:17:43 AM PST
hey, I do want to read this book like pronto-----is that not excuse enough for a great review?

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 16, 2012 11:23:33 AM PST
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In reply to an earlier post on Jan 16, 2012 11:24:23 AM PST
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In reply to an earlier post on Jan 16, 2012 11:24:43 AM PST
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Posted on Jan 25, 2012 3:56:28 PM PST
P. Santos says:
The book is very intersting and it's a good review.

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 3, 2012 7:40:42 AM PST
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In reply to an earlier post on Oct 26, 2012 8:55:17 AM PDT
Truth Seeker says:
You claim that Massie doesn't even know Russian. Well, it appears by the way you write that you hardly know English. You have many grammar and spelling errors in your rants. Therefore you are hardly to be believed.

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 8, 2014 1:08:46 PM PDT
P. A. Barry says:
Are you for real? Do you have any idea how many errors you have in your nasty little post "ideiot"?
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