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23 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A rich, character-oriented biographical novel of a remarkable queen, November 19, 2011
This review is from: Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman (Hardcover)
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In his superb biographical novel of Catherine the Great, Robert Massie brings Catherine to life by enabling us to experience her feelings, thoughts and motivations, and therefore understand how her actions, both personal and political, derived from her character.

Massie reveals many facets of this remarkable woman as he guides us through the stages of her life:
-- as a young, naive but intelligent and educated German princess manipulated by a scheming mother;
-- as wife to the emotionally imbalanced and sadistic heir to the Russian throne, Peter III;
-- as object of Queen Elizabeth's jealousy and hopes for an heir;
-- as a capable queen who took the throne in a coup against her incompetent husband king;
-- as an ambitious ruler influenced by Enlightenment philosophers, determined to improve the lot of the Russian people while extending the Russian empire;
-- as a lonely woman, who needed lover-companions, and had twelve "favorites" throughout her lifetime, including Grigory Potemkin;
--as a mother struggling with ambivalent feelings toward her son and heir Paul, who was likely the son of Saltykov rather than Peter;
--as a devotee of art, who amassed the largest art collection ever known, and built the Hermitage.

Drawing from Catherine's actual memoirs, letters and diaries, Massie often presents Catherine's own words about her life, and provides revealing anecdotes which enable us to envision her situation. We are led, for example, to imagine being married to Peter when Massie tells us, "Peter presided over a daily changing of the guard ceremony in which a fresh detachment of toy soldiers, assigned to mount guard, replaced those who were relieved of duty... Peter always appeared at this ceremony in full Holstein dress uniform."

In regard to her love life, Massie introduces us to each of the men with whom Catherine forms monogamous relationships. Massie tells us: "During her lifetime, Catherine had twelve lovers....Of the twelve, she loved five......For another three, she felt passion. There others were quickly chosen and quickly discarded. The twelfth and last....was in a category of his own."

Empathically, he allows us to understand her motivation: "She wanted to love and be loved. She had lived with an impossible husband in an emotional vacuum. To read her letter to Potemkin is to realize that as much as physical satisfaction, she wanted intelligent, loving companionship."

Throughout the book, Massie also provides us with the political context for Catherine's reign, introducing us to the many domestic and international political decisions she made, and their consequences. A notable one was her creation of an assembly of over 500 delegates from all levels of Russian society including merchants and free peasants (but not serfs) - "the first attempt in imperial Russia to give the people a voice in their own political destiny." But the experiment was not particularly successful due to the divergent interests of the representatives: "No new code of Russian laws was produced. The distance stretching between an Enlightenment philosopher's definition of an ideal monarchy and the immediate problems of everyday life in rural Russia were simply too great."

For me, Massie's ability to enable us to understand Catherine's motivation and choices in many facets of her life contributed to the book's considerable readability. Massie's psychological perspective also enabled me to relate Catherine's dilemmas to current times.

For example, Catherine sought and held power, but required love. How does a woman resolve the tension between her desire for control or independence and her need for loving intimacy? One need not be a queen to wrestle with these issues. Or consider the shift in Catherine's idealistic and reformist attitudes as she dealt with the violence of serf rebellions and faced the reality that the supporters who kept her in power depended upon serf labor. Her own shift in political philosophy and action is reflected today by many Democratic leaders in the U.S. who shed some of their ideals and move toward center as they confront the complexities of political life.

CATHERINE THE GREAT has few flaws. I wish that Massie had included a genealogy, maps, and an index of names - keeping straight all the Anne's and Catherine's is not easy. He could have written about her educational reforms, some of which were oriented toward females and orphans. He might have explained more directly how Catherine accumulated the massive wealth which she bestowed on friends and lovers as well as her costly art collection, although doing so might have made us less empathetic, and more aware of the discrepancy between her attitudes and actions.

But these issues are minor. CATHERINE THE GREAT is a rich and rewarding biographical novel, highly readable, well-researched, and remarkably insightful, both psychologically and politically.
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Showing 1-5 of 5 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Feb 9, 2012 6:55:12 AM PST
I found nothing "superb" about this book: it is full of errors in dtes, chronology, names, terms (you nme it). Massie does not read Russian and knows darn little Russian history! There is not one original idea in the whole wretched exercise. How can he be a "Russia expert" when he doesn't know the main language involved?? He has lost it at 82, if he ever had it! It amazes me how people are so easily bamboozled! My review will appear in "Slavic
review in a few months! I have studied the period for about 50 years and do read
Russian! T
here are several much better books on the subject! Massie's is one of the worst!
Save your money, people! John T. Alexander, emeritus, University of Kansas

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 9, 2012 8:40:12 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Feb 19, 2012 11:19:41 PM PST
Tracy M says:
This really is a biographical NOVEL, which like most historical fiction, combines meticulous historical research with narration which is in part imaginative. While much if not most of the book is historically accurate, Massie is oriented toward developing character from the inside out and telling a story - he is not just introducing known facts about Catherine's life. He is indeed a great storyteller. And as historical FICTION, excelling in character portrayal and development, the book is superb!

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 15, 2012 7:08:46 AM PST
Tracy, you are WRONG!! Even the wrong-headed Massie would not claim it is fiction! Wht bother with fotnotes and biblio?? Call it whatever you like, it's a pthetic book: full of the most vAried errors, wretchedly written for an adolescent audience. He was awful f
rose some weeks ago. Look up any of the interviews with Massie, you'll see he calls it history or biography, as does the publisher. It is truly terrible!

Posted on Feb 15, 2012 7:15:15 AM PST
Few flaws! Massie's book is one huge flaw! One of the worst books I've ever read, and I've read a lot in 72 yeArs! How people can be fooled by such an atrocity is beyond me! Puleeze! John T. Alexander, emeritus, University of Kansas, longtime specialist in
Russian history, esp Catherine's reign

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 15, 2012 7:18:35 AM PST
Tracy, look up novel in a dictionary, plese! Massie's book ainy one! No matter! It's horrible, however you classify it!
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Tracy M

Location: Arlington, MA USA

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