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Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman Paperback – September 18, 2012
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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.
“Gripping.”—The New York Times Book Review
“Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman has it all: jealous mothers, indulgent eccentrics, greedy social climbers, intrigue, infidelity, murder, political coups, sex, war and passion.”—Bookreporter
“Exhaustively researched and dramatically narrated.”—The Boston Globe
“[Robert K. Massie] brings great authority to this sweeping account of Catherine and her times. . . . a compelling read.”—The Washington Post
“Meticulously, dramatically rendered.”—O: The Oprah Magazine
“Reads like an epic Russian novel.”—San Antonio Express-News
“Will transport history lovers.”—People
“Massie makes Catherine’s story dramatic and immediate.”—The Kansas City Star
“Graceful and engrossing.”—Minneapolis Star Tribune
“A biography as captivating as its subject.”—MacLean’s
Top customer reviews
I guess for the above reason I should have loved "Catherine..." - and I almost did. I certainly enjoyed the book - no denying that. But, this one time, I wish a history book I read were less like "fiction" and more like "serious history"
Catherine herself comes across as a phenomenal leader of people and an immensely-talented, immensely-gifted person on many dimensions. Her intellectual energy, personal bravery, integrity (in modern terms), strategic-vision and pragmatism are the mark of outstanding leadership. To learn about her was fascinating, entertaining and intellectually formative - which is why I think I read history to begin with.
But, even for me, there was too little serious analyses. Roughly half the book takes place before she assumes power. Most of this is spent describing her relationship with her husband, speculating how their love life was like and what they did or did not do in the evenings, and who may or not have been the father of her son. This is the titillating part of the book: quite a lot of fun to read, and I must admit I found it fun, albeit the type of fun one has reading People Magazine.
Roughly the same space is therefore dedicated to the period that covers the period of true historical significance, after Catherine assumed power. Lots of space is dedicated to Potemkin`s achievements - near as much it seems as to Catherine`s own. Further space is dedicate to her description of her other "favorites" - roughly equivalent to the space dedicated to her attempt to reform the Legal Code. But Catherine`s achievements are summarized rather hastily in a final chapter that seem written up to make the case the she deserved to be "the Great" after all
In summary, a very fun read, that I would recommend to readers transitioning from fiction to history, or to more habitual history readers looking for something a bit lighter for the summer. But for a better blend of "serious history" with "fun reads" I would look for other books, such as those cited at the beginning of this review
And this is just the beginning of Catherine's life in Russia. 50 more years of conquists, love affairs, wars and motherhood await her. All these facts are told in such an excellent way that you will feel, reason and think with her. Without judgements, the woman behind the titles reveals herself from several sources that the author carefully studied and helped him write one of the best biographies I've ever read.
This knowledge would serve her well in her journey towards the title of Empress...Her need for love and companionship,rooted in her mothers lack of love for her in her childhood,led her into taking numerous lovers.This practice was accepted as normal in the Russian court.Catherine dealt with both her personal and political problems with insight and in the case of her lovers with kindness .looking at her legacy of territory gained,Russia' easier access to the seas,the establishment of The hermitage ,TheFoundling Hospital ,theTheInstitute for the higher education of girls,advances in Primary education and improved regional government,this book clearly reveals her right to the title CatherineThe great.
Most recent customer reviews
The book itself? A little dry, but worth the labor(s).