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Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman Hardcover – Deckle Edge, November 8, 2011
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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.
PRAISE FOR CATHERINE THE GREAT
"Massie once again delivers a masterful, intimate, and tantalizing portrait of a majestic monarch."—Publishers Weekly, starred review
"[A] rich, nuanced examination of Russia's lone female leader..."—The Daily Beast
“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
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I don't know that I will ever be an admirer of Catherine, either as a woman or as an empress, but I certainly have a much greater understanding of her, both as a woman and as an empress, and of her contributions to Russia and Europe. Like his other histories, Massie's biography of this German-born princess is thoroughly researched and engagingly written. It is as pleasant to read as any novel, yet far more challenging to the mind than most novels . . . and some histories. Massie is adept at drawing fully detailed portraits of his subjects and those closest to them, showing us both the strenghts and weakness that make a character wholly human instead of a legend from long ago.
Before reading this, I never truly understood how Catherine was able to ascend to the Russian throne. I do now. Nor did I truly understand why she was honored with "the great" attached to her name. I do now, and Massie has convinced me that this epithet is deserved. This is a great history, stretching from her birth to a mother who was disappointed with a daughter, through years of unconsummated marriage to a difficult man-child under the jealous eye of his imperial aunt, and into her long reign. It truly is a portrait, not only of a woman who happened to become a great empress, but also of her reign, and of those closest to her.
I doubt if one can truly understand Russian history without learning what Massie has written about Catherine. I visited an exhibit in Memphis, many years ago, based on her reign, and, while awed by the many beautiful objects, was left with no real understanding of this woman and what she meant to Russia.
I highly recommend this to readers who are interested in biography, history and/or Russia.