Catherine the Great : portrait of a woman

by Robert K. Massie

Hardcover, 2011




New York : Random House, c2011.


Presents a reconstruction of the eighteenth-century empress's life that covers her efforts to engage Russia in the cultural life of Europe, her creation of the Hermitage, and her numerous scandal-free romantic affairs.

Media reviews

Imperial biographer Robert K. Massie paints a satisfying portrait of Catherine the woman and Catherine the ruler, and her attempts to modernize and westernize Russia.
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"Pulitzer Prize winner Massie offers the tale of a princess who went to Russia at 14 and became one of the most powerful women in history. Born into minor German nobility, she transformed herself into an empress by sheer determination. Possessing a brilliant, curious mind, she devoured the works of
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Enlightenment philosophers, and reaching the throne, tried using their principles to rule the vast, backward empire."
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User reviews

LibraryThing member brenzi
Being mostly a reader of literary fiction, I had been trying to expand my reading choices to include more non-fiction so some time ago (long before LT) I googled “non-fiction that reads like fiction” and discovered many books that appealed to me. Had this book been published at that time, it
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certainly would have made that list. The story of Catherine, the German princess who, at the age of fourteen, traveled to Russia with her domineering mother, to be married to the heir to the Russian throne, is as compelling reading as the most frenzied spy novel.

In the hands of this gifted storyteller, we follow Catherine through the years as she endures nine years with her indifferent husband, the sullen, immature Peter. Eventually, she is able to complete her primary job, to produce an heir, by using a capable surrogate to take the place of the unresponsive Archduke. The baby is then swept away to be cuddled and loved and raised by the Empress Elizabeth, leaving Catherine feeling as if her child had died. As Elizabeth ages, the intelligent Catherine, who spent her lonely hours reading and engaging in lively conversation when possible, aligns herself with the Russian Guards and those who would make it possible for her to seize the throne, since she realized that Peter would be totally incapable of ruling Russia.

As Empress, Catherine corresponded with and engaged, paramount historical figures including Voltaire, Diderot, Frederick the Great, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria and Marie Antoinette. As a young monarch, she wrote a lengthy memorandum, influenced by the European Enlightenment philosophy of Montesquieu of the benevolent despot, who would like to find ways to eliminate the serf way of life. Slowly realizing that this wasn’t going to work in the largely illiterate, backward nation, she ended up scaling back her expectations. She went on to expand the Russian Empire by battling Turkey, Sweden and Prussia, while aligning herself with the Emperor of Austria; controlling the scourge of Bubonic plague; and put down an insurrection within her own country. At the same time she went about the task of developing the largest art collection in the world by purchasing the works of the masters across Europe. To make her life even more enjoyable, she was never without one of her “favorites,” young men who provided both intelligent conversation and the ability to make Catherine feel forever young and vibrant.

Catherine surrounded herself with highly intelligent, fascinating people who worked with her to create and change Russia over the course of her reign and Massie brilliantly brings them all to life. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
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LibraryThing member stellarexplorer
Massie's new Catherine the Great is a highly readable account of a life and of a colorful period in Russian history. He set a high standard with Peter the Great, which was a singular achievement. While Catherine does not climb to those heights, it is still a delight, certainly for the reader less
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familiar with the period or the personage. Such as myself.

The book is most engaging in describing Catherine's early years, particularly her long period at the court of Empress Elizabeth, where her future was uncertain, and all her considerable discretion and discernment was required to maintain her position and her prospects. Perhaps the tension inherent in that situation makes that period of Catherine's life most interesting, but that focus is difficult to maintain throughout her long and eventful reign. Nonetheless, Massie has done a service by making this fascinating history and powerful monarch accessible to the interested reader of history and biography. One comes away with a profound respect for this intelligent and free-thinking woman, and for Massie, who is a wonderful chronicler of Russia and its rulers.
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LibraryThing member MlleEhreen
Wonderful, if bittersweet, biography of Catherine the Great. Gives you the legend, but also punctures it. Offers Catherine the credit she deserves, which is plenty, but reframes the picture so you can see what shoulders she stood on.

It might seem strange that the first half of the book focuses on
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the first half of Catherine's life--the years before she became Empress of Russia. There's a cost to this choice, because later on Massie can't dwell at length on the minutiae of her politics, but I found these chapters revelatory. Catherine is easiest to root for during her underdog years, when she was oppressed, surrounded by enemies, struggling just to stay afloat. Her courage and idealism contrast so sharply with the example set by Empress Elizabeth, the woman who plucked Catherine out of obscurity and brought her to Russia as a broodmare.

But once Elizabeth is gone, once Catherine stands alone on the throne, Elizabeth's influence is everywhere. Catherine manifests the same indulgences, acts out the same fears, that drove her predecessor. For example: Catherine is perhaps most famous for her many lovers, a fair number of whom fall into the 'handsome but not so smart' category. Elizabeth, too, saw sexual liberty as a perk of her rank. Elizabeth took multiple lovers, never married, and as Empress kept a loyal, gorgeous, not terribly bright man at her side. Another, less awesome similarity: Elizabeth saw her heirs as threats and worked hard to keep Catherine (and her husband Peter) powerless & often victimized by a series of smug, insolent minders. Ultimately, Catherine did the same to her own son, Paul, who resented it just as bitterly as she had.

Massie never sits down and writes about what made it possible for Catherine, a woman, to rise to power. He never frames his biography against the progress of feminism in the 20th century. But that's what I thought about, as I read. Catherine didn't come from nowhere. She didn't break out of Zeus' head, fully formed. She had a role model, and not just one: before Elizabeth, the ruler of Russia had been another woman, Anne. Catherine never had to wonder if a woman was capable of ruling. She spent almost twenty years subject to an Empress, a woman whose example she could adapt and then work to outshine. Catherine's 'greatness' isn't just her own. It belongs to the women who paved the way, too.

During the early years of Catherine's rule, Massie leads us through the highlights. Catherine's Enlightenment ideals, her desire to abolish serfdom, her correspondence with Voltaire and Diderot. It's so exciting: a young, brilliant, well-read philosopher assumes the throne! What will she do? Some great stuff, for sure. She's one of the first in Russia to take the smallpox vaccine, using her own body as an example for the realm. She builds hospitals, orphanages. She buys cool, aside from that, she mostly spends the rest of her reign slowly repudiating every ideal that she cherished as a young woman.

This is the truly bittersweet element to the book. The slow evolution of an untried idealist into a confident, capable, savvy, but utterly conservative Empress. Massie spends a fair bit of time towards the very end of the book recapping the French Revolution and at first I was irritated: isn't this a book about Russia? About Catherine the Great? And then I understood--because the Revolution, an actual organic revolt seeded by the philosophers she'd admired as a young woman, made a tyrant of her. In the wake of it--among other things--she started an official censorship bureau. She forbade the same books that had been so integral to her own education, including Voltaire.

Catherine's reign was full of successes. She had energy, intelligence, a positive attitude and a generous nature. But all her good qualities, her competence and ability, made the disillusion I felt reading the final chapters of this biography all the sharper. If Catherine is as good as it gets...well, the system really did need to change.

I really recommend this book. All these heavy ideas are packed in with bedroom politics and crazy affairs and passionate letters and midnight coups. The personalities are larger-than-life, the setting extraordinary. It's a fun read that turned out to be, also, a moving one.
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LibraryThing member lauranav
I received this as a Library Thing Early Reviewer copy in exchange for a review.

I enjoyed reading this biography. While the person of Catherine is very complex, the times in which she lived were complicated, and she lived for 60+ years, most of it worthy of capturing in a biography, this book
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managed to cover it and keep it all interesting. The writing is well done so that I was always eager to get back to reading to learn more. Where there are differing opinions about what happened during an event (such as the paternity of Catherine's son) Robert Massie describes the different theories, the pros and cons, and then shows what the outcome was regardless of the unknown facts of the matter.

This was an early reviewer copy and I have not made it to the bookstore to browse the final published copy. I do hope that some genealogical charts are included to help keep track of who was related to whom, and a timeline would be nice to put some of the events and births into a historical context.

The arc of the story was mainly chronological, with some chapters taking a subject through a few years and then the next chapter recapping other things that happened during that same time period. This was done well so that I wasn't confused by any of it, just able to see how the multiple story lines played out. And in many ways it does read as a novel which makes it such an easy read even while it is covering real facts and real history.

One quibble is there seemed to be some build up to her final lover but then he didn't seem to get any real description at all. I did find the descriptions of these relationships to be interesting as the early relationships did seem to define her some as she was finding her way through a loveless marriage and strained relationship with her mother-in-law. Two of her lovers, of course, had a fair bit of impact on her coming to power and her reign as Empress.

Much of her life causes food for thought. How she and her husband were treated (and how she treated her son) when the position of top ruler was seen as being challenged. Instead of being trained to rule and involved in the working of the government, they were excluded and kept ignorant and isolated to reduce the chance of their taking over. This leaves little room for healthy relationships and experience when the time for changing rulers finally comes.
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LibraryThing member a1stitcher
I enjoy reading Robert Massie's biographies. His style makes it very easy to absorb all the information packed into a book like this.
Catherine the Great was an amazing, strong woman. It was a pleasure to read more about her. What drama she lived through-and sometimes was responsible for. I'd
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recommend this book to anyone, especially those not used to reading "dry" history.
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LibraryThing member japaul22
I loved this biography of the Empress of Russia, Catherine II. I knew very little about Catherine and this biography really covers all the bases. Catherine was a German-born minor princess who ended up becoming arguably the second most powerful leader of monarchical Russia, behind Peter the Great.
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The book looks at her entire life, but I think the title hints at Massie's focus of the book which was that Catherine was a real person, a woman with real desires, interests, and intellect. After deposing her husband, Peter III, she had a string of "favorites", i.e. lovers, though she (probably) never remarried. She continued the Romanov line with the son of one of these lovers, accepted as the son of Peter III by the public. She loved reading, the arts, and stimulating conversation. She amassed one of the most impressive art collections of her time and corresponded with Voltaire and Diderot. Early in her reign she wrote the Nakaz, a huge document outlining her thoughts on government and its relationship to its people (among many other things). In it she writes about the plight of the serfs and her hopes to make their lives better. She had to give this up because of the politics of the time, but her great-grandson, Alexander II, abolished serfdom. She expanded her empire and controlled uprisings with a relatively gentle hand. Her fear from the ramifications of the French Revolution changed some of this benevolence at the end of her reign, but overall she seemed a rather enlightened monarch comparatively, though she did believe in absolute monarchy. Her support of the arts and education for Russians led to a great generation in Russian arts with Tolstoy, Pushkin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Diaghelev, etc.

The information is fascinating and the writing is excellent in this book. My only quibble is that I thought the maps could have been better and I missed having a genealogy chart and timeline of events. I will definitely be looking into Massie's other Russian biographies.
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LibraryThing member HadriantheBlind
Massie has consistently produced interesting narrative history for some forty years; from naval warfare in Dreadnought and Castles of Steel (my personal favorites) to Nicholas and Alexandra.

This book describes the two periods in Catherine the Great's life. The first, before she took power, was a
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series of court struggles and petty intrigue. The second was personal struggle on a grand scale, attempting to modernize Russia and live under the ideal of the enlightened despot, like Maria Theresa or Frederick the Great. She founded institutes for women, new villages in the Crimea, colonized Alaska, and reformed the provinces. She was an Enlightenment empress, but held fast after the bloodbath of the early French Revolution. The serfs and Cossacks rebelled, so she put them down with force.

Her life is undoubtedly fascinating - it's hard to imagine a young girl, snatched from a petty German principality to become the enlightened, worldly autocrat over tens of millions.
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LibraryThing member Joycepa
Robert Massie has been studying and writing about the Romanov dynasty of Russia for around 50 years. He’s written a number of books about the various rulers; I’ve read th one on Peter the Great and thought it was excellent.

Catherine was not a Romanov; she was not even Russian. She was born on
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April 21, 1729, a princess of the tiny German state of Anhalt-Zerbst and named Sophia Augusta Fredericka. At age 14, through a truly astounding set of coincidences and circumstances about which Massie writes with subdued but evident excitement, Sophia was summoned to the Russian court of the Empress Elizabeth to become the wife of her cousin Peter, nephew and the designated heir to the childless Elizabeth. Thus starting a remarkable story of a 53 year journey that was to see her crowned as Catherine the Second, empress of Russia and one of the most powerful monarchs in Europe.

Massie does an outstanding job of chronicling Catherine’s life, which, like so much of history, was far more fascinating than fiction. Catherine was a devotée of the Enlightenment, corresponding with such figures as Voltaire and Diderot. She tried to apply those principles to Russia, but indeed, as most ideologues never understand, you can not impose radical changes on a culture. Catherine, pragmatic, did what she could but could not, for instance, do away with serfdom; that was left to her great-grandson, Alexander II. She collected an amazing amount of art, establishing the Hermitage as her own private art gallery, and thus starting one of the great collections of art in the world. She was highly intelligent--read widely and was open to new ideas. Massie does a masterful job in bring out these aspects of Catherine’s character.

The book does have its oddities (too trivial to be called flaws). Massie seemed to feel the need of justifying the subtitle; as a result, there is a weird little section on Catherine’s lovers. For the empress to have lovers was nothing out of the rodinary, Catherine probably had fewer than Elizabeth. Massie, however, sums up that part of Catherine’s life with a list of her lovers, including the years they were in favor. It’s rather like reading a list of the CEO’s of General Motors, except I think that the latter might be more interesting, given that the lovers, with one glaring exception, had no impact at all on Catherine’s job as empress; she did not believe in sharing power. The one exception, who may have been her husband, is Potemkin. And that account is fascinating.

Massie’s writing style is very straightforward and not as exciting, perhaps, as, say, David McCullough’s easy narrative style. But it i more than adequate for the job, and Massie has written an outstanding book on the life of a powerful woman who in every way justified the name given to her, Catherine the Great.

Highly recommended. In fact, not to be missed.
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LibraryThing member the.ken.petersen
This book is a strong contender for my book of the year. I am not an historian; I have, or perhaps should say had, no particular interest in Catherine the Great, simply reading this to cover another vast area of my ignorance.

I particularly enjoyed the way in which Mr Massie made his cast of
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characters come alive - they were real people, not cardboard figures moving around a chessboard, or - just as importantly - not soap opera characters. Catherine, born Sophia Augusta Frederika Anhalt-Zerst (well, wouldn't you have changed your name?), must have been an amazing lady to have survived the first thirty-five years of her life: a quarter the trials and tribulations that she suffered would have sufficed to see me off.

The author is also very skilled in the way that he fills in the history as to where Russia and the World stood in Catherine's day. This book reads like a novel and yet, is packed with information. Mr Massie is also careful not to pass twenty-first century judgement upon eighteenth century situations.

The book is packed with fascinating facts; did you know that Catherine tried to install a bill of rights in Russia several years before the USA had one? Although she failed in this goal, she was a benign autocrat and ruled in favour of her subjects. I could go on boring you with my pallid re-hash of Robert K. Massie's wonderful book, but it would be far better were you to go out and buy a copy: you will not regret it.

Oh, and if I haven't made it clear, I like this book - A LOT!!!
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LibraryThing member turtlesleap
Robet Massie has done a masterful job of bringing to his readers a more complete understanding of Catherine the Great. I have read several biographies of Catherine and, as a rule, they eventually all turn to slavering speculation about her lovelife. Massie's refreshing approach was to carefully
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enumerate and document Catherine's "favorites" and, to the extent that he could through letters, convey some understanding of the more complex areas of the relationship. He did not demean himself or his reader by speculating endlessly about what went on in the bedroom. His account of the turbulence of the era, the challenges Catherine faced in her attempts to bring some flicker of the Enlightenment to her people, her fears and concerns as she watched the French Revolution unfold, her long-term friendship with Potemkin that far outlasted the flare of their early infatuation--all of this drama in the life of one woman who decided, as a 14-yer old German bride to the heir apparent to the Russian throne, to embrace Russia, and all that was Russian, as her own. It's a fascinating story and, in this case, it has been so well told that Massie's version of Catherine's life would be the single book I would recommend for anyone interested in learning more about her. Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member jmchshannon
Robert Massie’s Catherine the Great covers the life and death of this famous, and infamous, Russian ruler, the last female monarch in Russia. Starting with her inauspicious beginnings and ending with her death, Mr. Massie guarantees that a reader will finish his biography with a complete and
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detailed understanding of Catherine the person and Catherine the ruler, her rise to power, and the challenges she faced both before and after she became Empress. Using her own journal entries, personal correspondence of key figures, and other important and highly relevant historical documents, he creates as detailed a picture as one can get of Catherine and makes for fascinating reading.

The few female rulers across Europe have always fascinated historians because of their absolute power and dominance in male-oriented world. Catherine’s story is especially unique because unlike Elizabeth I, Mary Tudor, Mary Queen of Scots, and other female monarchs, she was not raised to be a monarch. Her rise to power was convoluted and unlikely, making her achievements all the more impressive once she gained the throne. Her reign spans one of the most tumultuous periods in European history, and her ability to maneuver through the uncertainty remains unsurpassed.

Like any person of political and historical importance, Catherine was multi-faceted, and nowhere is this seen more than in her belief in an absolute monarchy and simultaneous beliefs in the more progressive teachings of Voltaire and Diderot. In fact, she counted the latter gentlemen among friends. Her desires to end the servitude and sufferings of the serfs while weighing the dangers such actions would take to her ability to rule the clergy and nobility is as intriguing as it is foreign to anyone studying monarchies. She was one ruler who really did have the best interest of her subjects foremost in her mind, at least in the beginning.

Of equal fascination is the subject of her favorites. While she can often be compared to Elizabeth I, Catherine the Great differed from this other great female ruler because unlike Elizabeth, she has no desire to flaunt her purity but instead relishes her sexuality. It is an approach that would raise eyebrows even by today’s standards, and yet, during her reign, no one thought anything was amiss on her increasingly young, beautiful lovers and the rewards she showered on them.

Even though the details are fascinating, the narrative has a tendency tends to drag, making it difficult to read for any length of time especially right before bed. This is not the fault of the author or the subject though. Rather, it is due to a biographer’s need to explain the politics, geography, culture, and economics of the times and region in order to better showcase their subject’s responses to them. In Catherine’s case, the politics, geography, and economics of Europe as well as her own Russia are so complicated that prolonged explanations are necessary albeit dry. Each time the narrative focuses its attention back to Catherine though, the prose again becomes mesmerizing enough to keep a reader’s attention.

There is so much to admire about Catherine the Great. Her ability to survive in a foreign court with an disinterested, childish husband and vicious Empress as her mother-in-law is amazing. Her understanding of Russian politics and ability to capitalize on popular opinion not only helped her claim her crown but served her well through her long reign. Her friendships with Voltaire, Diderot, and other enlightened philosophers allowed her to remain beloved among her subjects as her progressive leanings prevented her from being as harsh and autonomous as previous Russian czars. She was a remarkable woman with an astonishingly adroit understanding of contemporary politics living in an extraordinary period in history. Mr. Massie has managed to bring this remarkable woman back to life with his detailed and exquisitely written biography.

Acknowledgments: Thank you to Erika Gruber at Random House Publishing for my review copy!
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LibraryThing member itbgc
Robert Massie has written another outstanding biography--Catherine the Great. From the first page to the last, I was totally captivated by the stories of the highly intelligent, powerful Catherine II and the people around her, including her crazy husband and her lovers. (Fortunately, "the bedroom
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door is shut" on details of her sexual experiences.) So many times I thought, “Truth is stranger than fiction!” while reading this book. Massie describes interesting details about 18th Century Russia, the different classes of people (serfs, soldiers, clergy, nobility, royalty), the major events of the world during Catherine’s rein as empress (including the American and French Revolutions), and of course, Catherine herself. What an extraordinary story about an extraordinary woman!
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LibraryThing member carterchristian1
A satisfying if not perfect biography.
LibraryThing member LiteraryFeline
I confess I am not particularly enamored by royalty, whether past or present. And so when it comes to reading about the royalty (fiction or nonfiction), I tend to steer clear unless a book comes highly recommended. Add to it the fact I am not a big biography fan. I have read really good ones and
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some that are not so good--okay, a couple that were downright awful. Catherine the Great: A Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie falls into the really good category. Catherine the Great: A Portrait of a Woman was my book club's March reading selection. I probably would not have read it without their urging.

Having spent nearly a decade researching Catherine and her life, Massie's book is well documented. He captures Catherine's voice in the pages, something I've found can be difficult to do when it comes to biographies.

Catherine began as Sophia Augusta Fredericka, the daughter of a devout Lutheran general and governor and an ambitious and vain mother. She was precocious and intelligent. She loved to read, not to mention learn. Sophia was a girl after my own heart. I saw in the young woman a kindred spirit. She was someone I wish I could have known. Her family was not wealthy and her station relatively low, despite Sophia's princess status. As a result, her mother wanted Sophia to marry well and planned and schemed accordingly.

Sophia's marriage to Peter of Holstein-Gottorp was not only a match sought by Sophia's mother, but also by both Frederick II of Prussia and Empress Elizabeth of Russia for political reasons. It also served Sophia's purposes. It was a way out of her mother's household. Sophia, renamed Catherine by Elizabeth upon her conversion to Eastern Orthodoxy and marriage to Peter III, was to become one of the most well known and thought of leaders in Russian history.

Catherine was extremely bright and knew how to get what she wanted. She was ambitious, but her ambition for power was marked by her desire to better Russia--not just her own station. She was a relatively benevolent leader, interested in the arts and culture. She desired to better Russian society, including ending serfdom, something she was unable to do due to politics and various circumstances. She was a strong believer in the Enlightenment and tried to apply many of its teachings in her leadership of Russia, sometimes with success and often without. Catherine was a hands on leader, taking part in local government as well as issues abroad. She helped make Russia a country to contend with. She truly was ahead of her time.

Catherine's relationship with her husband was an interesting one. If sources are to be believed, she and he never consummated their marriage. Peter III was an interesting man. Peculiar is the word that comes to mind.

I was fascinated by Empress Elizabeth. I can see why Catherine was enamored by her initially. She could be very maternal on one hand and very cruel on the other. It broke my heart when she took Catherine's children from her and would not allow her to hold or see them right after they were born. And then to send away anyone either Peter or Catherine became close to . . . I also was appalled by her treatment of Ivan, the boy who could threaten her hold on the thrown. He had been an innocent child when locked away and was never allowed to have even a smidgeon of a normal life.

Over her lifetime, Catherine took on many lovers and, where she was skilled in her role as empress, she was less successful in her personal relationships. Even as a leader, Catherine did not use the best judgement, sometimes giving in to vanity or fear. You would have thought she'd learn from the way she had been treated to not make the same mistakes, and yet she did. But then, Catherine was only human and we are all guilty of that.

The biography covers a lot of ground and explores nearly every facet of Catherine's life, including offering in depth descriptions of the influential people in her life. I was never bored, although I did favor the first half of the book over the second. The war and political maneuvering in the second half took more careful reading to get through.

Russian history is not my strong suit and so I knew very little about Catherine going into the book. Massie clearly thinks highly of Catherine and it shows in the presentation of his book. Just the same, I believe he was fair in his assessment, sharing both the good and the bad. I walked away from the book wanting to know more--and I look forward to reading more about Catherine in the future.
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LibraryThing member lansum
Author Robert K. Massie draws a fascinating portrait of an extremely powerful woman in a man's world. He also shows the world of 18th century royalty, both within Russia and throughout Europe.
LibraryThing member AuntieClio
I enjoy Massie's writing (I've also read Peter the Great). I highly recommend this book for anybody interested in strong women or history, or a good biography. I loved this story of a girl plucked from the lower nobility to become wife and queen consort to the next in line for the Russian throne.
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Through astute maneuvering, she grabbed the reins of power from her hopeless husband and guided Russia for more than 30 years.
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LibraryThing member cameling
The evolution of a young German princess into a powerful and rich ruler of Russia makes for fascinating reading. This narrative biography shows the very human side of Catherine the Great, how she arrived in Russia as a 14 year old Sophia of Anhalt as a bride for Crown Prince Peter, and upon
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conversion to the Russian Orthodox church, became Catherine.

Intelligent as she was beautiful, Catherine read and educated herself. She also learned very quickly how to stay on the good side of her mother-in-law, the temperamental Empress Elizabeth who needed to control everything and everyone around her. Married to Peter who preferred his mistresses to his wife, and being aware that Elizabeth wanted an heir to the throne, Catherine embarked on the first of many affairs and became pregnant. When her son, Paul, was born, Elizabeth in reality kidnapped her grandson and brought him up as her own. Catherine wasn't allowed to even see her own son until he was almost a year old. That she didn't form any maternal bonds with him over the years is thus, understandable.

When Peter III died after a bloodless coup, there was suspicions that Catherine had a hand in his death, but this has never been proven.

Palace intrigues, treacherous conspiracies, love affairs, greed and power plays abound in the telling of this portion of the Romanov history, and Catherine handled it all with cunning and skill. She not only ruled the large empire, she also fought wars with Turkey, Poland and Sweden successfully, cultivated art and promoted education. The palaces and buildings she had built in St Petersburg remain some of the most beautiful today.
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LibraryThing member MarysGirl
This is an ARC (with several typos and formatting issues which should be taken care of in the final printing) received through the Early Readers Program at LibraryThing. From the backflap:

"The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Peter the Great," "Nicholas and Alexandra," and "The Romanovs" returns
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with another masterpiece of narrative biography, the extraordinary story of an obscure young German princess who traveled to Russia at fourteen and rose to become one of the most remarkable, powerful, and captivating women in history."

My review:

Massie delivers a wonderfully researched and readable book. My knowledge of Catherine the Great was vague to the point of mythical. I had hazy memories of multiple lovers, a (possible) scandal about her and a horse, and a movie starring Greta Garbo. The lovers were real, but few; there was no mention of the horse; and the movie turned out to be about Queen Christina of Sweden who lived a century earlier. So much for memory.

To say Catherine is a fascinating character is to do her a disservice. Massie shows her towering intellect, force of personality, and steely resolve from an early age. He also shows us her craving for love and approval denied in childhood and in her marriage. But her story is not a simplistic psycho-drama, it's populated with complicated characters, shifting political agendas (both domestic and foreign), and colored with the burgeoning philosophies of the Age of Enlightenment.

In the U.S. we tend to forget that the world goes on perfectly well without us. It was fun to read a book set during the turbulent times in our revolution and see it be a postscript in one chapter where Britain asked Russia for some troops. (Catherine didn't send any, so the Brits got Hessians instead.) While we were fighting our backwoods guerrilla war, Catherine was partitioning Poland, expanding Russia to the Black Sea (at Turkey's expense) and building the finest art collection in Europe. She wrote a remarkable document on human rights and government several years before our Declaration of Independence and advocated freeing the Russian serfs while we were legitimizing slavery in our constitution. Unfortunately, the Russian nobility wasn't ready for those significant changes.

Massie takes seriously his subtitle: "Portrait of a Woman" by providing us with insight into Catherine's everyday life, her relationships, fears and triumphs. My heart went out to the young woman who gave birth to her first child, only to have the Empress Elizabeth snatch the child away within seconds, leaving the mother alone and bleeding on the floor for hours. Given her own mother's neglect, her insane husband's abuse and Elizabeth's horrendous treatment; it's a wonder Catherine turned out sane, much less one of the most powerful and insightful rulers in Europe. Highly recommend this one.
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LibraryThing member AnnieMod
Good history books are written by two types of authors - historians, that can be forgiven for some weird word choices because of their knowledge and the fact that they can connect the dots between the events, and good authors that know how to tell a story. Massie is from the second type -- he has a
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historical education but he is an author more than a historian. And this book shows it.

The story of Catherine the Great is one of the most fascinating stories of the 18th century. And when Massie decided to tackle this story he started from the beginning - from her parents and where she was coming from (which reminded me again just how many German princes had been around in the 18th and 19th century... and how interconnected the European royal families are). The first half of the book, the years before Catherine became an empress are smoothly told - with a bit too many details in a lot of places but then this is why new biographies are written for the most popular historical figures. The narrative get a bit repetitive in places (for some reason Massie decides to repeat what he had said a few pages earlier -- maybe afraid that people had forgotten already) but once you get in the flow of the story, all these can be almost forgotten.

And then Catherine becomes the empress. And the book takes a dive down. The previously linear biography now start jumping through times and places and then returning; while in the pre-throne days it was easy to follow what is going up at a certain point of time, in the days of her reign, the reader has to collect pieces and bits from the whole second half of the book in order to figure out what happens at a specific time. For example, while discussing the second Russo-Turkish war (the second one that Catherine yields anyway), the Baltic war and the French Revolution are not mentioned at all. Then a chapter or 2 later, one of the topics comes up. Then the second. Then Massie reminds us what else is happening and he already talked about. And then adds a new fact and reminds of the old ones. He tries to build this part of the book based on topics (wars, favorites and so on) but they are inseparable - and when he tries to reconcile this with the new structure of the books, Massie ends up with a somewhat disorganized mess on his hands.

Despite that, the book is highly readable - although I am not sure how many of the subtle connections will become clear to someone that does not know the history already. One thing that Massie does masterfully is to weave into his narrative seemingly unrelated stories - the French Revolution, the story of Diderot and Voltaire... Some of the details probably could have been spared but these stories do not break the book narrative (probably because it is already disjointed at this point). At the same time, some gaps are hard to be explained - we know that Catherine had 3 children but we hear nothing of Alexis and Anna once they are born. Paul is in the narrative only because he is the heir and because she needs him.

At one point, Massie claims that Catherine's story could have been a lot more like Elisabeth's (the Tudor queen of 2 centuries earlier) if things had started differently for her. I tend to disagree here - the story is so parallel that it takes your breath. Yes - they live on both sides of the continent and 2 centuries apart; Catherine has a lot of lovers while the English queen remain virgin officially (but in the way they select their favorites, the similarities shine again) but their lives and reigns are similar. Maybe this is what it takes to be a female monarch in the centuries when women were considered second rate people.

So did I like the book? The truth is that I actually quite enjoyed it. I wish some things were handled differently -- but it is the author decision to structure his book like this and at the end of the day it works... for the most part.
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LibraryThing member UberButter
Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Maise

★★ ½

I am surprised I got through this book. However, it took me over 4 weeks to finish this tome. I love biographies, regardless of length, and I really wanted to like this book but it was just too much for me. I was bored from the
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beginning. The book goes into TOO much detail. Do you really care that one of Catherine’s ladies in waiting had incontinence? Yeah, me neither. Besides the repetitiveness of most of the book, it seems like the author was trying extra hard to make this book extra long by putting extra boring information that made little difference in the scheme of things and I mean pages and pages of information. I couldn’t keep everyone straight and honestly, I could have cared less if I did or not. It was a jumbled mess to me after awhile. This book may be better titled “Catherine the Great: The Copying of her Diary and Letters. Oh, and Lovers.” What annoyed me is with the extent of stuff put into this book, it seems as if some major aspects are missing. For instance - she had more than one child, but except for passing, they are never mentioned again (except the one that would take her place on the throne). And you may be saying “perhaps there was no info on them.” No, research proves there is, including a child never even mentioned in this book.

With that in mind, there was some interesting tidbits in here. Catherine was a fascinating woman that went from minor nobility in a tiny province to the Duchess of Russia. She was darn good at what she did and her life is full of ups and downs. I do believe that this book would have been much better if it had been cut my half. Even for a major lover of history and biographies, it was too much for me. Which is too bad because I had such high hopes for this one.

It should be noted that I seem to be in the minority here. The book has fairly good rating. Perhaps I missed something.
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LibraryThing member nbmars
There is never a dull moment in this outstanding biography of Russia’s Catherine the Great, who ruled Russia for 34 years, from 1762 until her death in 1796. She turned from liberal to conservative to reactionary over time (and as the revolution in France put her in fear of her own position as
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monarch) but nevertheless left a great legacy to Russia, including the acquisition of a Black Sea port, the importation of European philosophy, literature, art, medicine, education, and at least an introduction to the idea of eventual political reform. She never waivered however, in her belief that absolute monarchy was the most fitting way to govern Russia. Her leadership was enhanced later in her regime by the collaboration of her long-time lover and partner, Gregory Potemkin, who masterfully helped her shape the Empire. He died five years before Catherine's own death.

Massie paints a sympathetic portrait of Catherine, taking us through her loveless upbringing; loveless (and sexless) marriage to the heir of Empress Elizabeth, Peter III, who had also grown up without love and who spent all his time - even as an adult! - playing with toy soldiers; her efforts at self-education; her friends, associates, lovers, and political liaisons. This book could also serve as a great way to understand why this era was so prone to revolutionary uprisings. Massie is entirely focused on Catherine and the royal lifestyle, but one can only imagine the condition of the peasantry who had to support it even while they often starved. Her predecessor, for example, The Empress Elizabeth, who brought Catherine at age 14 to Russia, had some 15,000 gowns and robes. (She refused to wear a dress more than once.) And these outfits were studded with jewels and fur. Moreover, she had her hair woven with diamonds and pearls, and on her neck she wore sapphires, emeralds, and rubies. Court dinners offered fifty to sixty different dishes.

Catherine continued Elizabeth’s extravagant ways. Her imperial crown was crusted with diamonds and surmounted by an enormous 389-carat ruby. She purchased fabulous art collections, and bestowed money freely as bribes and rewards. She did, at first, try to do something to help the ten million serfs, or slaves, in Russia. But the nobility, on whom she was dependent for her power, would not agree to any betterment of the conditions of serfdom, and early on she gave up trying. (The nobility owned some 56 percent of the total number of serfs, who were considered to be a human subspecies by their owners, and treated accordingly.)

Catherine had twelve lovers during her lifetime, and each one received hundreds of thousands of rubles, titles, at least one palace or estate, and more monetary support for the family of the favorite. St. Petersburg became a jewel of a city with all the beautiful mansions she had built, but the vast majority of Russians remained mired in poverty. These lower classes, often starving, tried to stage a revolt during Catherine’s reign, but were defeated by her military. Indeed, the vast chasm in wealth in Russia and the resentment it created was not exceptional in Europe; Massie’s only digression from Catherine's story concerns the revolution in France.

By the end of this absorbing narrative, we understand well how Catherine came to be the person she was. Massie shows us a woman who was brave, proud, confident, and endlessly ambitious. We come to sympathize with her frustrations and fears, but we also see clearly how inexorably Catherine repeats toward her own heirs the injustices that were committed toward her. In spite of the riches and the incredible luxury in which she lived compared to others, she did not have the best life. But she did the best she could under the circumstances, and what she did was very good indeed.

Evaluation: This excellent and well-researched history was a pleasure to read (and one of my top ten reads for 2011). Like a novel, it focuses on family, love, sex, betrayal, and survival, and leaves the bulk of information on military battles, foreign policy, and the like, to other, drier authors. In an afterward, the author says he will miss Catherine after spending so much time researching her, and I feel I will miss her too.
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LibraryThing member alchymyst
Robert K. Massie has a talent for writing biographies that read like fiction. Catherine the Great is an absorbing read – partly because her life was so fascinating, partly because of Massie's engaging style. He paints a portrait of an 'enlightened autocrat' who is powerful yet rules with
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tolerance and without cruelty (he mentions quite a few times Catherine's opposition to the uses of torture and her tolerance of religious minorities in Southern Russia). He attempts to uncover motivations for her actions through her memoirs and letters. Massie speculates about her choices of favorites and about her relationship with her son Paul. In fact, the book is largely about Catherine's relationships with other people: her mother, empress Elizabeth, Peter III, her favorites, and the heads of foreign states like Frederick II.

My only real problem with this book is that Massie mentions Platon Zubov, Catherine's last favorite, a few times in a way that makes the reader expect a whole chapter on the man, yet never really offers any more information.

I think this would be a great biography to start learning about Catherine's fascinating life and reign. It would also be a good book for somebody not particularly familiar with Russian and European history of the time, as some background is provided throughout the volume.
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LibraryThing member buffalogr
This is a looonnnng listening book. I learned a lot about one of the two or three female monarchs in Europe during the last few millenia.
LibraryThing member MarFisk
Normally I would not review a book before I finish reading it, but this one came out on Monday, and I wanted to give a mention. I requested the book through Library Thing because Massey's Nicholas and Alexandra was one of my favorite books in my teens, and held up amazingly well when I reread it a
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short while ago. The biggest surprise in the reread is that the book was non-fiction.

Catherine the Great has that same ability to transform history into a pageant of interesting people doing interesting things. What seems organized and coordinated from the dates and events list most history books depend on becomes a chaos of often petty emotions and rulers who are set with their backs against a wall to make crazy decisions.

I often forget, in the telling, that I am once again reading a non-fiction book, despite the narrative telling style and the interjection of diary entries and letters as appropriate to support the unfolding events.

If you haven't tried history through Massey's pen, you owe yourself the favor of picking up Catherine the Great. Whether fascinated with Russian history or not, you will be by the end, and for the writers in this crowd, it provides a close and personal look at the inner workings of a royal court that could prove useful in fleshing out stories set in this timeframe, or even ones with a royal background.
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LibraryThing member rmckeown
Forty some years ago, as I gathered textbooks at LaSalle College for another semester pursing a degree in political science, I happened to pass a textbook for a class which not in my major. I grabbed a copy, and thus began a lifelong interest in the history of Russia. Robert K. Massie has written a
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definitive biography of Tsarina Catherine II, known as Catherine the Great.

Well-educated, multi-lingual, cultured, free-spirited, graceful, with a good measure of beauty and charm only begins to describe this complex, intelligent woman.

Catherine, a voracious reader of the great enlightenment thinkers such as Diderot, Montesquieu, Beccaria, and, perhaps most importantly, Voltaire, attempted a radical reform of the Russian legal and economic systems. She titled her document the “Nakaz,” or “Instruction.” She believed a benevolent autocracy was the only form of government able to hold together the vast Russian Empire with its mind-numbing variety of ethnic groups, languages, philosophies, religious views, and social classes.

The same men who profoundly influenced our founding fathers, instructed Catherine in equal rights for men and women, religious freedom, strict limits on capital punishment, and the banning of torture. Unfortunately, the serfs, considered property tied to the land, would only receive limited benefits from this proposal. When the nobles finished hacking and sawing the 500 plus articles in her manifesto, barely a quarter of her two-year’s labor remained. Yet Voltaire hailed it as masterpiece of Enlightenment thought and practice.

I was particularly struck by some ideas and quotes of Voltaire’s incorporated into the Nakaz. For example, Catherine wrote, “Experience shows that the frequent use of severe punishment has never rendered a people better. The death of a criminal is a less effective means of restraining crimes than the permanent example of a man deprived of his liberty during the whole of his life to make amends for the injury he has done to the public” (350). This sentence is worthy of Jefferson, Washington, Adams, or Lincoln.

In prohibiting censorship and promoting free speech, she wrote, “censorship can be ‘productive of nothing but ignorance and must cramp the rising efforts of genius and destroy the very will for writing” (351).

When Catherine ascended the throne in 1761, she immediately put an end to a pointless, costly, and destructive war in Eastern Europe. She believed, as Voltaire wrote, “The victorious nation never profits from the spoils of the conquered; it pays for everything. It suffers as much when its armies are successful as when they are defeated. Whoever wins, humanity loses” (335).

This meticulously documented biography covers Catherine’s life from her birth as Sophia in 1727 through her 34-year reign as Empress Catherine II to her death in 1796.

The only shortcoming – and a minor one at that – is the lack of genealogical chart to separate all the Catherines, Peters, Pauls, and Ivans which populated the Russian Empire during the enlightenment. Due for publication November 8th, be sure to add this fascinating biography to your TBR list. 5 stars.

--Jim, 10/27/11
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