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Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman [Deckle Edge] [Hardcover]

Robert K. Massie
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Nov. 8 2011
The Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Peter the Great, Nicholas and Alexandra, and The Romanovs returns 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.

Born into a minor noble family, Catherine transformed herself into Empress of Russia by sheer determination. Possessing a brilliant mind and an insatiable curiosity as a young woman, she devoured the works of Enlightenment philosophers and, when she reached the throne, attempted to use their principles to guide her rule of the vast and backward Russian empire. She knew or corresponded with the preeminent historical figures of her time: Voltaire, Diderot, Frederick the Great, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, Marie Antoinette, and, surprisingly, the American naval hero, John Paul Jones.

Reaching the throne fired by Enlightenment philosophy and determined to become the embodiment of the “benevolent despot” idealized by Montesquieu, she found herself always contending with the deeply ingrained realities of Russian life, including serfdom. She persevered, and for thirty-four years the government, foreign policy, cultural development, and welfare of the Russian people were in her hands. She dealt with domestic rebellion, foreign wars, and the tidal wave of political change and violence churned up by the French Revolution that swept across Europe. Her reputation depended entirely on the perspective of the speaker. She was praised by Voltaire as the equal of the greatest of classical philosophers; she was condemned by her enemies, mostly foreign, as “the Messalina of the north.”

Catherine’s family, friends, ministers, generals, lovers, and enemies—all are here, vividly described. These included her ambitious, perpetually scheming mother; her weak, bullying husband, Peter (who left her lying untouched beside him for nine years after their marriage); her unhappy son and heir, Paul; her beloved grandchildren; and her “favorites”—the parade of young men from whom she sought companionship and the recapture of youth as well as sex. Here, too, is the giant figure of Gregory Potemkin, her most significant lover and possible husband, with whom she shared a passionate correspondence of love and separation, followed by seventeen years of unparalleled mutual achievement.

The story is superbly told. All the special qualities that Robert K. Massie brought to Nicholas and Alexandra and Peter the Great are present here: historical accuracy, depth of understanding, felicity of style, mastery of detail, ability to shatter myth, and a rare genius for finding and expressing the human drama in extraordinary lives.

History offers few stories richer in drama than that of Catherine the Great. In this book, this eternally fascinating woman is returned to life.

Frequently Bought Together

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman + Peter the Great: His Life and World + Nicholas and Alexandra
Price For All Three: CDN$ 62.62

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"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

About the Author

Robert K. Massie was born in Lexington, Kentucky, and studied American history at Yale and European history at Oxford, which he attended as a Rhodes Scholar. He was president of the Authors Guild from 1987 to 1991. His previous books include Nicholas and Alexandra, Peter the Great: His Life and World (for which he won a Pulitzer Prize for biography), The Romanovs: The Final Chapter, Dreadnought: Britain, Germany, and the Coming of the Great War, and Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea.

Inside This Book (Learn More)
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index
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Customer Reviews

4.5 out of 5 stars
4.5 out of 5 stars
Most helpful customer reviews
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Great readout one significant ommission July 8 2012
By Feebie
Thsi historical biography reads like a novel, a well researched undertaking of the story of a very interesting woman.. Motivated even at the age of fourteen to learn every thing she needed to learn to prepare herself for her future life as the empress . She was extremely smart and knew exactly what she needed to learn in order to succeed. While she failed in her efforts to eliminate slavery and her legislative changes were not fully implemented, she was a leader ahead of her time. The interesting omission is that there was no mention of her creation of the Pale of Settlement , which resulted in relocation of all the Jews to this area. I don' t understand why the author left this out.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
By Jennifer Cameron-Smith TOP 50 REVIEWER
Sophia Augusta Fredericka of Anhalt-Zerbst was born into a minor German noble family on 21 April 1729. Sophia was brought to Russia as a teenager, converted to Orthodoxy, renamed Catherine, and married off by the Empress Elizabeth Petrovna to her nephew and heir Peter. As Catherine II, she was Empress of Russia from 28 June 1762 until her death on 6 November 1796. She came to power following a coup d'état and the assassination of her husband, Peter III, and her reign is often considered the Golden Age of the Russian Empire. This was a period when the Russian Empire was expanding rapidly through both conquest and diplomacy. In the south, the Crimean Khanate was crushed following Russian victories over the Ottoman Empire, and Russia colonised territory along the coasts of the Azov and Black Seas. In the west, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was eventually partitioned between Austria, Prussia and Russia with Russia gaining the largest share.
Catherine often relied on her noble favourites, most notably Grigory Orlov (whose brother Alexei Grigoryevich Orlov's victory at Chesme Bay in June 1770 gave Russia a foothold in the Black Sea) and Grigory Potemkin (governor of Russia's new southern provinces and responsible for the annexation of the Crimea).

Catherine presided over the age of the Russian enlightenment, founding the Smolny Institute in 1764 (the first state-financed higher education institution for women in Europe), corresponded with Denis Diderot and Voltaire, and ruled as an enlightened despot.

`She was a majestic figure in the age of monarchy; the only woman to equal her on a European throne was Elizabeth I of England.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Greatness Personified in some (not all) respects Nov. 22 2012
This is one of two biographies made available via the Amazon US Vine program that I have read. The other is Kenneth Slawenski's J. D. Salinger: A Life. They have been widely reviewed and generally praised. My reviews of them are late to the proverbial "party."

In my opinion, here is what they share in common:

1. Their authors rely on a wealth of reputable sources, all duly cited.
2. Those who read these books will probably learn about as much as they want and need to know about the subject.
3. Their authors write very well. For example, the presentation of the material flows smoothly.

Other reviewers already have (by now) covered most of the main points to be made. I now share these:

1. I have always been intrigued by certain women throughout history who were great leaders. They include Catherine, of course, as well as Elizabeth I. How did they manage the power of their gifts for leadership and management with their human needs? What were the defining moments in the development as both leader and person?

2. To what extent is each a product of her age? Emblematic of her age? A new paradigm of her age?

3. What were the nature and extent of impact of her leadership in her own time? On subject generations? What then is her defining heritage?

I rate Robert Massie Five Stars on all counts.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Very Good Book about a Very Great Woman... July 17 2014
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I have thoroughly enjoyed every book I have read by Robert K. Massie; this book being no exception. I found the details very good, and Massie is able to paint a vivid picture of what life in Catherine's Court looked like. I only have one serious criticism of this book, and that would be the author's often spending more time talking about those around Catherine, rather than on the woman herself. I do concede that without proper historical context, many of the people in this book would not be understandable in what they do and why. From that point of view, Massie does those in Catherine's life a huge service. I would estimate that a good 1/3 of the book is not on Catherine, but those others, with parts to play. Other than my noted criticism, I would recommend this book for anyone interested in Russian history or just interested in a book that reads like a novel, but is completely factual.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great is right! July 19 2012
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Wonderfully written, well researched and a delight to read. A real page it on the city transit and missed a stop.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fine Biography April 11 2012
By Warren
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I am a bit of a fan of Robert Massie's work: he has made several eras of Russian history come alive for me. So I was predisposed to enjoy reading his biography of Catherine.

I was not disappointed: the lively pace rich with incident, the sense of insight into the characters of the key players and the manner in which he placed it all in the broader context of Europe during the Enlightenment all worked together to create a fascinating and satisfying read. He admits he fell a little under Catherine's spell himself, but it seems to have helped him to paint a colourful and vibrant portrait.

Two thumbs up.
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