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4.6 out of 5 stars
Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on July 8, 2012
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
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. In the history of Russia, she and Peter the Great tower in ability and achievement over the other 14 tsars and empresses of the three hundred year Romanov dynasty.'

The history of this period makes for fascinating reading: 18th century geopolitics were complex and Mr Massie presents detailed information clearly. Catherine herself is presented sympathetically by Mr Massie: a child neglected by her mother; a wife ignored by her husband; a highly intelligent woman who had platonic relationships with thinkers like Diderot and Voltaire, and physical relationships with a number of different noble favourites some of whom fathered her children.

This is both a detailed biography of Catherine the Great and a detailed history of Europe's 18th century, and while it wasn't always easy to read I found it absorbing. At times, I found myself admiring Catherine and sympathizing with her. At other times I found her actions at deplorable. She could be both courageous, and insensitive. She was definitely, though, fascinating. The woman who `became the greatest collector and patron of art in the history of Europe' was interested in public health, was inoculated against smallpox and was also an insensitive mother.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on July 17, 2014
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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TOP 500 REVIEWERon November 18, 2014
Catherine the Great was truly an incredible woman. Robert K. Massie did a great job of detailing her life in an interesting way. I was pleasantly surprised at how in detail this book goes. I finished the book having a much better understanding of Russian history and the Great Empress.
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on October 13, 2013
Massie's writing style and deep research of Catherine's history make for a truly enjoyable read. I recommend this book to anyone who's interested in Russian history.
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