Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman - Robert K. Massie

Title: Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman
Author: Robert K. Massie
File Size (Pages): 10276 KB (625 pages)
Published: 2011
Challenges: 2011 Support Your Library
Genre: Biography, History
Edition: E-book
Source: Library

Description: 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. 

Thoughts: For most of the book, I enjoyed it. It was interesting to read about a woman that so clearly was very complex and fascinating.   And since it has been about a week since I finished the book, I can't really recall what I thought about the book, except that it was a fascinating read and something I enjoyed for most of the book and got a little frustrated with towards the end, as it seemed to talk about things that started to bore me and the only complaint I had with the book was that the author spent an entire chapter near the end of the book on the French Revolution.

Bottom line: Be prepared that this book is long and also long on description and he seems to take a long time in getting into the meat of the story and doesn't spend a lot of time on her early life, either because there wasn't much on it or it just wasn't as interesting as the era in which she was trying to overthrow her husband, who clearly from her point of view wasn't fit to lead.  I would recommend this to those that enjoy reading biographies of major political figures and don't mind a book filled with minute details.

Rating: 4/5

Pages for 2012: 6279


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