Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman

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

DK 170 .M34 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 and literary figures of her time: Voltaire, Frederick the Great, Marie Antoinette, and, surprisingly, the American naval hero John Paul Jones.

Reaching the throne 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. Her reputation depended entirely on the perspective of the speaker. Praised by Voltaire and Diderot as the equal of the greatest of classical philosophers, she was simultaneously vilified, mostly by foreigners, 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 than that of Catherine the Great. In this book, an eternally fascinating woman is returned to life.” – publisher description

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