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Monday, January 30, 2012

Catherine the Great by Robert K. Massie - BOOK REVIEW

Catherine the Great by Robert K. Massie
Title:  Catherine the Great
Author: Robert K. Massie                                 
Publisher:   Random House
Release Date:  November 8, 2011
Hardcover, 625 pages
ISBN 10:      0679456724
ISBN 13:   9780679456728
The Book Depository / Amazon

December, 2011 Indie Next List

Goodreads 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.

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.

My Take: 

I don't read a lot of biographies, mainly because they tend to be dry and difficult to really get into.  

This biography is a wonderful exception. Written as a narrative biography and impeccably researched, you will come away feeling as though you know almost everything there is to know about Catherine the Great - her life, her marriage(s)? (there is one that may or may not have been a marriage - Mr. Massie offers up excerpts from letters that indicate that she may have had a second marriage), her lovers, her family, her first husband Peter - his personality, overthrow, imprisonment and subsequent death - her children, the intrigues between Prussia, Austria, France, England and Turkey - just a plethora of information that  includes information gleaned from letters, writing, and other historical accounts.

 Some tidbits: 
  • Peter didn't consummate his marriage to Catherine for nine years
  • None of Catherine's children were biologically Peter's
  • Elizabeth, a fickle empress, kept Peter and Catherine under her thumb with harsh overseers and virtually no outside sommunication
  • Catherine's own written memoirs end on her 29th birthday
  • When Catherine first took the throne, she had a goal of gradually freeing the serfs, but found that it would be almost impossible to do.  The French Revolution and the mayhem and executions that followed put that idea completely out of her mind.
  • Catherine may or may not have been married to Gregory Potemkin
I had only a few quibbles with this novel - there were a couple of instances of fact repeating, where something would be stated on one page and a few pages later, the same thing would be repeated.  There was also mention of her three children, all born from different lovers, but two of them disappear from the pages, so much so that midway through:

Except for her son, Paul, and, later, her grandchildren, she had no family, and to Grimm alone she could pour out her thoughts and feelings as she might have done with a fond uncle or an older brother.

I would have liked to know a bit more about what happened to her other son and daughter.

The book almost faithfully follows a chronological sequence, except toward the end, when quite a few non-related items that weren't mentioned earlier in the reading are gone into.

I applaud this book as a wonderful, fully fact-based representation of a fascinating woman. 

QUOTES (from an ARC; may be different in final copy):

On Diderot:  The man she saw before her possessed a "high brow receding on a half-bald head; large rustic ears and a big bent nose, firm mouth ..[and] brown eyes, heavy and sad, as if recalling unrecallable errors, or realizing the indestructibility of superstition, or noting the high birth rate of simpletons."

On love:  Desire for love and sex played little part in attracting her lovers to her; they were motivated by ambition, desire for prestige, wealth, and, in some cases, power.  Catherine knew this.

It was Catherine's wish, however, that the deterioration of their private relationship be kept hidden. Peter, lacking both the inner resources and Catherine's consuming ambition, could put on no such show.  Smallpox had delivered a shattering blow to his mental as well as his physical health; his gross disfigurement had affected his psychological balance.

Catherine soon realized that the harsh treatment of Maria Zhukova was a clear signal to everyone in the young court that those who were suspected of closeness to either Catherine or Peter were liable to find themselves, on one pretext or another, transferred, dismissed, disgraced, or even imprisoned.

BOOK RATING:  4.75 out of 5 stars

BLOGGERS:  Have you reviewed this book? If so, please feel free to leave a link to your review in the comments section; I will also add your link to the body of my review.

Catherine The Great Critic Rating by idreambooks.com

BUY IT:  At Amazon, The Book Depository, through the publisher's website,  and through other on-and-off-line booksellers.

One of my listed titles for the 2012 150+ Reading Challenge
One of my listed titles for the 2012 ARC Reading Challenge
One of my listed titles for the 2012 Chunkster Challenge

Disclosure:  I  received a  complimentary ARC of this title from the publisher to facilitate my review.  No other compensation was received and I was not required to post a positive review.


  1. I have read so many wonderful reviews on this book. This also goes to my TBR list.

  2. This is the one biography I want to read that I haven't had a chance to yet.

  3. Received this for Christmas...so glad it's worth the time and effort!

  4. I pegged you one for reading biographies for some reason. The problem with biographies is that when they're bad, they're horrific, but when they're good... wow!!!

    Anyway, sounds like a winner.


  5. I don't read a lot of biographies either, but I want to read this one. I have heard that it reads like historical fiction. Thanks for your review.
    -FABR Steph@FiveAlarmBookReviews


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