Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman (Hardcover)

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Staff Reviews

Would the world be a better place if more women were heads of State?  Between the sexes, "competence" scores a draw.  Yet women seem to carry more compassion, empathy and "workforce finesse" than power-hungry men.  Not convinced?  Well, if there ever was a proof point to this view, it came in the name of Catherine the Great of Russia.  She rose from obscurity in Anhalt-Zerbst (Germany) to marry the grandson of Peter The Great, thanks to an arranged hook-up by Empress Elizabeth.  Peter III was ill fit for anything -- except playing with toy soldiers.  Consequently, Catherine spent her first nine years in marriage a virgin.  I know, why wait?  To heir is human, but they were not coming.  So, she took matters into her own bed and began relations with the first of 12 "favorites".  Face it, she knew how to ruffle the sheets.

Peter flitted about in idiocy, eventually dying and laying the ground for Catherine to rule the largest empire at the time on earth.  Up to the task?  For her 34 years on the throne, few could keep up with her.  She was incredibly bright, well read, shrewd, courageous, open minded, enlightened about personal liberty with a distaste for human suffering.  In short, she ruled with an iron hand and a head full of grand plans.  Where she was rather spectacular about making love, she also excelled in making war.  She hob-nobbed with the likes of Voltaire and Diderot, took time to rewrite basic laws (Nakaz) for Russia, formed the first college of medicine, turned a back-water St. Petersburg on the Baltic into worldly magnificence -- thanks to her collection of over 4,000 paintings amassed in her spare time.

Russia.  So monumental.  So dark and mysterious -- particularly during the time of our American Revolution.  This book throws the doors open to a fascinating place and period in world history.  In 1980, Robert Massie published Peter the Great.  More than 30 years later, he follows with Catherine.  If you have an itch to explore Russian history -- the Orlovs, the Romanovs, an odd fellow named Potemkin and others -- and gain a better understanding of how this massive nation became what it is today, this book is for you.  We Americans tend to be influenced more by Western European lore.  There is so much more.  Russia possesses a heritage rich in multidimensional textures and flavors that beg to be sensed.  And Massie brings everything to light in delicious prose.  Cold winter nights ahead will have a glow when this book is in your lap.

— From Bob's Book Talk

December 2011 Indie Next List

“This is an admiring biography of the minor German princess who, through cleverness, audacity, and ambition, deposed her incompetent husband, a grandson of Peter the Great, to become Empress of Russia. An 'enlightened' autocrat, Catherine did not succeed at all she attempted, but Massie argues persuasively that she truly earned the title bestowed upon her by the Russian people. What a woman, what a book!”
— Arlene Cook, Watermark Book Co., Anacortes, WA


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.

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.

Praise For…


"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

Coverage from NPR

Product Details
ISBN: 9780679456728
ISBN-10: 0679456724
Publisher: Random House
Publication Date: November 8th, 2011
Pages: 656
Language: English