Summary and book reviews of Catherine the Great by Robert Massie

Catherine the Great

Portrait of a Woman

By Robert K. Massie

Catherine the Great
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  • Hardcover: Nov 2011,
    656 pages.
    Paperback: Sep 2012,
    672 pages.

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Book Reviewed by:
Elizabeth Whitmore Funk

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Book Summary

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.

1

Sophia's Childhood

Prince Christian Augustus of Anhalt-Zerbst was hardly distinguishable in the swarm of obscure, penurious noblemen who cluttered the landscape and society of politically fragmented eighteenth-century Germany. Possessed neither of exceptional virtues nor alarming vices, Prince Christian exhibited the solid virtues of his Junker lineage: a stern sense of order, discipline, integrity, thrift, and piety, along with an unshakable lack of interest in gossip, intrigue, literature, and the wider world in general. Born in 1690, he had made a career as a professional soldier in the army of King Frederick William of Prussia. His military service in campaigns against Sweden, France, and Austria was meticulously conscientious, but his exploits on the battlefield were unremarkable, and nothing occurred either to accelerate or retard his career. When peace came, the king, who was once heard to refer to his loyal officer as "that idiot, Zerbst," gave him command of an infantry ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. What did you know about Catherine the Great before reading this book? Were there things you learned from the book that matched your previous impressions of her? What did you learn about her that surprised you?

  2. How important were Catherine's memoirs to the portrait Massie draws of her? What aspects of Catherine and her early life would we have missed had she not written her memoirs? What reasons might she have had for concluding them at the point she did and not writing about the years after 1758?

  3. In the first chapter, Massie writes: "Even as Empress Catherine, at the height of her autocratic power, she wished not only to be admired for her extraordinary mind and obeyed as an empress, but also to find the elemental creature ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse

[Massie] carefully explains and analyzes memoirs, letters, and political essays from both Catherine and her contemporaries and demonstrates a literary critic's knack for extracting meaning from single phrases or words. In doing so, he creates a dramatic tension that is as good as any novel.   (Reviewed by Elizabeth Whitmore Funk).

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Media Reviews
Kirkus Reviews

Massie delivers a fascinating account of dog-eat-dog politics in 18th-century Europe and the larger-than-life Russian empress who gave as good as she got.

Library Journal

No one does Russian history like Massie... He's absorbing and accessible yet well grounded; his new work should fascinate.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Effectively utilizing Catherine's own memoirs, Massie once again delivers a masterful, intimate, and tantalizing portrait of a majestic monarch.

bn.com

In Massie, [Catherine the Great's] tumultuous story finds an ideal teller. Peter the Great, his last large-scale life, won the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for Biography.

Reader Reviews
John T Alexander

Massie's mess
Robert Massie cannor read Russian! That fact tells me a lot about his latest book! the man has lost his marbles at 82, but historians of russia have long known him as a fraud! Jut ask his first wife where he got his info! It's simply amazing to ...   Read More

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The Memoirs of Catherine the Great

The Memoirs of Catherine the Great

Robert K. Massie constructed his biography of Catherine the Great relying heavily on material from her memoirs (now published by Random House under the title The Memoirs of Catherine the Great), which provided him with rare, honest views of an eighteenth century royal's life.

The Memoir of Catherine the Great These memoirs make for rewarding reading in their own right and are vastly supplemented by the dramas, letters, journalism, and political theory that she published in her lifetime. Though they were originally written in French, her preferred language, they have since been translated into numerous languages and published throughout the world.

Catherine began writing her memoirs in her early teens and revised her work ...

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