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Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman

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Most Helpful Favorable Review

75 out of 85 people found this review helpful.

This is a gem

Catherine II, Empress of all the Russians, is known as one of the most powerful and hard working people in history. Many writers and historians have not always been sympathetic to her regarding her private life and have overlooked her achievements when ruling Russia. In...
Catherine II, Empress of all the Russians, is known as one of the most powerful and hard working people in history. Many writers and historians have not always been sympathetic to her regarding her private life and have overlooked her achievements when ruling Russia. In contrast, Mr. Massie has written a stellar biography of Catherine that tells the reader what an accomplished and remarkable woman she became. Catherine was born in Stettin, in 1729. Stettin was then Germany and is now Poland. Her father was Prince Christian Augustus of Anhalt-Zerbst, a prince of a lesser-known family among the many principalities in Germany. Her mother, Princess Johanna of Holstein-Gottorp, was much younger than the Prince but was from a much higher-ranked family. She was given the name: Sophia Augusta Frederika of Anhalt-Zerbst. After Sophia was born, her mother became bored with the provincial life of Stettin, where her husband was a high ranking officer in the Prussian Army. As Johanna was related to many noble families in Germany, she took every opportunity to travel to the courts of Zerbst, Hamburg, Brunswick, Kiel and even Berlin. Many years before this, Johanna's brother Prince Karl August of Holstein-Gottorp had gone to Russia to marry the Princess Elizabeth Petrovna, daughter of Peter the Great. Before the wedding took place, the Prince died of small pox, leaving Elizabeth heart-broken. Elizabeth's nephew, son of her sister Anna, came to St. Petersburg when his parents died at Elizabeth's behest and was named as the heir to the throne of Russia as his mother and Aunt were daughters of Peter the Great of Russia. In November of the year 1741, Princess Elizabeth seized the throne with the help of the Imperial Guards, formally declaring her nephew Peter Ulrich of Holstein-Gottorp the heir to the throne. When she brought him to St. Petersburg she changed his name to Grand Duke Peter Fedorovich, the future Tzar Peter III. Peter was now 14 years old and it was time to look for a bride for him. Elizabeth remembered fondly the family of Karl August, whom she had been engaged to marry and invited the Princess Johanna, sister of her deceased fiance and the Princess Sophia to come to St. Petersberg to meet the heir to the throne and plan a wedding between the two young people. Sophia's name was changed to Catherine II and she went on to marry the future Peter III. She was treated badly by Peter and looked for companionship elsewhere with young men of the court. Her favorite companion was Gregory Potempkin by whom, it was said, she had her child Paul, who became heir to the throne. While she was Empress, she dealt with the many trials and tribulations of her country and looked after the welfare of the Russian people. She was praised by many and, as usual, condemned by some - and the author has remarked on all of her triumphs and failures. Her family, friends, enemies, lovers, etc. are all told about in abundance, including her mother, forever making plans that made her look good, and her husband who had nothing to do with her, ignoring her most of the time. This story is grand and glorious as are Robert Massie's previous works: (Nicholas and Alexandra and Peter the Great: His Life and World). The story is accurate, the characters very true to life, with much style and detail. Quill Says: For readers of history, this is a gem. A life story of an extraordinary woman which is very rich in color and drama.

posted by FeatheredQuillBookReviews on September 26, 2011

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Most Helpful Critical Review

4 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

INTERESTING, NOT A PAGE TURNER

I trudged through this one, thinking it would be better as the pages rolled onwards. Wrong! Interesting story told in a pedantic and boring way. It's almost as if Mr. Massie felt he HAD to write another book about Russian monarchy for waht ever reason, but really didn't...
I trudged through this one, thinking it would be better as the pages rolled onwards. Wrong! Interesting story told in a pedantic and boring way. It's almost as if Mr. Massie felt he HAD to write another book about Russian monarchy for waht ever reason, but really didn't want to. Based on past works, this one is NOT a page turner, nor even worthy opf the time. Trivial fact after tivial fact, with no substance. Sorry, save your money.

posted by juliusa on February 14, 2012

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  • Posted February 10, 2012

    Excellent book!

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

    Having read multiple books by Robert Massie, my expectations were high for Catherine the Great: A Portrait of A Woman. And they were exceeded by this masterpiece! Born Sophia to an undistinguished prince and an immature princess, she started her life in bleak surroundings. Brought up to expect marriage, Sophia was introduced to many of her family’s cousins, uncles and far flung relatives. Upon meeting Peter (the future Peter III of Russia) as adolescents, her life was forever changed.

    At 14, Sophia was sent to Russia to marry the Archduke Peter and provide an heir to the throne. Now baptised as Catherine she endured years of loneliness and despair. She turned to books, friends and riding horses as a way to survive. Her husband was emotionally abused and physically scarred man. He was no companion or lover to help her through this trying time.

    Once Catherine the Second became Empress, she governed with the ideals of the Enlightenment philosophy she learned from her reading. She also corresponded with the great thinkers of the time. As Empress, she tried to work with the nobles to enact new laws and eliminate torture. She created universities, increased medical care and expanded artistic horizons. She strived for moral, political and judicial fairness, albeit governed by a benevolent dictator – her. She was human, and this biography of her does not gloss over her imperfections. This written picture of Catherine by Massie is complete portrait of this strong, yet vulnerable ruler.

    Catherine was a woman who had ambition. She wanted to be surrounded by laughter, humor and love. Most of all, she was a woman who strove to make Russia a better place for her countrymen. I was sad to finish this book, as I thoroughly enjoyed “getting to know” Catherine the Great.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 2, 2012

    Good, but. . . . .

    Mr. Massie's biography of Catherine the Great is a good read, no doubt. Especially interesting is the first half of the book from her birth to accession.
    His historical research of the subject seems well documented, but when he departs from his subject in Part V, Chapter 47 "Serfdom," he becomes unhinged from the historical record when he gratuitously includes one page or so about slavery in America. Gratuitous because it adds nothing to the book, and everyone knows slavery existed in America at that time. Unhinged from history, lamentably, because he summarily concludes, without any citation of historical authority, that Thomas Jefferson "for thirty-eight years" "lived with his slave Sally Hemings, who bore him seven children."
    Jefferson never lived with Hemings. Despite the fact that Jefferson had her brought to France when he was American ambassador, he did so as nanny to his young daughter Polly, and did not live with her there. In Virginia, Jefferson and Hemings never lived together; she was at Monticello and Jefferson rarely was.
    There is no reliable historical, or now scientific, evidence that Jefferson fathered any of Hemings's children. In fact, DNA testing conducted in 1998 proved only that at least one of Hemings's children was fathered by a Jefferson, but did not prove that Thomas Jefferson fathered any of the Hemings children. There is far more credible evidence that THE Jefferson male or males who fathered the Hemings children were his younger brother Randolph, and his nephews, brothers Peter and Samuel Carr. The DNA evidence incrimintes them equally with Thomas Jefferson, and the other hisorical evidence inculpates them and exculpates Thomas Jefferson to a large extent. (For further reading on the real evidence often overlooked in the popular rush to tear down an American hero, read "In Defense of Thomas Jefferson," by William G. Hyland, Jr., St. Martin's Press, New York, 2009.)
    Mr. Massie did a good job with his subject Catherine, but committed grievous historical inaccuracy and injustice when he strayed off topic for no good reason, apparently just to sling mud at the Founding Fathers. Perhaps these historical untruths will be deleted from future editions.

    1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 21, 2012

    Blah

    Not a page turner...so dry

    1 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 1, 2012

    Catherine Lives

    Robert Massie has spent his life intriguing his readers with a lens on the imperial Romanov dynasty. This is no less an intimate biography as it is a continuation of the marvelous historical connectivity of people, places, and things that starts with Peter the Great and ends with Nicholas. A fast read with a star of the same brilliance as Marilyn or Amy Winehouse.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 13, 2011

    Wonderful book

    I really enjoyed this book! I agree with others, it does read like a novel, not dry or boring at all. This is the first book I have read by Robert K. Massie but will not be the last. I am looking forward to reading his other books based on how well this book presented the information, making for an enjoyable read.
    If you enjoyed this book, I highly recommend you read: DESTINIES, a novel by Karleene Morrow. Don't let the cover picture mislead you about Destinies, it is also a wonderful book about Catherine The Great. It is NOT a trashy love story, it is a well researched and well written story about Catherine and her efforts to bring in tradesmen and their families from Germany to help bring Russia alongside the rest of Europe with the knowledge to make their own things, such as blacksmithing, harness making, etc. It was a long and treacherous journey for the Germans to migrate to where Catherine provided land for them for free. Almost like our Pioneers going west so many years ago.
    Having read Destinies first, I thoroughly enjoyed Catherine the Great allowing me to recognize and learn more about the people Catherine was surrounded by.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 5, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Highly Recommended!

    A fantastic account of this woman's life! A must for anyone who loves history!!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 26, 2014

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 6, 2014

    Really disappointing

    I disliked this book so strongly that I gave up on it part way through and sought out a better book on Catherine the Great. I was expecting a profile of Catherine and her achievements but found the book focused heavily on her lovers, and their roles in her governing. Surely this was part of her life, but even more surely there is more interesting material! I cant imagine a similar approach to a male leader passing as a history of him, and it doesnt work for Catherine the Great either.

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  • Posted March 15, 2014

    more from this reviewer

    Readable Biography

    It was the March selection for our book club. At 574 pages, Catherine the Great could have been a tedious read, but Robert K Massie brings the empress to life. I found it very informative and it was no problem to keep reading about her life.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 17, 2014

    Great!

    Great!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 13, 2013

    Great life,soo you must read it.

    I havent read this book yet, but I cant wait to start.

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  • Posted September 22, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    An incredibly deep (and long) work about an incredibly deep, pow

    An incredibly deep (and long) work about an incredibly deep, powerful, and long-lived woman who was Empress of one of the largest countries in the world. The book is roughly chronological, each chapter focusing on some aspect of Catherine's (nee Sophia) life and relationships, though there is much overlap. For example, in the chapters about Catherine and the Enlightenment, it discusses the 15+ years she corresponded with Voltaire. Obviously, during that time she was also Doing Other Things.

    As the subtitle "Portrait of a Woman" reflects, it is more about who Catherine was as am intelligent, proud, and passionate woman, rather than a listing of dates and significant historical events, though those are slipped in there, too. Her affairs and marriage(s?) are discussed at length, her tenuous relationship with her oldest son and tightrope relationship with Empress Elizabeth, who preceded her.

    It's rich and meaty, and I found it fascinating just how much influence one woman's drive and personality could have, not just upon the country she ruled, but on the countries she battled and allied with.

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  • Posted May 25, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    Well writthe biography of a remarkable person. The life of Cat

    Well writthe biography of a remarkable person.

    The life of Catherine the Great with all her achievements and failures ( both political and personal) makes for a fascinating story – if you can tell it well. This book does. The biography is well researched, well written, serious and dramatic at the same time. It also give a more broad picture of Russia and the world in the golden age of European monarchies, from everyday life to medicine and from philosophy and art to revolutions . It’s weak point, I think, is giving sometimes maybe too much credence to the written accounts of the time (including the ones by wily empress herself) . But even with skepticism about one detail or another, the book is a great read, even for someone who is not a enthusiast of Russian history.
    I grade books as Buy and Keep ( BK), Read a Library Copy (RLC) and Once-I-Put-It-Down-I-Couldn’t-Pick-It-Up (OIPD-ICPU). This one is a strong RLC.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 17, 2013

    I was shook about some of the information.

    I was shook about some of the information i had learned.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 17, 2013

    I was addicted to this book the minute I started reading it. Wha

    I was addicted to this book the minute I started reading it. What a character! What a story! What a great way to learn history! I immediately went out and bought Massie's other books. Excellent series.

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  • Posted April 20, 2013

    Fascinating read

    The book begins with the compelling story of the young Princess Sophia and her journey to Russia to marry the Archduke, heir presumptive to Empress Elizabeth, daughter of Peter the Great. The narrative moves briskly and the compelling story of the young girl who wishes to please, but who also has great ambition, unfolds as the author also shares important bits of Russian history and the zeitgeist of the mid-seventeenth century and the Age of Enlightenment. Sophia, renamed Catherine upon her acceptance of the Orthodox religion, grows in knowledge and manner until, following Empress Elizabeth's death, she seizes power from her increasingly unstable and unpopular husband in a bloodless coup. Her hapless husband, however, only survives about a week after the coup, and Catherine has herself crowned Empress rather than acting as regent for her young son. The story of her years on the throne, the history of the Enlightenment, failed revolutions, the wars with Turkey and resulting acquisition of ports on the Black Sea are related in a fascinating manner. The author shows Catherine's progressive wishes as an enlightened autocrat contrasted by the conservative society of Russia, with Catherine's increasing conservatism as she ages. This is a great read overall, with only a bit too much digression on a few related, yet tangential, subjects.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 6, 2013

    Compelling history

    This is a stranger-than-fiction peek into a time and place few of us know. A sheltered teenager is chosen as the wife of an unappealing heir to the Russion throne, and finds her way to the throne herself through intelligence, perseverance, and self-preservation. It will keep you reading late into the night.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 13, 2013

    If you want a history book then read this...

    If you want a history book then read this...but if you want a "story" this book is not for you. I love historical fiction but this book reads like a history book. I read half of it and it became too monotonous even for me. Save your money unless you want a history book.

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  • Posted January 30, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    Very readable

    I hadn't intended to read a biography of Catherine the Great, but, rather, just wanted to better understand a particular policy during her reign that affected my ancestors. However, once I picked it up, I couldn't put it down. Massie tells her story in a very engaging fashion. She becomes very real to the reader. I enjoyed it!

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  • Posted January 14, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    And what a woman she was!

    Massie writes a lot of history in this biography and I do mean a lot. The book is quite thick with it. Most of this history is good background or necessary to understand Catherine's life or her actions. The book is well written, very readable style and despite its length and detail, enjoyable to read. The point of the book -- that this is a biography of a woman -- is really brought home in the second half of the book. I'll be thinking about Catherine and her history for some time. Highly recommended.

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