Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman [NOOK Book]


“[A] tale of power, perseverance and passion . . . a great story in the hands of a master storyteller.”—The Wall Street Journal
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 German princess who became one of the most remarkable, powerful, and captivating women in history. Born into a minor noble ...
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Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman

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“[A] tale of power, perseverance and passion . . . a great story in the hands of a master storyteller.”—The Wall Street Journal
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 German princess who became 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. 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. Catherine’s family, friends, ministers, generals, lovers, and enemies—all are here, vividly brought to life. History offers few stories richer than that of Catherine the Great. In this book, an eternally fascinating woman is returned to life.
“[A] compelling portrait not just of a Russian titan, but also of a flesh-and-blood woman.”—Newsweek
“An absorbing, satisfying biography.”—Los Angeles Times
“Juicy and suspenseful.”—The New York Times Book Review
“A great life, indeed, and irresistibly told.”—Salon
The New York Times • The Washington Post • USA Today • The Boston Globe • San Francisco Chronicle • Chicago Tribune • Newsweek/The Daily Beast • Salon • VogueSt. Louis Post-Dispatch • The Providence Journal • Washington Examiner • South Florida Sun-Sentinel • BookPage • Bookreporter • Publishers Weekly

BONUS: This edition contains a Catherine the Great reader's guide.

Winner of the 2012 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction
Winner of the 2012 PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

If you read only one biography of a historical figure this year, this panoramic biography by Pulitzer Prize winning author Robert K. Massie (Peter the Great) would make a fine choice. In this arresting narrative, Catherine the Great of Russia (1729-1796) emerges as a self-made monarch who worked hard to be a benevolent ruler, but whose 34-year reign was rocked by foreign wars and domestic upheavals.

Edward Ash-Milby

The New York Times Book Review
How delightful to discover that Robert K. Massie…hasn't lost his mojo. At a heft befitting its subject, his long-awaited Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman is a consistently nimble and buoyant performance, defying what might in a lesser writer's hands prove a deadly undertow of exhaustively researched historical facts. Of course, 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.
—Kathryn Harrison
The Washington Post
[Catherine] wrote diligently, to her lovers, to her diplomats, to friends, and left detailed memoirs, all put to good use by Robert K. Massie…who brings great authority to this sweeping account of Catherine and her times. His story of this epic life is warm, sure and confiding…Catherine's life is as instructive as ever, and Massie has made it into a compelling read.
—Kathy Lally
Publishers Weekly
The Pulitzer-winning biographer of Nicholas and Alexandra and of Peter the Great, Massie now relates the life of a minor German princess, Sophia of Anhalt-Zerbst, who became Empress Catherine II of Russia (1729–1796). She was related through her ambitious mother to notable European royalty; her husband-to-be, the Russian grand duke Peter, was the only living grandson of Peter the Great. As Massie relates, during her disastrous marriage to Peter, Catherine bore three children by three different lovers, and she and Peter were controlled by Peter’s all-powerful aunt, Empress Elizabeth, who took physical possession of Catherine’s firstborn, Paul. Six months into her husband’s incompetent reign as Peter III, Catherine, 33, who had always believed herself superior to her husband, dethroned him, but probably did not plan his subsequent murder, though, Massie writes, a shadow of suspicion hung over her. Confident, cultured, and witty, Catherine avoided excesses of personal power and ruled as a benevolent despot. Magnifying the towering achievements of Peter the Great, she imported European culture into Russia, from philosophy to medicine, education, architecture, and art. Effectively utilizing Catherine’s own memoirs, Massie once again delivers a masterful, intimate, and tantalizing portrait of a majestic monarch. (Nov.)
From the Publisher
“Enthralling.”—USA Today
“Gripping.”—The New York Times Book Review
Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman has it all: jealous mothers, indulgent eccentrics, greedy social climbers, intrigue, infidelity, murder, political coups, sex, war and passion.”—Bookreporter
“Exhaustively researched and dramatically narrated.”—The Boston Globe
“[Robert K. Massie] brings great authority to this sweeping account of Catherine and her times. . . . a compelling read.”—The Washington Post
“Meticulously, dramatically rendered.”—O: The Oprah Magazine
“Reads like an epic Russian novel.”—San Antonio Express-News
“Will transport history lovers.”—People
“Massie makes Catherine’s story dramatic and immediate.”—The Kansas City Star
“Graceful and engrossing.”—Minneapolis Star Tribune
“A biography as captivating as its subject.”—MacLean’s
Library Journal
As with his past best-selling biographies of Russian elites, Pulitzer Prize winner Massie (Peter the Great) does a wonderful job of pulling readers into his narrative, this one taking us into 18th-century Russia and the life of a young German princess, born Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst, destined to change the course of her adopted country's history. From the young Sophie's journey to Russia at the invitation of Empress Elizabeth to her death after 34 years on the Russian throne (1762–96), readers will be absorbed and in sympathy with Massie's Catherine. His engaging narrative informs and entertains, covering everything from Catherine's friendships, marriage to Peter III, love affairs, political and intellectual beliefs, and attempts to reform the country according to ideals of the Enlightenment (she corresponded with many Enlightenment figures), to her reactions to major world events including the American Revolution and the Reign of Terror in France. VERDICT This book is aimed at the nonspecialist, as Massie does not present new sources or new angles of research. But it's a gripping narrative for general biography or Russian tsarist history buffs, an excellent choice for public, high school, and undergraduate libraries. [See Prepub Alert, 5/9/11.]—Sonnet Ireland, Univ. of New Orleans Lib.
Kirkus Reviews
Roughly every decade since Nicholas and Alexandra (1967), popular historian Massie (Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea, 2003, etc.) publishes a fat volume of European history for an eager readership; his latest will not disappoint. Catherine the Great (1729–1796) was princess of a minor German state whose big chance arrived when she married Russian Czarina Elizabeth's nephew and successor, a minor German duke who was unattractive, immature and lazy. Catherine was the opposite, so she passed a stormy, mostly unhappy 17 years before Elizabeth's death in 1761; six months later Catherine snatched the throne from her husband. Under her energetic leadership, Russia modernized, expanded its empire and became accepted as one of the great powers of Europe. As attracted to Enlightenment ideas as contemporary monarchs, Catherine corresponded with and showered honors on Voltaire, Diderot and other French philosophers, and considered herself an enlightened despot but quickly gave up reform efforts in the face of aristocratic resistance. In the end, she ruled with an iron fist, tolerated little opposition and brutally suppressed several rebellions. Massie writes old-fashioned politics-and-great-men history, but few readers will resist his gripping description of colorful national leaders, their cutthroat rivalries and incessant wars. Most of this occurs after the 250-page mark, when Catherine takes power. Until then, the author recounts interminable petty intrigues, love affairs and itineraries of overprivileged, underemployed Russian aristocrats. His portraits of Catherine and other leading figures reveals a seemingly clairvoyant knowledge of their thoughts, emotions and conversation. Despite these lowbrow historical techniques, 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.
The Barnes & Noble Review

In light of movements such as Occupy Wall Street, which suggests that the long-suffering serfs of the Western world are finally rising against the corporate monarchy, it is either dislocating or highly serendipitous to be given the consummate biography of a woman who ruled over earth's largest empire in the eighteenth century. Catherine the Great commanded unimaginable wealth and power. Her world is both far from ours, an impossible fiction, and right next to it.

She was the daughter of a German prince and an ambitious mother with slender strands of connection to the Russian throne that were reeled in with steely determination. When, in 1744, Sophia Augusta Fredericka was fourteen, her mother's efforts finally engineered a summons to bring the girl to Russia as a potential bride for Grand Duke Peter Ulrich, the heir of Empress Elizabeth — that is to say, as an incubator for the next heir. This bizarre fact, from an ever-higher tower of incredible details, is what gives Robert K. Massie's expansive life of Catherine its particular power: it is a "portrait of a woman" rather than "of an empress" because the eminent, Pulitzer- winning historian of Russian royalty (Peter the Great and Nicholas and Alexandra) understands that what is most fascinating is not the story even of passing strange institutions but that of the very human individuals who became captive to them. And so we are offered the full menu of feminine concerns, including but not limited to sexual liaisons (Catherine had twelve lovers, her husband the least of them) and matters of dress (at her wedding she wore a "horribly heavy" crown that gave her a headache but which she was forbidden to remove, and a silver brocade gown encrusted with silver roses; the person inside this tinseled affair was further festooned with sparkling earrings, bracelets, brooches, and rings). She would not have lasted longer than any other female ruler of the empire — from 1762 until her death in 1796 — if she had not used both intellect and wiles to make of herself something more than a simple end user, however.

It begins as a byzantine story of lineage. As the author says of the situation after the death of Peter the Great in 1725, he could equally say of the whole complex of European nobility: every death and every marriage "plunged the already complicated Russian succession into greater confusion." For the modern reader already in need of a flowchart, the habit of changing names when exchanging crowns additionally complicates the complicated. One day in 1705, Martha of Latvia became Catherine I; Sophia would follow the trend to become Catherine II.

For an incipient empress, Massie demonstrates, life is not all diamonds and caviar, though there are exorbitant amounts of those. There are life-squelching demands for conformity: the teenage girl was forced to renounce her Lutheran faith in favor of Orthodoxy upon her arrival in Moscow, where she was to be groomed as a mate for an odd and unappealing young man (Peter was brutalized by his tutor, so he in turn tormented whoever he could, including small animals). She also paid for her wealth and promise of power with years of intense loneliness. Her friends were chosen for her and banished at the empress's will; her husband came to hate her and preferred playing with toy soldiers to giving her the pregnancy she was blamed for not achieving. Later still, the cost of ascending the throne was having to learn who she needed to eliminate before they had a chance to eliminate her. There was no reclining, figuratively at least, on silken divans. Perhaps most cruelly, she lived through what amounted to the kidnapping of her three children; she had been brought to court as a royal brood mare, an unsavory fact made plain when each baby in turn was taken from her immediately after birth. Still, she moved with grace through this most difficult obstacle course to become a largely beloved sovereign (though always in danger from those who favored a native son) as well as a thoughtful student of Voltaire, Diderot, and Montesquieu.

The lonely years served her well, for she used them to read. One wonders if Machiavelli was among the authors she surveyed: she came to power after her inept husband wore the crown for only six months; he died within days of a bloodless coup d'état that left Catherine suspiciously blameless but in possession of that which her whole life, it appears in retrospect, had been directed toward. A trajectory this impressive makes well over 500 pages appear the condensed account.

In the end, this fascinating and self-created woman, who expanded the borders of her empire by some 200,000 square miles and reigned over what is considered the Golden Age of Russia, made substantive changes to the system of monarchy. She spent two years rewriting the Russian legal code. Her Nakaz of 1767, drawn from Enlightenment philosophy, was published to extraordinary acclaim. In the telling, Massie redresses what initially seemed a strange omission: a chapter devoted to the institution of serfdom. The presence of millions men and women in bondage is only a ghostly supposition in the first half of the book, with its recitation of ruble-heavy retainers, gifts of jewels and titles, banquets and the aforementioned finery, gown after gown. Just who had supplied all that capital in the first place?

The author has written a popular history in the sense that it is thoroughly engaging to read: this is People magazine for the educated set — those with a taste for summer palaces instead of Malibu, the pressures of governance over the distress of canceled series. It is a feat of magic to bring a person back from the distance of nearly 300 years in such vibrant specificity that we see her ("On the morning of Sunday, July 30, she drove through the streets to the Kremlin, sitting alone in a gilded carriage") and know her. Reading such history is a peculiar pleasure all its own: the sensation of being drawn through time as if on a carnival ride; the complexities of factions and factors building layer upon layer; attaining the privileged view where one sees just how everything is connected, and where politics and personalities collide. History is, after all, made by people. Some of them are like some of us. Our time just waits for its own literate historian to show us who was great, and why.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson is the author of three works of nonfiction: The Perfect Vehicle, Dark Horses and Black Beauties, and The Place You Love Is Gone, all from Norton. She is writing a book on B. F. Skinner and the ethics of dog training.

Reviewer: Melissa Holbrook Pierson

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781588360441
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 11/8/2011
  • Sold by: Random House
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 672
  • Sales rank: 23,925
  • File size: 11 MB
  • Note: This product may take a few minutes to download.

Meet 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.
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Read an Excerpt


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 regiment garrisoning the port of Stettin, recently acquired from Sweden, on the Baltic coast of Pomerania. There, in 1727, Prince Christian, still a bachelor at thirty-seven, bowed to the pleas of his family and set himself to produce an heir. Wearing his best blue uniform and his shining ceremonial sword, he married fifteen-year-old Princess Johanna Elizabeth of Holstein-Gottorp, whom he scarcely knew. His family, which had arranged the match with hers, was giddy with delight; not only did the line of Anhalt-Zerbst seem assured, but Johanna's family stood a rung above them on the ladder of rank.

It was a poor match. There were the problems of difference in age; pairing an adolescent girl with a man in middle age usually stems from a confusion of motives and expectations. When Johanna, of a good family with little money, reached adolescence and her parents, without consulting her, arranged a match to a respectable man almost three times her age, Johanna could only consent. Even more unpromising, the characters and temperaments of the two were almost entirely opposite. Christian Augustus was simple, honest, ponderous, reclusive, and thrifty; Johanna Elizabeth was complicated, vivacious, pleasure-loving, and extravagant. She was considered beautiful, and with arched eyebrows, fair, curly hair, charm, and an exuberant eagerness to please, she attracted people easily. In company, she felt a need to captivate, but as she grew older, she tried too hard. In time, other flaws appeared. Too much gay talk revealed her as shallow; when she was thwarted, her charm soured to irritability and her quick temper suddenly exploded. Underlying this behavior, and Johanna had known this from the beginning, was the fact that her marriage had been a terrible-and was now an inescapable-mistake.

Confirmation first came when she saw the house in Stettin to which her new husband brought her. Johanna had spent her youth in unusually elegant surroundings. Because she was one of twelve children in a family that formed a minor branch of the ducal Holsteins, her father, the Lutheran bishop of Lübeck, had passed her along for upbringing to her godmother, the childless Duchess of Brunswick. Here, in the most sumptuously magnificent court in north Germany, she had become accustomed to a life of beautiful clothes, sophisticated company, balls, operas, concerts, fireworks, hunting parties, and constant, tittering gossip.

Her new husband, Christian Augustus, a career officer existing on his meager army pay, could provide none of this. The best he could manage was a modest gray stone house on a cobbled street constantly swept by wind and rain. The walled fortress town of Stettin, overlooking a bleak northern sea and dominated by a rigid military atmosphere, was not a place where gaiety, graciousness, or any of the social refinements could flourish. Garrison wives led dull lives; the lives of the wives of the town were duller still. And here, a lively young woman, fresh from the luxury and distractions of the court of Brunswick, was asked to exist on a tiny income with a puritanical husband who was devoted to soldiering, addicted to rigid economy, equipped to give orders but not to converse, and eager to see his wife succeed in the enterprise for which he had married her: the bearing of an heir. In this endeavor, Johanna did her best-she was a dutiful if unhappy wife. But always, underneath, she yearned to be free: free of her boring husband, free of their relative penury, free of the narrow, provincial world of Stettin. Always, she was certain that she deserved something better. And then, eighteen months after her marriage, she had a baby.

Johanna, at sixteen, was unprepared for the realities of motherhood. She had dealt with her pregnancy by wrapping herself in dreams: that her children would grow into extensions of herself and that their lives eventually would supply the broad avenue on which she would travel to achieve her own ambitions. In these dreams, she took it for granted that the baby she was carrying-her firstborn-would be a son, an heir for his father, but more important a handsome and exceptional boy whose brilliant career she would guide and ultimately share.

At 2:30 a.m. on April 21, 1729, in the chill, gray atmosphere of a Baltic dawn, Johanna's child was born. Alas, the little person was a daughter. Johanna and a more accepting Christian Augustus managed to give the baby a name, Sophia Augusta Fredericka, but from the beginning, Johanna could not find or express any maternal feeling. She did not nurse or caress her little daughter; she spent no time watching over her cradle or holding her; instead, abruptly, she handed the child over to servants and wet nurses.

One explanation may be that the process of childbirth nearly cost Johanna her life; for nineteen weeks after Sophia was born, the adolescent mother remained confined to her bed. A second is that Johanna was still very young and her own bright ambitions in life were far from fulfilled. But the stark, underlying reason was that her child was a girl, not a boy. Ironically, although she could not know it then, the birth of this daughter was the crowning achievement of Johanna's life. Had the baby been the son she so passionately desired, and had he lived to adulthood, he would have succeeded his father as Prince of Anhalt-Zerbst. Then the history of Russia would have been different and the small niche in history that Johanna Elizabeth earned for herself never would have existed.

Eighteen months after the birth of her first child, Johanna gave birth to the son upon whom she had set her heart. Her fondness for this second infant, Wilhelm Christian, became all the more intense when she realized that something about the child was seriously wrong. The boy, who appeared to suffer from rickets, became her obsession; she petted him, spoiled him, and scarcely let him out of her sight, lavishing on him all the affection she had denied her daughter. Sophia, already keenly aware that her own birth had been a disappointment to her mother, now observed the love with which Johanna surrounded her little brother. Gentle kisses, whispered endearments, tender caresses all were bestowed on the boy-while Sophia watched. It is, of course, common for the mother of a handicapped or chronically ill child to spend more time with that child, just as it is normal for other children in the family to resent this disproportionate attention. But Johanna's rejection of Sophia began before Wilhelm's birth, and then continued in aggravated form. The result of this maternal favoritism was a permanent wound. Most children, rejected or neglected in favor of a sibling, react more or less as Sophia did: to avoid more hurt, she sealed off her emotions; nothing was being given her and nothing was expected. Little Wilhelm, who simply accepted his mother's affection as normal, was quite innocent of any wrongdoing; even so, Sophia hated him. Forty years later, writing her Memoirs, her resentments still simmered:

It was told me that I was not very joyfully welcomed._._._._

My father thought I was an angel; my mother did not pay much attention to me. A year and a half later, she [Johanna] gave birth to a son whom she idolized. I was merely tolerated and often I was scolded with a violence and anger I did not deserve. I felt this without being perfectly clear why in my mind.

Thereafter, Wilhelm Christian goes unmentioned in her Memoirs until his death in 1742 at the age of twelve. Then, her brief account is unemotionally clinical:

He lived to be only twelve and died of spotted [scarlet] fever. It was not until after his death that they learned the cause of an illness which had compelled him to walk always with crutches and for which remedies had been constantly given him in vain and the most famous physicians in Germany consulted. They advised that he be sent to baths at Baden and Karlsbad, but he came home each time as lame as before he went away and his leg became smaller in proportion as he grew taller. After his death, his body was dissected and it was found that his hip was dislocated and must have been so from infancy._._._._At his death, my mother was inconsolable and the presence of the entire family was necessary to help her bear her grief.

This bitterness only hints at Sophia's enormous resentment against her mother. The harm done to this small daughter by Johanna's open display of preference marked Sophia's character profoundly. Her rejection as a child helps to explain her constant search as a woman for what she had missed. 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 warmth that her brother-but not she-had been given by her mother.

Even minor eighteenth-century princely families maintained the trappings of rank. Children of the nobility were provided with nurses, governesses, tutors, instructors in music, dancing, riding, and religion to drill them in the protocol, manners, and beliefs of European courts. Etiquette was foremost; the little students practiced bowing and curtseying hundreds of times until perfection was automatic. Language lessons were paramount. Young princes and princesses had to be able to speak and write in French, the language of the European intelligentsia; in aristocratic German families, the German language was regarded as vulgar.

The influence of her governess, Elizabeth (Babet) Cardel, was critical at this time in Sophia's life. Babet, a Huguenot Frenchwoman who found Protestant Germany safer and more congenial than Catholic France, was entrusted with overseeing Sophia's education. Babet quickly understood that her pupil's frequent belligerence arose out of loneliness and a craving for encouragement and warmth. Babet provided these things. She also began to give Sophia what became her permanent love of the French language, with all its possibilities for logic, subtlety, wit, and liveliness in writing and conversation. Lessons began with Les Fables de La Fontaine; then they moved on to Corneille, Racine, and Molière. Too much of her education, Sophia decided later, had been sheer memorization: "Very early it was noticed that I had a good memory; therefore I was incessantly tormented with learning everything by heart. I still possess a German Bible in which all the verses I had to memorize are underlined with red ink."

Babet's approach to teaching was gentle compared to that of Pastor Wagner, a pedantic army chaplain chosen by Sophia's fervently Lutheran father to instruct his daughter in religion, geography, and history. Wagner's rigid methodology-memorize and repeat-made little headway against a pupil whom Babet had already described as an esprit gauche and who asked embarrassing questions: Why were great men of antiquity such as Marcus Aurelius eternally damned because they had not known of Christ's salvation and therefore could not have been redeemed? Wagner replied that this was God's will. What was the nature of the universe before the Creation? Wagner replied that it had been in a state of chaos. Sophia asked for a description of this original chaos; Wagner had none. The word "circumcision" used by Wagner naturally triggered the question: What does that mean? Wagner, appalled at the position in which he found himself, refused to answer. By elaborating on the horrors of the Last Judgment and the difficulty of being saved, Wagner so frightened his pupil that "every night at dusk I would go and cry by the window." The next day, however, she retaliated: How can the infinite goodness of God be reconciled with the terrors of the Last Judgment? Wagner, shouting that there were no rational answers to such questions, and that what he told her must be accepted on faith, threatened his pupil with his cane. Babet intervened. Later Sophia wrote, "I am convinced in my inmost soul that Herr Wagner was a blockhead." She added, "All my life I have had this inclination to yield only to gentleness and reason-and to resist all pressure."

Nothing, however, neither gentleness nor pressure, could assist her music teacher, Herr Roellig, in his task. "He always brought with him a creature who roared bass," she later wrote to her friend Friedrich Melchior Grimm. "He had him sing in my room. I listened to him and said to myself, 'he roars like a bull,' but Herr Roellig was beside himself with delight whenever this bass throat was in action." She never overcame her inability to appreciate harmony. "I long to hear and enjoy music," Sophia-Catherine wrote in her Memoirs, "but I try in vain. It is noise to my ears and that is all."

Babet Cardel's approach to teaching children lived on in the empress Catherine, and, years later, she poured out her gratitude: "She had a noble soul, a cultured mind, a heart of gold; she was patient, gentle, cheerful, just, consistent-in short the kind of governess one would wish every child to have." To Voltaire, she wrote that she was "the pupil of Mademoiselle Cardel." And in 1776, when she was forty- seven, she wrote to Grimm:

One cannot always know what children are thinking. Children are hard to understand, especially when careful training has accustomed them to obedience and experience has made them cautious in conversation with their teachers. Will you not draw from that the fine maxim that one should not scold children too much but should make them trustful, so that they will not conceal their stupidities from us?

The more independence Sophia displayed, the more she worried her mother. The girl was arrogant and rebellious, Johanna decided; these qualities must be stamped out before her daughter could be offered in marriage. As marriage was a minor princess's only destiny, Johanna was determined "to drive the devil of pride out of her." She repeatedly told her daughter that she was ugly as well as impertinent. Sophia was forbidden to speak unless spoken to or to express opinions to adults; she was made to kneel and kiss the hem of the skirt of all visiting women of rank. Sophia obeyed. Bereft of affection and approval, she nevertheless maintained a respectful attitude toward her mother, remained silent, submitted to Johanna's commands, and smothered her own opinions.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Table of Contents

Maps xv

Part I A German Princess 1

1 Sophia's Childhood 3

2 Summoned to Russia 13

3 Frederick II and the Journey to Russia 19

4 Empress Elizabeth 28

5 The Making of a Grand Duke 40

6 Meeting Elizabeth and Peter 49

7 Pneumonia 52

8 Intercepted Letters 57

9 Conversion and Betrothal 62

10 A Pilgrimage to Kiev and Transvestite Balls 66

11 Smallpox 72

12 Marriage 80

13 Johanna Goes Home 89

Part II A Painful Marriage 93

14 The Zhukova Affair 95

15 Peepholes 100

16 A Watchdog 106

17 "He Was Not a King" 111

18 In the Bedroom 114

19 A House Collapses 118

20 Summer Pleasures 121

21 Dismissals at Court 125

22 Moscow and the Country 129

23 Choglokov Makes an Enemy and Peter Survives a Plot 133

24 A Bath Before Easter and a Coachman's Whip 136

25 Oysters and an Actor 140

26 Reading, Dancing, and a Betrayal 144

Part III Seduction, Motherhood, and Confrontation 149

27 Saltykov 151

28 The Birth of the Heir 162

29 Retaliation 171

30 The English Ambassador 174

31 A Diplomatic Earthquake 179

32 Poniatowski 182

33 A Dead Rat, an Absent Lover, and a Risky Proposal 186

34 Catherine Challenges Brockdorff; She Gives a Party 192

35 Apraksin's Retreat 198

36 Catherine's Daughter 202

37 The Fall of Bestuzhev 205

38 A Gamble 209

39 Confrontation 215

40 A Ménage à Quatre 219

Part IV "The Time Has Come!" 225

41 Panin, Orlov, and Elizabeth's Death 227

42 The Brief Reign of Peter III 240

43 "Dura!" 251

44 "We Ourselves Know Not What We Did" 266

Part V Empress of Russia 279

45 Coronation 281

46 The Government and the Church 290

47 Serfdom 302

48 "Madame Orlov Could Never Be Empress of Russia" 313

49 The Death of Ivan VI 321

50 Catherine and the Enlightenment 330

51 The Nakaz 343

52 "All Free Estates of the Realm" 351

53 "The King We Have Made" 363

54 The First Partition of Poland and the First Turkish War 371

55 Doctors, Smallpox, and Plague 383

56 The Return of "Peter the Third" 392

57 The Last Days of the "Marquis de Pugachev" 403

Part VI Potemkin and Favoritism 411

58 Vasilchikov 413

59 Catherine and Potemkin: Passion 417

60 Potemkin Ascending 430

61 Catherine and Potemkin: Separation 435

62 New Relationships 442

63 Favorites 448

Part VII "My Name Is Catherine the Second" 461

64 Catherine, Paul, and Natalia 463

65 Paul, Maria, and the Succession 472

66 Potemkin: Builder and Diplomat 483

67 Crimean Journey and "Potemkin Villages" 489

68 The Second Turkish War and the Death of Potemkin 503

69 Art, Architecture, and the Bronze Horseman 519

70 "They Are Capable of Hanging Their King from a Lamppost!" 533

71 Dissent in Russia, Final Partition of Poland 548

72 Twilight 560

73 The Death of Catherine the Great 569

Acknowledgments 575

Selected Bibliography 577

Notes 581

Index 601

A Reader's Guide 627

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 346 Customer Reviews
  • Posted September 26, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    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 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.

    77 out of 87 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 29, 2011

    more from this reviewer


    Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie is the biography of Sophia Augusta, later known as Russian Empress Catherine the Great. It details Sophia's childhood, marriage, children, affairs, rise to power, famed coup, and eventual death. It is based on recorded historical documents and on Catherine's memoirs.

    I have never read any other books by Robert K. Massie, but now I'm hooked. Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman is one of the most well-researched and compelling biographies that I have read to-date. The history contained in its 600+ pages is phenomenal, and once I started reading I didn't want to stop. Not only was Catherine the Great a strong-willed, clever, and courageous leader, but an amazing woman who was years ahead of her time. The book was laid out in typical biographical format, birth to death, but Massie's mastery of description and detail put the book in another class entirely. I felt like I was reading a gripping fictional account of the empress as she ruled and fought for equality and preservation of the Russian state, instead of a dry biography filled with dates and facts. I was very impressed with the book's pace as well as the depiction of many famous figures, particularly Diderot, Gregory Potemkin, and d'Alembert. I wish I would have had this book handy for my European history class because I truly feel like I have a better understanding of Russia as a country as well as the politics of the time period. I recommend this to history-lovers, history / literature students, and anyone who wants to experience the awe and majesty of Catherine the Great!

    Rating: On the Run (4.5/5)

    *** I received this ARC from Random House in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.

    44 out of 45 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 29, 2011

    I Also Recommend:


    I enjoyed reading this book as well as Nicholas and Alexandra and would recommend it to anyone interested in Russian history.

    23 out of 24 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 1, 2012

    Kept me turning pages

    I never thought I would be interested in the least on the subject of Russian history but I was enthralled with this book! I won't finish a book that doesn't hold my interest but when it was nearing it's close at over 500 pages I wanted to keep reading. Massie is an amazing writer! I read constantly and everything and this is by far the best book I have read in years!

    20 out of 21 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 22, 2011

    Wonderful biography that reads like a novel

    I was unsure as to whether or not I should spend money on this book as I did not want to get bored and put it down after a chapter of two which is what I normally want to do when reading a biography. Not the case at all. In fact, I am enthralled not only by this amazing woman, Catherine the Great, who was much ahead of of time, but by Massey's wonderful writing skills. The book absolutely flows.

    15 out of 16 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 18, 2011

    Great Book for a Great Woman

    I haven't read Massie's other books about his obsession, Russia under the tsars, but if the others are anything like Catherine, then I have no doubt about why he's received a Pulitzer and why this book was so highly anticipated. Compulsively readable, Catherine takes a giant, intimidating subject and makes her accessible. From the first few pages, the reader sees into Catherine's most intimate thoughts through the invaluable resource of her childhood diary. The focus remains sympathetic even while the research provides an overall view of Catherine's time with verifiable facts.

    The reader will come away with a deep understanding of Catherine's problems and decisions. On a more personal note, as a woman reader I appreciated the way Catherine learned to wield power in a man's world and have a significant impact while maintaining a traditionally feminine personality, demonstrated by her appreciation of the arts and fine things and love of pets.

    This book is packed with enough relationship drama and court intrigue to be a novel, while the reader can impress the people he knows with his new knowledge. With Catherine, Massie has made a valuable contribution not only to women's and Russian history, but also to literature. It should be considered a must-read by any student of world culture.

    10 out of 11 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 7, 2011


    History does not usually make it to the "couldn't put it down" level.
    This one does.

    9 out of 10 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 1, 2012

    Fascinating Page-turner

    From the first page to the last, Catherine the Great captures the reader's attention with it's intimate portrayal of this enlightened, brilliant woman who was born at least a century too soon. Her intellectual quest to befriend and create relationships with the most erudite and philosophical thinkers of the time engendered thousands of letters and documents that have survived over the centuries and provided author Robert Massie with plenty of fodder for research, Massie achieved a phenomenal result, the development of a rich portrait of Catherine that is more than the usual historical text. The book is beautifully written and gives the reader a picture of Catherine, warts and all, that makes her seem all the more "great", a civilized woman ruling a savage nation.

    7 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 14, 2011


    This is a wonderful book . It is hard to beleive that this could have really happened,if it were fiction you would think this was too over the top. This book is well written and it holds you interest to the end, a wonderful way to learn history....

    6 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 14, 2012


    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.

    4 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 2, 2012

    Tremendous book. I have really enjoyed Massie's work. I am about

    Tremendous book. I have really enjoyed Massie's work. I am about to finish Nicholas and Alexandra which I believe I have enjoyed even more than this book. If you are at all interested in Russian history, you need to read this Author. I loved the book although I am not sure I really like Catherine the Great. She was a unique characer though and helped shaped the Romanov dynasty and Russa. Massie writes in a style that isn't the classic "slow" non-fiction bogged down in irrelevant details. He relies heavily on primary source material and weaves them into his work in a way that almost make it read like a historical fiction. I also found that much of the rather confusing politics of Europe started to become clearer as I realized just how intertwined these autocracies were. I highly recommend this author and this book.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 17, 2012


    Robert K Massie has done extensive research to bring to us the life and times of a truly remarkable woman! Very indept with details that enlighten the reader with perspective of the life and times of Catherine the Great. She was truly a remarkable woman who wanted nothing more but to bring humanity to a country that was beginning to enter the world stage. She endured much; accomplished much; sacrificed much to build Russia to her vision of what it would become. Mr. Massie tells her story with detail of every aspect of her life. The book reads well, and is extremely interesting throughout. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in reading the life story of someone truly remarkable living in remarkable times.

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 27, 2012

    Fabulously entertaining

    Extremely entertaining making learning easy and fun!

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted November 13, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    This was a good book

    This was a good book

    2 out of 37 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 15, 2012

    Not nearly as engrossing as Nicholas and Alexandra

    I tried hard to like this book, printing a copy of the Russian dynasty
    in order to follow the monarchy historically. After 200 only mildly
    interesting pages, I am giving up and going on to something more

    May I say, that I question the practice of allowing ratings by
    people who fail to write a review. I don't think such laziness should
    be granted.

    Thanks for listening.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 9, 2012

    A wonerful biography!!

    RK Massie has produced yet another great read. The book is well balanced, easy to read and thoroughly reasearched. I highly reading this book.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 5, 2012

    Great read

    One review said too long. Another was upset about the 17 dollars. One reviewer said he was pedantic. A few bad reviews by a very few who quite honestly probably have nothing nice to say about any book. I bought the book at 35 dollars and it had been worth every Penny. I find it difficult to put down. I find myself drawn into this world and to Catherine. The author teaches the reader about a different time and culture without boring you. My only regret, not purchasing on my nook as the book is more difficult to read in bed! If you love history and one hell of write with vivid characters this book will notdisaapoint!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 22, 2012


    Too long.

    1 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 12, 2012

    DJ ICE

    Plays booty work

    1 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 21, 2012


    A reader learns about russian history through a mix of drama, military battles, sex, love, and more.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 346 Customer Reviews

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