Bismarck, ND | Member Since 2011
This is the 13th bio of Catherine the Great I have read. I just can't let her go. They all draw on the same materials, and the Massie book is one of the most scholarly of the lot. (Some of the others didn't even mention her iconic trip to the Crimea.) Massie traces her chronologically from her birth in a small German state through her rise as one of the most honored of Russia's czars. He also shapes whole chapters to elucidate one or another aspects of her reign or personality. She endeavored to reshape the government to reflect enlightenment thinking, including the emancipation of the serfs, but fell afoul of practical roadblocks such as the need to retain the loyalty of the aristocracy and put down a peasant uprising that could have taken her out. She built fabulous palaces and collected art and libraries of the major French thinkers. Her armies conquered vast areas held by the Turks. (She settled the land with thousands of German farmers, but Massie left out that detail.) All the while, she maintained a vigorous private and public life, keeping an impressive string of lovers (one of whom, Gregory Potemkin, she may have married), nurtured her successor grandsons, and led the way to new thinking about public health by getting a smallpox vaccination. I wish the narrator's voice had been a bit softer, but other than that, I thought this was one of the best. My favorite bio of her is Great Catherine by Carolly Erickson.
I just read “God's Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World” by Cullen Murphy, via audiobook. The inquisition was started in the 1200s to clean up dissent. In writing this book, Murphy poked about in musty archives, exploring centuries-old, detailed accounts of interrogations and penalties, including burning at the stake. Inquisitors kept excellent records, as did the nazis and the communists, years later, when they destroyed people for who they were and what they believed. The author was intrigued by the inquisitors' handbook, which is still being consulted. A manifestation of the inquisitorial spirit continues in surveillance of all types. The book stops before the Vatican set out to discipline a group of US nuns who were so bold as to suggest women could be priests, but this is a good example of the ongoing impulse. Good reading, tho it requires a strong stomach at times. Professional narrative style.
Peter the Great by Robert K. Massie
I’m listening to Massie's bio of Czar Peter the Great (last part of1600s-first part of 1700s). Interesting how reading several biographies will cast events in different lights. Example: Other biographers describe in detail how he, as a child, put together a play militia, pulling in neighborhood boys. Massie mentions it frequently as his developing a cadre of boys, who as men often stepped in to support him, but he doesn’t describe it as vividly as some biographers do. (I especially noticed this when I read a dozen biographies of Catherine the Great and wrote comparative reviews They're on the internet.)
I'm impressed with how war-ridden Europe was across that time. The little city states were constantly sending armies into each other's domains, trying to grab land. The armies did immense damage along the way, and not only in trying to feed themselves. They also gratuitously killed people and/or burned whole towns and cities to the ground.
The author takes the reader on some unexpected side trips. He does mini-bios of other major figures of the day, such as King Louis XIV of France, whose love of opulence influences what we describe as elegant even today, and King Charles XII of Sweden, who was for many years Peter’s mortal enemy. He describes life in the Turkish sultan's harem. (Wonder how he learned that?) Torture was common; Massie does not spare us the details.
PG’s interests encompassed everything, practical as well as theoretical, and he wasn't afraid to get his hands dirty. Since he wanted very much to have a navy (he was pretty much the only person in Russia who did), we get a peek at the state of naval art at the time. To secure the area around St. Petersburg, he used galleys!
Massie not only gives a vivid bio of this influential historical person; he helps us understand Europe as it struggled to enter the modern era.
The quality of Frederick Davidson's reading is excellent; solidly professional. He needed to speak lines/ names that were Russian, German, and French, which many readers could not have done as well. I wish his voice would have been more modulated, but there was little soft about Peter the Great.
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