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.”
©2011 Robert K. Massie (P)2011 Random House
Robert K. Massie (Nicholas and Alexandra, Peter the Great, The Romanovs) has brought a very engaging portrait of Catherine the Great to readers. Massie relates the story of a German German princess who comes to rule Russia. Readers benefit from Massie’s ability as a writer and his broad knowledge of Russian history and life. I would suggest that Catherine the Great is not a biography per se, but a book that retells Catherine’s life story and places it in a broader context. He introduces characters pivotal in her live into the narrative, and biographically tells their stories as well. That did not trouble me. Readers who want more detail about Catherine in particular might be disappointed. Conversely, the details Massie provides certainly help readers to understand her life in context. A very good book. Entertaining. Reading of Mark Deakins is very good.
I loved this book! It made the history of Russia come alive for me.
Really enjoyable, unfortunately it starts to get a little tedious once Catherine's personal accounts (through her memoirs) stop. I have not read anything else about her so I'm not sure how this material differs from others, but it was always interesting and painted a lovely portrait of her character and life.
and a penny for your thoughts
This was better than reading a straight up history book. Mark Deakins was a fine choice as a narrator since this was straight up history, not much of a story.
That being said, Catherine the great story certainly doesn't need a lot of embellishment. So, all in all I give this 3 stars because while I did listen to the entire book, it was rather boring at times and I did not look forward to listening but thought of it more as something I wanted to check off my bucket list and get done.
I couldn't finish this even though I was reading it for book club. Might have been Ok as paper book because it goes faster. I have friends who say the middle section is fascinating.
Overall, this is a well crafted biography on one of the most interesting characters on European history. Robert Massie sets the stage well, and the story up to the point of Catherine assuming the throne is superb.
The second half, on her reign, is divided into sections on various topics -- her favorites, her wars, her art, etc. -- and this section can be a little hard to follow and occasionally repetitious.
Overall, though, an excellent read.
I was entranced with Catherine's story and learned so much about history. While very long, I enjoyed it very much. Massie helped me understand the time and the people deeply. Deakins told the story beautifully. I will look for more of Massie's work.
Not as good as Peter the Great, but an interesting followup to that book and worth reading.
Catherine's personality was a perfect anchor amid the huge cast of characters - there were times when I would forget the specifics of one person or another, but I always felt like Massie did a great job connecting them all back to Catherine. Similarly, the book was excellent as an audio book because Massie kept everything moving forward at a good pace. Aside from a rather lengthy foray into the topic of the Guillotine, I thought the scale, speed, detail, and language of this book were excellent. Also, there were minimal notes in the text, which is a relief after some annotation-packed biographies I've read.
I thought Mark Deakins did an OK job with the characters. I admired a lot of his accents for the various foreign characters, and Diderot's personality in particular came through in the voice acting. However, my major hangup with this book was how silly Deakins' voice for Catherine was. I don't know if it's because he's a man or what, but his version of her could really throw me off.
I loved this biography, and I would definitely read more of Massie's work about Russia. He presents history and facts very clearly and obviously has a lot of respect for Catherine the Great. His portrayal of her was very fair, and I loved hearing about her weaknesses as much as her strengths. Too often, women are assigned some sort of archetype to adhere to, but Massie treated Catherine just as history often treats men - with great scope and attention to her idiosyncrasies and the influences that shaped her.
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