Massie has written an accessible and very informative biography of Catherine II of Russia, after her death (and against her will) called 'the Great'. This book shows you why she was indeed great, albeit with drawbacks! Coming to Russia as a young bride-to-be at fourteen, she had to endure eighteen years of more-or-less isolation before she became an, and flowered as, Empress; and Russia flowered with her. She introduced literature and education, founded a world-class art collection, divided Poland not once but three times, got Russia the Crimea and ports on the Black Sea; and in general continued the tradition of Peter the Great.
I have enjoyed Massie's biography of Peter the Great before, as well as his magisterial books 'Dreadnought' and 'Castles of Steel'; I found this volume on Catherine slightly more difficult to get into than these others. The beginning of the book comes over a bit more belaboured, and with bits of what I thought were cod-psychology; but soon that fades and Massie's usual style takes over. Tthe reader is swept along with the story, being educated as s/he goes, what with the effortless prose and mastely treatment of complex subjects; Massie makes it look easy and accessible, with asides on politics elsewhere in Europe that have a bearing on the main story. After that initial hiccup, very well written and hugely informative for a novice like me!
on 11 December 2012
Have read all of Dr Massie's books over the years and the style and detail certainly appeal to me. Once again the subject matter (Catherine) comes to life and one gains a true insight as opposed to the much-maligned character she is often portrayed as. Dr. Massie provides the historic context so one can see why Catherine behaved as she did.
Anyone who is interested in history (any period) will find this book a little (actually not so little) gem.
Robert Massie writes old fashioned history, his books have heroes and heroines (and we know for whom we are rooting) and they proceed in the direction of Time's Arrow. There is very little overt analytical work or discussion of the place of the topic in history. What we have instead is a modern form of Geste, Epic or Saga. It is my suspicion that most readers prefer this to the more diffuse works even if those works appear more scholarly. At times the story can be almost gossipy in a way that draws in the reader, though I would prefer a little more analysis. I was reminded as I read of a late friend, a descendant of Catherine as it happens, who had been entering the last stages of cancer. He needed something to read that was interesting but not too dense, I gave him DREADNOUGHT. He enjoyed it greatly especially as the grandsons of the major players were personal friends of his and he recognised their characters in Massie's description of their forbears.
Massie has certainly selected a worthy subject for this narrative. Catherine The Great rose from comparative nothingness (a minor princess) to ruling a very large empire on the strength (possibly) of an unconsummated marriage and the support of the Imperial Guard. This was a remarkable performance, she had become more expert at being Russian than most Russians. She then proceeded to live life just the way she pleased, taking numerous lovers and young male companions, expanding Russia at the expense of the Sublime Porte and Poland, collecting vast numbers of old masters and fighting off a massive cossack rising. She was the equal of some redoubtable political operators even if, ultimately, she failed to resolve the inherent problems of the Russian state. This is a story that, if written as a novel, would be roundly derided as implausible. Small wonder that the author thought the subject worthy of eight years work.
Catherine the Great is an iconic female monarch, known even to those who have never glanced at Russian history. Her reign ushered in something of a golden age for much of Russia, symbolized by cultural and physical expansion, the effects of which were felt for decades after her reign had concluded. In this biography of Catherine, Robert K. Massie covers the entirety of her life, from her origins as a relatively modest German daughter of a prince, through her disastrous marriage to the heir to the Russian throne, until her death as one of Russia's greatest rulers.
Massie's biography looks intimidating, at almost 600 pages long in hardcover in my edition, but his narrative of the flow of Catherine's life is incredibly smooth and easy to read. I actually managed to read a lot in one sitting and in parts it could almost read like fiction, which makes this a very accessible non-fiction read. I can imagine most readers enjoying this if they have an interest in imperial Russia and Catherine's long reign. Massie also makes Catherine easy to relate to; he draws from her letters and her own memoirs to try and build her character and explore how she might have been feeling through her life.
I didn't like that there seemed to be little connection to Massie's sources aside from the originals, though, and the notes aren't marked in the text, which I didn't like either. A lot of the start of the book is based on Catherine's memoirs, which means that we have to take her word for the way that things happened, and I'd have liked some sort of evidence of external sources corroborating what she says. In reality Massie consulted a lot of sources, but it's really hard to see what's coming from where. It made it difficult for me at least to trust what he was saying.
That said, though, I liked how comprehensive this book was and how well it was structured. It roughly follows Catherine's life chronologically as the book is separated into sections, but each chapter within those sections tends to deal with just one subject. This made it very easy to follow what was happening in Catherine's life at any given time, but also allowed the author to delve deeper into each subject. As I said earlier, it's very easy to feel sympathy for Catherine, and the frequent quoting from her memoirs and letters helps us as readers feel as though we are actually learning about the real woman. Because Massie starts at the beginning of her life, we can understand some of the motivations she's had for later actions. In addition, Massie never passes judgement on her for any of her actions, which makes him a valuable biographer for a woman who often gains undeserved negative press for the number of "favorites" she had (when male monarchs did the same without any note).
He follows the shifts in her political focus easily, too, and traces how the relative enlightened idealism of her youth is crushed by the realities of ruling a country, an aspect of the book that I found particularly fascinating. But again, he doesn't pass judgement on her; he doesn't judge her for her inability to free Russia's serfs, for her eventual censoring of the press after the French Revolution, or for any of her other political actions which don't particularly match up with current beliefs. Catherine's actions were not always ones that we would agree with, but Massie leaves it to readers to decide, without attempting to influence them. I found this quite valuable.
A riveting biography, Catherine the Great is a complete picture of the last, and greatest, female monarch of Russia. For anyone who enjoys history, this book would be an exceptional choice.
on 23 June 2014
This is a fabulous biography of a woman who changed the face of Russia in every possible way during her reign of 34 years. Born in Prussia into one of the ruling families, she went to Russian court at the age of 14, found herself bethrothed to the young grandson of Peter the Great and some three years later married to him. Like all young ladies of wealth/title, she was destined to be married off to a man/family at some stage, and by the some very good fortune she found herself at the Russian court. And so began her long love affair with Russia, determined to make it a better place than she arrived in 1744.
She didn't succeed in all her endeavours, but by the time she died, the lands under Russia's control had extended significiantly into what was then Poland, and as far south as the Black Sea. She presided over what became known as Russia's Golden Age, the Age of Enlightenment, and also worked very hard, with mixed succes at improving the plight of the serf class, who really were no more than slaves, and treated accordingly.
This book is a huge read - 573 pages - but easy to read and well worth the time taken. The author won the Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Peter the Great, and also wrote two highly regarded biographys - one about the Romanov dynasty started by Peter the Great and the other, Nicholas and Alexandra, detailing the downfall of the Romanov dynasty early last century. Much of the narrative has been drawn from Catherine's own memoirs, and the hundreds of letters she exchanged with all sorts of famous people of the time - other European monarchs, writers and philosophers, lovers, her own advisers and generals. She was a woman of enormous intellect, focus and determination, and what she managed to achieve in her time is quite remarkable.
Numerous legends have grown over the centuries about her sexual appetite and tendencies: this book puts paid to much of it! There is no doubt she was one fierce lady who took no prisoners, but this biography also shows much of her human side and beneath that awesome heart there was a real woman.
on 31 August 2015
Absolutely stunning. I knew nothing of Russia or of Catherine the Great, and bought this book as the result of a conversation which made me want to know more. This is an absolute model of how to write a long and complex life story, with an elegant clarity that made it genuinely impossible to put down. I nearly missed a train and several yoga classes, and spent several late nights devouring it.
This is not a breathless hero-worshipping book, but a considered narrative which is, if anything, rather light on psychological interpretation or wondering why the empress took a particular action. With so long and fascinating a life story to deal with, Massie wisely concentrates on the facts of the narrative. But that doesn't mean this is a pedestrian or merely factual account. As a newcomer to Russian history I was utterly engrossed by his descriptions of landscape, or of the atmosphere in St Petersburg and Moscow at certain crucial moments. The glamour of the court, the epic scale of the Russian empire and its different regions, the personality of important players like Catherine herself, or her fantastically capable second-in-command, lover and ally Potemkin, are all written so compellingly that we understand them fully, and are infected by Massie's own deep interest in the Russian empire of the eighteenth century. A different biographer might have been intimidated by the scale of the task, or bogged down by irrelevant details - this one concentrates on the personalities and the impact of particular key events. These include military actions and rebellions, but also Catherine's impact as one of Europe's greatest art collectors, and perhaps most illuminating of all, the intimate connections between her and the monarchs of Poland (an ex-lover), Prussia and Austria.
What interests me most is how differently Catherine behaved and how differently her behaviour was regarded, by comparison with other great queens. Elizabeth I held her power by resolutely remaining a virgin; Catherine, at first married to an idiot whom she supplanted in taking the throne (almost unopposed), took a succession of 'favourites' in a way much like any European king. Everyone understood that these were her lovers, and she had children by some of them, but her own legitimacy as monarch seems never to have been seriously in doubt because of her eminent suitability for the job of governing a vast empire.
It's not a quick read of course, and it's a hefty tome - how could it be otherwise to do justice to its subject? But the great virtue of a Kindle is that a 656-page book becomes portable (and very cheap, in this case). I haven't enjoyed any book as much as this, including novels, for a long time. I expected another of the boring lightweight biographies with which the Kindle Store is littered; instead, I'm grateful to discover a biographer who engrossed me wholly in this fascinating life, and made me sad to turn the last page.
At almost six hundred pages, this vast tome is a little off-putting to the casual reader. However, like all of Massie's books, once picked up, it is difficult to put down. Massie, one of the most talented popular historians of the day, turns his pen to consider Catherine the Great, the German Princeling's daughter who, at the age of thirty-three, became empress of Russia.
The story is hardly unfamiliar; given the fascination Catherine the Great has exercised, it would perhaps have been more surprising if a popular historian with an interest in Russia had not decided to consider Catherine the Great. However, Massie brings the eye of a sober judge of character to a story which has given rise to many legends, not all of them complimentary. The Catherine who emerges from Massie's book is a very human figure, her legendary romantic conquests the result of a need to be loved arising from a childhood starved of love, and a loveless marriage. Far from being a monster, Catherine is depicted as a woman, yet a strong ruler, despite her doubts and weaknesses. Massie presents her as a worthy successor to Peter the Great, her expansion of the Russian empire to the south matching his expansion in the west.
The players in this historical drama are well drawn, one reason for the length of the book. Even Tsar Peter II, the husband Catherine deposed, is assessed in humane terms, even if Catherine is clearly a heroine in Massie's eyes. Legends, such as the 'Potemkin Villages' are assessed critically (Massie believes there is no solid evidence for such a deception), as are Catherine's liberal views, and their failure in Russia. The international context is shown, making this an excellent general read.
However, there are a few weaknesses; occasionally Massie goes off on tangents related to his own areas of interest - is it really necessary to know that John Paul Jones, 'father of the US navy' was in Russia and accomplished very little, during Catherine's reign? Occasionally, descriptive passages are not well integrated into the text, so a quote from Kerensky's memoirs about a town which Catherine stopped in is introduced for no good reason, except to tell the casual reader that Massie has read the book.
The flaws, however, are minor, and glaring only because the main body of the book is so well written. All in all, an excellent read, and well-presented, to boot.
I do enjoy History books, and have read a little on Catherine the Great in other books but never a full book.
It is a Big book and sometimes i did struggle a little but that was mainly due to the subject being not my normal era, but i was intrested and did enjoy it.
on 18 October 2014
This is a fascinating story of probably the eighteenth century's most powerful woman. Massie is a wonderful writer who has mastered the art of narrative history. In this book he traces the life of Catherine the Great from her marriage to the unbalanced Peter III to her death as one of Russia's greatest rulers. In it he dispels some of the outrageous rumors that have spread about her over the ages. And actually we come to sympathize with this unfortunate, abused princess who ends up usurping the throne. She certainly had her follies, but so does everyone. She expanded her empire both physically and culturally and pushed it further towards the West. She was the true heir of Peter the Great and no tzar that followed was able to reach her achievements. She may not have been able to put all her Enlightenment ideals into practice, and may even have become disillusioned, but her attempts to modernize Russia set the stage for any further advancements. Unfortunately, her heirs were not up to the same stuff as this remarkable woman. Anyone with the least interest in Russian or European history should read this book. Highly recommended!
on 13 July 2013
This book was informative. I felt really intelligent reading this heavy big historical book! However, it was such an easy read. I was daunted when I saw how long it was. I mean how interesting was Catherine the Great? Very, is the answer, and it was so well written that I didn't get bored or lose interest. My only complaint was that the Massie was definitely in love with Catherine, another of her lovers, and so didn't really discuss any of Catherine's negative aspects.
But he did inspire me to do some research to find these out for myself. Come on - everyone has some bad points and Massie made her out to be too good to be true! However, my research revealed that Catherine in fact did a lot more than Massie had included. I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It was well written, interesting and informative.