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32 of 33 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Hefty tome that taught me a lot - warts and all!
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,...
Published on 17 July 2012 by Henk Beentje

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3.0 out of 5 stars OK
This book was very detailed and interesting but as it went on ...an on....it reminded me of when I read War and Peace as a teenager. A good read with a lot of dull bits. In War ans Peace the good bits were evenly distributed but this book drearier at the end. The problem was that I didn't like the eponymous heroine of the book. She was meant to be great but her morals and...
Published 2 months ago by vickyhelen


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5.0 out of 5 stars ‘….she wished to do what was good for her country….’, 15 Feb. 2014
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‘….she wished to do what was good for her country….’

‘Catherine the Great’ by Robert Massie deals with one of the greatest rulers of Russia and yet whose life was, in the cliché, ‘how unlike the life of our own dear Queen’. For over a third of the book Massie’s chief source are the Memoirs of Catherine herself and what a racy tale they tell.
Catherine (1729-96) was born Sophia August Frederika, a princess of Anhalt-Zerbst , a tiny German principality. In 1742 she was ‘shipped-out’ to marry Peter Ulrich of Holstein who’d been ‘shipped-in’ to be the heir of the childless Elizabeth Tsarina of Russia. My expressions are used to stress the lack of freedom the pair had in a court of a woman whose vanity and whims rivalled those of our own Elizabeth 1. Peter can best be described in the words of his wife’s lover, Poniatowski: ‘Nature made him a mere poltroon, a guzzler, an individual comic in all things…. He was not stupid, but mad, and as he loved to drink, this helped scramble his brains even further.’ (P.224). His life was one of impotence regarding any role at court and was documented by his long-suffering wife – e.g. days spent training hunting dogs in a two-roomed apartment interspersed by scraping out ‘tunes’ on a violin to the distress of Catherine (so renamed by Tsarina Elizabeth on her arrival in Russia), The court was filled with intrigues, gossip and keeping secrets from the tyrannical Elizabeth. Peter showed no interest in his wife – after nine years she was still a virgin, despite the demands of Elizabeth for a little heir – but eventually found a series of uninspiring mistresses. Catherine also took lovers, produced an heir (whether by Peter or anon is unsure) and became adept at scheming. As I read I wondered how that gilded madhouse would have looked through the Memoirs of Tsarina Elizabeth. Certainly if the reader wants a study comparable to that given of the politics of early 18th century Russia as detailed here , the reader should consult ‘The Twelve Caesars’ by Suetonius on 1st century Rome. For nearly half the book we are in tabloid-history- land but, as the subtitle states, it also is a ‘Portrait of a Woman’ so Massie is being both fair and highly entertaining. But all good things must come to an end and the reader moves on to the ‘proper history’.
The short reign of husband Peter III (1761-2) is but an intermission as he manages to upset anybody he can upset in Russia in a matter of weeks, including publicly calling his wife ‘Dura’ (Fool) - far better applied to himself. Massie states Catherine had long considered seizing the throne for herself without presenting any proof (apart from such an idea being MENTIONED to her). He’s also very vague dealing with Peter’s removal, failing to exonerate Catherine from any responsibility, except admitting, ‘ She did agree with her advisers that he must be rendered “harmless”. Catherine was determined to take no risks…’ (P. 271) His killers were rewarded and Orlov’s declaration, ‘We ourselves know not what we did’ (P. 273), is used as the chapter title. Could Catherine have said the same.
Now we see Catherine facing the realities of power which meant she learned a series of harsh lessons and her solutions tended to rest on awkward pragmatism. As a woman she had favourites and lovers but the Orlov brothers (largely responsible for her succession in 1762) proved too unpopular to retain. Ivan VI, long ago banished to prison by Elizabeth when she seized the throne, presented another danger and he also was killed- allegedly resulting from instructions left by Elizabeth years before; how convenient. She’d scrapped the anti- Church proposals of Peter III but then seized all Church property and crushed opposition. She objected to the existence of serfdom but used the institution to reward underlings and organise Russia.
Before I read this book I wondered why Catherine was styled ‘the Great’ She yearned to introduce western Enlightenment (e.g. Voltaire) into Russia but her actions were distinctly limited. However, she did write (in French) the ‘Nakaz’, an approach to reforming the legal system and constitution of Russia which rested on ideas garnered from the likes of Voltaire and Montesquieu. It met immediate opposition and was savagely edited even before it was laid before an elected Legislative Assembly where the ideas were debated ad infinitum’ (1767-69) and by 1773 the attempt had petered out. To show how advanced Catherine was here are some quotations from the ‘Nakaz’:’frequent use of severe punishment has never rendered a people better’; censorship is ‘productive of nothing but ignorance’; ‘The use of torture is contrary to sound judgement and common sense’. In 1769 Russian attacked Turkey and by 1774 secured the long desired southern outlet to the Black Sea, buttressed by the first partition of Poland in 1772 (with Austria and Prussia) to the West. These conquests match those by Peter the Great 70 years before which had opened up access to the Baltic Sea in the north. She established the first College of Medicine in Russia (1763), led a campaign against smallpox by being one of the first to be inoculated in Russia (1768) and supervised the checking of a plague outbreak in Moscow and the south (1770-2).
The sub-title to the book is ‘Portrait of a Woman’ and therein lay Catherine’s weakness. Before 1762 she was pushed to the side in matters of state, despite her clear superiority to her husband and whoever had the ear of the Tsarina Elizabeth. After 1762 her heart could sometimes affect her head in reaching decisions and riches were showered on, in a few cases, totally unworthy men. Massie devotes an chapter to Catherine’s ‘favourites’, carefully distinguishing the three lovers she had BEFORE 1762 from the nine afterwards (Gregory Orlov spans both periods). Some favourites – e.g. Orlov and Potemkin – had energy and talent in either war or statecraft: others – e.g. Vasilchikov and Zorich – had little to recommend them and were quickly abandoned by an intelligent monarch. Some had influence over her emotions – e.g. Orlov, Potemkin and Lanskoy – and, in an absolutist state, therefore some access to political power. Compared to the mistresses of male rulers (e.g. Mary Boleyn, Nell Gwynne. Louise de la Valliere or Madame de Pompadour) their influence could threaten to become overwhelming, such was the effect of a male-dominated system. However, Massie shows that, whatever her passionate letters might declare or her generosity might indicate, Catherine was in the driving seat – the closest to challenging this judgement was Potemkin (aka ‘my husband’, whatever that means!). Even so, for me Chapter 63 ‘Favourites’ is one of the more disappointing as it shows Catherine at her weakest, wasting time and resources often on men of limited worth or maximum greed/arrogance, which tarnished her image. Another disappointing chapter is Chapter 76 dealing with the French Revolution, partly because its excessive detail is out of place in a book on Russia and partly because its virulent assault on the turmoil of 1789-95 with scant attention to what caused revolution and how it generated idealism and attitudes underlying the modern world. Certainly the French Revolution hardened Catherine (e.g. she banned the works of Voltaire, which she’d praised thirty years before) so that she expunged Poland from the map of Europe largely because she smelt similar ideas spreading there.
Overall the book is worthy of its subject and deserves 5 stars. What’s the source of this review’s title? Catherine’s epitaph for herself (see P.573). NB Russia was her ADOPTED country and she was sure she KNEW what was ‘good for’ Russia. Truly the greatest example of 18th century ‘benevolent despotism’
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5.0 out of 5 stars Truely Great, 9 Mar. 2013
By 
Donald Thompson "waldo357" (Belfast N Ireland) - See all my reviews
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Catherine the Great is perhaps one of the most misinterpretated women in history. This biography by Robert K Massie will help to dispell a lot of the myths and mysteries. Born a Princess to a very minor German noble it was sheer chance and luck which saw her betrothed and married to Paul the heir to the vast Russian Empire. The parts of Catherines life up to her marriage are all beautifully observed and recorded, mostly it must be said by Catherine herself. Thrust into a world she didn't understand, but which she longed to make hers naked ambition is shown to belong to others, her mother, Empress Elizabeth and her boorish drunken husband. After her marriage Catherine stops writing her diaries and we are robbed of the ultimate insight. That she took lovers is not in question, that she did it while married is never in doubt, was she urged to do so Empress Elizabeth? In all probabbility yes. In this you have nothing but sympathy for her, her life as Empress in waiting is one of seclusion, strict order, and even being watched by guardians appointed by the Empress would be too much for anyone. After Elizabeths death the short reign of her husband proves him to be an incompetent fool with a fixation on Frederick of Prussia bordering on the distasteful. Her coup to take power is covered in good detail, but the one burning question of her guilt in her husbands death is still as open to debate as ever. Is it possible she conspired to have him killed? In 18th Century politics anything was possible.

After she takes the throne Catherine's character becomes a little more remote, only as one would expect in a court which controlled access to her competely. Did she improve Russia's lot? Yes. Was she a despot? Probably. Did Potemkin, one of her lovers, have too much influence? Yes in part. Through it all Catherine manages to remain human. It seems that a lot of the stories attributed to her come from her son, who could not wait to succedd her, and did all he could to destroy what she had worked for and stood for. The fact that he is recalled better for being assasinated than for anything else he did tells you a lot.

I usually find books like this dry, dull and boring. This book is anything but. A superb, outstanding and telling biography, I cannot recommend it highly enough.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Written with the flair and verve of a novel, 9 Sept. 2012
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Roman Clodia (London) - See all my reviews
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This is a big book but Massie makes it fly past in this wonderfully accessible re-telling of the life of Catherine the Great (1729-1796). This is, as the sub-title states, a `portrait of a woman' rather than a full-scale history of Russia during this period, and the text is primarily an intimate one, as far as that is possible, set against the wider context of Russian history.

With its short chapters, lively writing and telling detail, we get what feels like a fly-on-the-wall picture of the Russian court - decadent, manipulative, hedonistic - and Catherine's own place within it.

If you've read any of the other biographies on Catherine then this doesn't change our picture of the empress. That's principally because this isn't a book which has uncovered new papers or sources, or which significantly re-reads previous writings with a thesis of its own.

I do feel that the first half, up until Catherine becomes Empress, feels more detailed and personal - and that's because it's based, as are previous works, on Catherine's own memoirs, written much later than the time she is describing. Massie doesn't really draw attention to the limitation of this source but we should of course be aware that Catherine herself re-shapes her past, her own behaviour and the portraits of especially her mother, her husband and the Empress Elizabeth to justify and legitimate her own thoughts and actions given her present position.

So this is, to that extent, a biased, partial and subjective narrative (as are previous biographies which also rely on Catherine's memoirs) - but even with that caveat in mind, this is still a gripping and absorbing read which has all the flair and verve of a well-written novel.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Loved it, 28 Oct. 2012
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This review is from: Catherine the Great: The story of the impoverished German princess who deposed her husband to become tzarina of the largest empire on earth (Kindle Edition)
This is my second book by Robert K Massie. Despite the weight and depth of subject material the author writes with such eloquence and even makes politics enjoyably readable.
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5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent, informative account, 24 Sept. 2012
By 
Mike Davey (St Georges, Telford) - See all my reviews
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I really enjoyed this account of Catherine's life and quickly found it to be immensely readable. It is clearly aimed at a general audience and I like the format - divided into 7 parts, with the first half devoted to her life as a German princess and the second as Empress of Russia. Each chapter within a part is quite short and well paced. This especially appealed to me, with my knowledge of Catherine mainly limited to her dealings with the wider world e.g. her correspondence with great writers of the time, including Voltaire and Diderot.

The author makes good use of 3 editions of Catherine's' memoirs and they provide much of the detail for the book, even though it seems that they may not be totally reliable. The author's approach, in assimilating sources has produced, for me, a very satisfying overview of her life and this period in Russian history.

This seems to be a coherent account of her life, using the memoirs, other sources and accounts - altogether a good, general overview of her life and reign. The word `storyteller' used by one reviewer, seems especially appropriate because it is a larger than life person being described and it does read like a novel on the grand scale.
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Catherine indeed was 'Great'!, 16 May 2012
By 
Billy J. Hobbs "Bill Hobbs" (Tyler, TX USA) - See all my reviews
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There are some great biographers out there today and Robert K. Massie is one of the best. The 82-year-old biographer's latest, "Catherine the Great," is another remarkable example of his works. Alas, mention Russian Empress Catherine the Great and people start sniggering about death by stallion. Fortunately, Massie renders biographical justice in his most interesting new biography. I particularly like Massie's works because they come across less like a boring history lesson than an exciting read, almost novel-esque.

Massie notes that Catherine's achievements during her long reign are rivaled by only one other female ruler: Queen Elizabeth I. Like Stacy Schiff in her Cleopatra bio, Massie retells the life of a famous female without the biases of past centuries. Yes, Catherine the Great was a sensual woman and a monarch who
took lovers, sometimes much younger, whom she rewarded with gifts and money. Regardless, in guiding Russia and Russian development, this aristocratic German teen ended up equaling Peter the Great before her.

Not all eyes weeped for her when, at the age of 16, she became bride to the heir to the Russian throne, the future Tsar Peter III, who, coincidentally was also German born. Catherine was intelligent, charming, and greatly admired and respected but, alas, young Peter was a, well, pain, in several ways. Poor thing, however, for where one of his primary responsibilities is to sire an heir, he didn't. Massie tells us that Catherine remained a virgin for nine years after they married, because Peter wouldn't tourch her. Whose ego that affected, Massie doesn't say.

Catherine, eventually, was put on the throne, at the age of 33, when, after six months of Peter, the nobles, the church, and the military had had enough. His ego, his personality, his habits made him a royal "pain"! She remained "in charge" until her death in 1796. As the ruling monarch, she proved to be hard-working, diligent, and, indeed, quite clever as she went about, with a lot of good advisers, ruling a vast empire of millions and millions mostly made up of poor Russian serfs, ruled by the aristocracy and the other privileged few. An admirable woman, Massie shows us, she nurtured education, the arts, and scientific and medical development, all the while maneuvering through 18th-century Europe--and we know that that meant "wars and rumors of wars."

Massie had earlier written critically acclaimed works ("Nicholas and Alexandria" and the Pulitzer Prize winning "Peter the Great") and in "Catherine the Great," he shows great respect for this "Great" woman of history. And he avoids the titillation of mentioning teams of wild horses.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Top Class History, 25 Sept. 2012
By 
Marham - See all my reviews
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This book tells the story of Catherine from her origins as the daughter of minor German aristocracy brought to Russia as the bride to the heir of the throne, a loveless marriage, her succession to the throne on the death of her husband and how she ruled Russia. She was a remakable woman who introduced European life to the Court, was a follower of the Enlightenment and corresponded with Voltaire and others and forbad torture. She did not however free the Serfs as she recognised she required the support of the Aristocracy. She had fifteen lovers during her life and three children by them, the first born while her husband was still alive and was reconised as her heir althought this was no secret at Court. She saw the expansion of Russia's borders to the Black Sea as a result of two wars with Turkey. This such a well written book and I found it an easy read. I found myself at the end of a chapter wanting to go on and frequently doing so. It has been magnificently researched and is a work of accademic brilliance. Anyone wanting to learn not only the history of Russia but also of Europe generally in the 18th. century must read this.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A powerful Queen, 23 May 2013
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This review is from: Catherine the Great: The story of the impoverished German princess who deposed her husband to become tzarina of the largest empire on earth (Kindle Edition)
Having a hazy view of Russian History in the 18th century, I read this book with great enjoyment. Catherine instead of being a victim of an arranged marriage and a very unhappy early life used her head to become the most powerful woman in Europe at this time. A good read
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An extraordinary biography of an extraordinary woman, 27 Feb. 2013
By 
OC (London, England) - See all my reviews
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Robert K Massie's entertaining biography of Catherine the Great tells with illuminating and engrossing detail the story of how a German girl from an unremarkable family became the most powerful woman of her time. Massie makes light work of the complicated and confusing network of European aristocratic bloodlines from which Catherine, born Sophia, sprung, and similarly explains with clarity the rival camps within the Russian court.

Displaying sympathy and liking for his subject, he portrays Catherine's evolution from provincial girl, dominated by her mother, to outsider at the Russian court, to Emperor's wife and, after deposing her husband, sole ruler of all Russia. Drawing lucidly on Catherine's own diaries and correspondence, the author brings to life her passions, loves and personal loyalties as well as her political acumen and many achievements. A hefty yet engaging read, the biography sheds light not only on Catherine's life, but on a society which would be destroyed by revolution one hundred and twenty years after her death.

Brilliant.
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5.0 out of 5 stars engrossing as a novel, 25 Oct. 2014
By 
Leslie Gardner (london, england) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Catherine the Great: The story of the impoverished German princess who deposed her husband to become tzarina of the largest empire on earth (Kindle Edition)
i literally could not put this engrossing read down - as massie characterises her, catherine the great, born german, who became what he tells us is a great leader of a huge nation is also rivetting - he integrates her personal life - the various men she tried as life partners - bolshey and demanding to eventually Potemkin, a great statesman and soldier who it is implied may have become her husband. contact with diderot and voltaire were vital to her, even though her experiments based on their ideas were doomed - finally it was Grimm she stayed in touch with. estranged from family both her maternal side and her own oldest son - who could not wait for her death to take over (despite rumours she was changing her will to favour his son, who was actually a tremendously capable leader when he did take his turn ) - really strong and good read
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