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This is an excellent biography of one of the greatest of Russian rulers, by an author who has already written major biographies of Peter the Great, the last tsar Nicholas and his wife Alexandra, and a book about the post-revolutionary Romanovs in exile. It is rich and colourful and, the title notwithstanding, covers all aspects of Catherine's life and rule, the personal, political, military and social. Catherine was an unlikely ruler of the biggest empire in the world, being a princess of a minor German state with no Russian blood. Called to Russia at the age of 14 to marry the heir to the throne, Peter, Empress Elizabeth's nephew, she quickly, unlike her husband, adopted Russian customs and language and joined the Orthodox church, renouncing her Lutheranism against her father's protests. She quickly eclipsed Peter in all areas. He was unstable and unfit to rule, and Elizabeth worried for the succession, so much so that, after nine years of unconsummated marriage, the way was cleared for Catherine to have a child by another man, with the result that Grand Duke Paul was very probably not Peter's son.

After Elizabeth's death, Peter became emperor Peter III, but Catherine overthrew him six months later and assumed the imperial title (Peter died suddenly a week later, very probably bumped off by Catherine's supporters, the Orlovs). Catherine was a ruler of contrasts. A follower of Voltaire and Diderot, she was genuinely liberal by the standards of rulers of the time, and made some attempts at constitutional and other political and economic reform, which however she could not progress in the face of opposition from the nobility, on whose support she depended. For an autocrat she was sparing in the use of force and consistently opposed the use of torture, even against her bitterest opponents. However, her liberal instincts weakened in the face of the Pugachev rebellion, whose leader the Cossack Yemelyan Pugachev claimed to be Peter III; and withered almost entirely after the French Revolution, when the fear of a bloody upheaval against established authority caused her to become suspicious of reformers, including the first true Russian reformer Alexander Radischchev. It also led her to what was surely the most outrageous and longest-lasting injustice of her reign, that of the dismemberment and destruction of the Polish state, after its legislature had tried to assert some independence against Russian domination; Poland did not emerge again until after the First World War.

The book also of course charts Catherine's colourful love life and her many favourites, including most prominently Grigory Potemkin, the love of her life, to whom she may have been secretly married; and the other significant relationships (with each of whom she had a child) Stanislaus Poniatowski, whom she later made her puppet king of Poland, and Grigory Orlov, one of the brothers who helped her win the throne. Ironically, history repeated itself and Catherine regarded her son Paul as largely unfit to rule and may have planned to name her eldest grandson, Paul's son Alexander, her successor in his place. She died at the age of 67 in 1796, one of the longest lived rulers of Russia, not a breed known for their longevity. Always a fascinating character, one of the genuine greats of European history.
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on 30 March 2015
I bought this book as I am giving a history lecture on this subject and I was told that Robert Massie was the acknowledged expert on Catherine. I approached it with not a little trepidation as often books written by ‘experts’ are a nightmare. What a pleasant surprise! It was an easy book to read, the facts were presented clearly and concisely and not embellished with the author’s own viewpoint. I particularly liked the excerpts from Catherine’s own diaries and letters, and where information came from third parties this was mentioned. There was enough information without going into minute detail and besides using this book as a source of reference, I also enjoyed it was an entertaining book and I would recommend it to any student interested in the Russian royal family.
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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.
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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.
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This is a very readable history of this minor German princess who was married to the heir of the Russian throne and who eventually took it for herself and was a very successful ruler. It's not a period of history or area of the world I know well but I was pleased that, as a general reader, I was able to understand and follow the implications of what Catherine did because the book was aimed exactly at my level of knowledge.

The author starts with Catherine's childhood and her difficult mother who has great ambitions for herself and her daughter. We see how Catherine (or Sophia as she was then) jumps at the marriage in order to escape from home and then finds herself wedded to man who ignores her and has an obsession with soldiers and military strategy. Catherine grows strength and independence during this period despite being watched by the empress's chosen minions and begins to make her own decisions including finding an alternative father for her son who will be the next heir. The author gives the background information about the empress Elizabeth and her aims as well as giving a picture of the court and its politics - whatever you think about Catherine's decision to commit adultery you can see how it was almost inevitable for her survival.

Catherine's decision to seize power and her attempts to be the best ruler possible for Russia are gripping tales and the author makes it clear where Catherine succeeded and where she failed and also where her inability to act stored up problems for the future. He gives as much detail as is known about her lovers during her reign and doesn't just list them but attempts to give them life and to help us to understand why she stayed with them. He explores the possibility that she was secretly married and also her non-sexual relationships with senior political figures.

It is true to say that the author seems to have a soft spot for Catherine and he argues eloquently that she had no option in many circumstances and that what she did was always to benefit Russia. He paints a picture of a strong and ruthless woman who has been wounded by her childhood, her marriage and the separation from her children (we hear nothing of her second son after he is taken away - I assume she never saw him again ? Her mother also disappears from the narrative in the same way and I would like to know what happened to her.).

This is an engaging biography. It is clear and explains background and context well for the general reader. It gives life to the people and issues of the time and helps us understand the nature of Catherine's greatness.
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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!
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on 13 March 2014
I read Robert Massie's Peter the Great before reading Catherine and I would strongly recommend reading the two books in that order.

Massie did a superb job of selling Peter, the man, to his readers. This job was made difficult by the fact that Peter was in most respects a monster with very few redeeming features. Massie had a much simpler task in selling us Catherine as a great woman.

In many respects Catherine was the antithesis of Peter. He was ill-educated and brutish; she was an intellectual who immersed herself in the enlightenment. He was a spoilt child who grew up to be almost entirely self-interested; she was a neglected child who grew up to care deeply about her adopted people. He was blood thirsty and violent, executing and torturing all those who stood in his way, even carrying out the torture with his own hands; she banned torture and resisted calls for execution, even of those people who had genuinely threatened her realm.

However, there were similarities between the two Great Russian autocrats. Both had seemingly limitless energy and both were physically courageous. Peter showed his courage by sailing out into storms, plunging into the sea to save shipwrecked seamen and leading his army to great victories. Catherine showed her courage more subtly and perhaps more profoundly, staying calm in moments of great danger and volunteering to be the first Russian to take small pox vaccination (straight from the arm of an infected patient).

For me the decision as to which of the two monarchs was the greatest is easy. While both made a huge impact on world history, I do not fully believe the maxim that the ends justify the means, or indeed that the ends can fully justify the motivation. Both aimed to modernise Russia, but Peter's motivation was self-aggrandisement and he really didn't care who got hurt in the process. I believe Catherine's motivation was a sense of duty and she managed to achieve more than Peter without causing anywhere near as much pain. In fact, I would say that Peter's greatest achievement was to change Russia in such a way that a woman could rule and his good fortune (in terms of legacy) was that one of these women was a German called Sophia, who went on to become Catherine the Great.

The decision on which of the two books was the greatest is far more difficult. I gave 5 stars to both, so this is a comparison between excellent and very, very good. Generally speaking it is more interesting to read about monsters than saints. Peter fits the monster category but Catherine was not really a saint and she certainly was not in any way bland. In telling Peter's story Massie could take the reader right to the centre of the battles, which is always exciting. In telling Catherine's story Massie perforce has to dwell more in palaces and meeting rooms. At its most base Peter's story can come across as a boys own adventure, while Catherine's can appear a little like a soap opera. More flatteringly Dostoyevsky compared to Tolstoy? I just cannot decide which one I love best.
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on 15 February 2014
‘….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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on 25 October 2014
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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on 29 January 2014
Straight from the start, I easily became immersed into Catherine's story. The author does a fantastic job of leading us into the mind of Sophia (Catherine before she became Catherine) and we grow with her as she becomes empress of Russia.
For me, the author perfectly juggled historically accurate facts, quoting from Catherine's memoirs and from her many letters with telling an exciting story. What I felt most of all was that Catherine was a friend, that I knew her with her faults as well as her qualities, and I was always interested to know what would happen to her next and how she would react to events.
I felt that Massie had a great admiration for Catherine, and I finished the book feeling the same, all the more so because he doesn't hide the mistakes she makes or the inconsistencies of her character. All in all, it was a great read!
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