06 December 2011

Review: Catherine the Great by Robert K. Massie

Sophia Augusta Fredericka was not joyfully welcomed into the world by her parents, Johanna and Christian Augustus. Instead, she was an instant disappointment by virtue of being female. Her father, a mid-level German prince, had been hoping for an heir. Nevertheless, by age thirty-three, Sophia had converted to Eastern Orthodoxy, had become both a mother and a widow, had changed her name, and had been crowned Catherine II, empress of Russia.

Robert K. Massie's thorough and readable biography, Catherine the Great, draws a complex portrait of the often-misunderstood empress. Relying on primary sources (including Catherine's diaries and letters) and firsthand accounts, Massie unveils the personal and private sides of one of Russia's strongest leaders. This fascinating and accessible narrative transports us to heart of the eighteenth-century Russian court, providing an intimate look at the people, places, and events important to Catherine during her half-century tenure in her adopted country.

From a young age, Catherine focused her keen mind and desire to learn on her dream of becoming powerful. Thus, after a lifetime of being manipulated and used by those who should have most loved and protected her, Catherine didn't hesitate when she finally saw her chance to imprison her husband and claim the throne in her own right, pushing aside her young son.

Despite her selfish rise to power, Catherine was generous to her supporters and was slow to entangle her country in war. In addition, thanks to her intellectual curiosity, she corresponded with and met some of the prominent Enlightenment thinkers of her time and collected the art that formed the core of The Hermitage Museum. Although the realities of governing a diverse country brought her thoughts of freeing the serfs to a halt, she was able to make improvements in healthcare and modernized many towns and cities, bettering the lives of at least some of her subjects.

Even though it's clear that Massie has a high regard for Catherine the Great, he presents a balanced account. Some of her less admirable facets are the following: (1) She could be stubborn, vengeful, and incredibly vain. (2) She was not a nurturing parent. (3) And in an interesting twist of irony, she thwarted her granddaughter's marriage to the future king of Sweden because she refused to permit the girl to become Lutheran, conveniently forgetting that she herself was forced to convert from the Lutheran church to Orthodoxy against the wishes of her own parents before she could marry the future emperor of Russia.

I would be remiss if I didn't comment on two aspects of Catherine's life that I wish Massie had addressed. The first has to do with Catherine's reputation for having an insatiable sex drive. While Massie did name and describe all twelve or so of the empress's lovers, he did not discuss how or why her reputation was tarnished over the years. Catherine was not promiscuous and practiced serial monogamy. Her affairs were not secrets, and in fact, her first extra-marital relationship was encouraged by Empress Elizabeth in an effort to produce an heir. I'm left wondering how, why, and when public opinion of Catherine's sexual life morphed from accepted (or at least tolerated) court behavior to becoming the butt of rude jokes.

The second issue is how few pages were devoted to the American Revolution. In fact neither the American Revolution nor the United States appears in the index. Surly Catherine, a student of the Enlightenment, must have had strong feelings about the birth of the new nation. I understand that the French Revolution (which has its own chapter) had a more direct and personal impact on Catherine, but again, I am left wondering.

Despite these two personal disappointments, I applaud Massie's skills. Catherine the Great was a multidimensional, complex woman who lived and ruled at time when the political and cultural atmosphere of Europe was radically changing. Massie unravels the tangled threads, creating a clear and fascinating story of a woman who would be empress.

Audio note: I both read and listened to Catherine the Great. The unabridged audio edition (Random House Audio; 23 hr, 52 min) was read by Mark Deakins. Deakins's pacing and inflections were well matched to the biography, and I appreciated the way he subtly changed his tone to signal quotations and extracts. In addition, he seemed to handle the pronunciation of Russian, Latin, French, and German with ease. Highly recommended.


Published by Random House, 2011
ISBN-13: 9780679456728
Source: Review (print and audio) (see review policy)
Rating: A-

Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)

21 comments:

Mary (Bookfan) 12/6/11, 6:21 AM  

Wonderful review. I'm knee-deep in War & Peace so it may be a while before I dip into another Russian epic. But I will eventually :)

Daryl 12/6/11, 8:53 AM  

Interesting but not my cuppa ..

rhapsodyinbooks 12/6/11, 8:54 AM  

I'm so jealous you have this and read it already! Re Catherine and the American Revolution, she was rather isolated and moreover fixated on the Ottoman Empire and getting a warm water port on the Black Sea.

bermudaonion 12/6/11, 8:58 AM  

Wow, a 24 hour audio book is quite a commitment! It sounds like this one was very well researched and written.

Kaye 12/6/11, 9:06 AM  

This one is definitely on my wish list. I love books set in Russia. The only Massie book I have read is Nicholas and Alexandria and although itwas good.

Swapna 12/6/11, 9:12 AM  

It's so interesting when someone reads the same book as you and picks up on things you didn't! When you mention these issues, I think "of course!" but they didn't occur to me while reading, probably because I was so engrossed. I still love this book, of course.

JoAnn 12/6/11, 9:12 AM  

This book is on my wish list, but I never thought of a read/listen combo... a perfect candidate. The audio is nearly 24 hours long and I see audible is charging 2 credits!

Andi 12/6/11, 10:58 AM  

I am seriously underinformed in regards to Catherine's life. This sounds like a really interesting book and the kind of writing I long for in these colder months.

readramble 12/6/11, 11:42 AM  

It sounds like a good one and our library will probably have it, but the page count deters me. Too much going on right now and could not make the commitment.

Zibilee 12/6/11, 12:30 PM  

Kathy sent me a copy of this book, and I am so eager to read it! I know so little about Catherine, and have heard that Massey does such a great job with his biographies. I, too, have heard some lewd things about Catherine's sexual appetites, and wonder why Massey didn't discuss that in the book, though I don't thing that the exclusion of those speculations will ruin my enjoyment of it! Wonderful review today! I am so thrilled that you enjoyed this one!

Margot 12/6/11, 3:17 PM  

I'm ready for a really good biography. I'm ignorant of Russian history, so maybe this is a win-win for me. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

Barbara 12/6/11, 3:20 PM  

I've read Massie's Nicholas and Alexandria too and found it very readable. I actually discovered him through the reading list for a Russian history course in college. He's reliably correct but still has that common touch so we can all enjoy his biographies.

Rose City Reader 12/6/11, 4:02 PM  

I read his Peter the Great and thought it was lights out good. This one is on my TBR shelf, having already been devoured by Hubby, who is a huge Massie fan.

But now I am taken with the audio book idea. I may have to read it with my ears.

Julie P. 12/6/11, 7:20 PM  

I might give this one a try. Right now, it's way too big for me to even try!

Marg 12/6/11, 8:11 PM  

I am hoping to read this one soon as I do find her a fascinating personage from history that there is not enough written about (at least in terms of fiction).

Now that you have mentioned it, I guess I will be conscious of the US thing if I do read it but I don't think it would have even occurred to me to wonder that (as a non US reader).

Meg @ A Bookish Affair 12/7/11, 9:34 AM  

I'm so anxious to read this one!

reviewsbylola 12/7/11, 1:10 PM  

I am a little nervous about the size of this one but I have loved Massie's books that I have read thus far, so I am excited for this one.

Cathy 12/8/11, 3:46 PM  

I love Russian history, and I love Robert Massie's books... however I have to admit that I prefer his ex-wife's (Suzanne Massie's) books on Russia, The Land of the Firebird and Pavlovsk. She makes the sights, the smells, the sounds of Imperial Russia and its people come to life.

Peggy@Peggy Ann's Post 12/10/11, 10:08 AM  

Added to my want to read list! i love history too,

Tina 12/11/11, 6:41 PM  

This is at the top of my holiday wishlist, and I especially appreciate your mentioning that you listened and read the book. I often find these two formats complement each other, and it means that I can continue to "read" a book when my hands are otherwise occupied (baking, folding laundry, exercising, etc). It helps not to loose track of the story. Terrific and insightful review.

Kris Meyer 12/29/11, 2:39 PM  

I've always been interested in Catherine The Great but haven't read anything on her. Thanks for a great review, this one is going on the wish list.

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