Friday, January 25, 2013

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman - review

Summary (courtesy of GoodReads):  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.”

Catherine’s family, friends, ministers, generals, lovers, and enemies—all are here, vividly described. These included her ambitious, perpetually scheming mother; her weak, bullying husband, Peter (who left her lying untouched beside him for nine years after their marriage); her unhappy son and heir, Paul; her beloved grandchildren; and her “favorites”—the parade of young men from whom she sought companionship and the recapture of youth as well as sex. Here, too, is the giant figure of Gregory Potemkin, her most significant lover and possible husband, with whom she shared a passionate correspondence of love and separation, followed by seventeen years of unparalleled mutual achievement.

And here's what I thought:  While the size of this book may be a bit daunting, it has a fast pace, which makes reading it pretty enjoyable.   It also has enough drama and intrigue packed into it to make anyone who loves soap operas or telenovellas a fan of Catherine the Great.  

Robert Massie does a great job of packing in a lot of information, while at the same time making Catherine very human.  Using a timeline approach for the first part of the book, you learn about her upbringing and history, and the events that bring her to Russia, and then, about halfway through the book, when she takes over the throne, the author switches to a writing style that sometimes jumps a bit back and forth in time, but which shows some of the decisions Catherine made, and the history surrounding them, as well as the impact they had.   She really was an extraordinary woman, who was clearly ahead of her time, and whose leadership brought Russia into the enlightened age.   She certainly wasn't afraid to be herself, an intelligent women with a strong will, and it's pretty impressive to think about all she accomplished.   Considering that she was a contemporary of some of our founding fathers (she died in 1796), it's intriguing to think about how  they would have received her here, in America --- basically, I like to imagine her sitting at a dinner with Benjamin Franklin and having some pretty lively conversation.

While I don't think that every reader would love this book, if you're interested in history, especially that of women rulers, I think this book is quite good.  It's written in a way that makes nonfiction read like fiction, which is appealing, and it really brings the history to life.

First lines:  Prince Christian Augustus of Anhalt-Zerbst was hardly distinguishable in the swam of obscure, penurious noblemen who cluttered the landscape and society of politically fragmented eighteenth-century Germany.  Possessed neither of exceptional virtues nor alarming vices, Prince Christian exhibited the solid virtues of his Junker lineage: a stern sense of order, discipline, integrity, thrift, and piety, along with an unshakable lack of interest in gossip, intrigue, literature, and the wider world in general.

Chunkster Challenge info:  This is the first book I read for this challenge, and it weighs in at a hefty 625 pages.


Jenni Elyse said...

So, it sounds like from your review that this is historical fiction then? Or, is it actually non-fiction just written like a story?

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