Monday, December 24, 2012

Book Report: Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman

The Nicolai girls have always loved anything and everything having to do with Russia. And this isn't because we're of Russian descent (because we're not). Despite how Russian it may sound, Nicolai is Prussian, which is to say: German. Historically, the Prussians and the Russians have a somewhat tempestuous relationship...obsession, violence, intrigue--you know, the essentials for an interesting story. And lo and behold, Catherine the Great was Prussian. Yup, a transplant to Russia by marriage. So for me, Robert K. Massie, with his mastery of all things Russ, can do no wrong, and his Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman proved his skill excellently...

Whether it was learning about Lake Baikal (the world's oldest and deepest lake) in Mr. Vanneson's Russian history class (Monika still delights in reading through her class notebooks), developing a giant crush on sweet, earnest Yevgeny (who would call out "The sisters!" in delight whenever he encountered me & Catherine on campus), or reading Pushkin's Onegin late into the night (and later telling my German teacher it was my favorite opera, which is true. That is a question you must answer in German class.), Russia and Russians have always held us in thrall. 

Never mind that Catherine was slightly involved in the death of her first husband Tsar Peter III--he was a royal a-hole and probably would have been assassinated anyway over his unhealthy admiration for Frederick II of Prussia (Frederick was dangerously ambitious.) and everything Prussian except his wife (SLAM!). Never mind that Catherine had a ton of lovers.* Never mind that Catherine's first son, Paul, went directly from her womb to the Empress Elizabeth (Peter the Great's daughter and Tsar Peter III's aunt) and was raised apart from his mother. Never mind that Catherine was, technically, a foreigner (and a cursed Prussian)...she managed to assimilate; she learned Russian, converted to the Eastern Orthodox religion, and won over the army and the hearts of the people. She attempted (mostly unsuccessfully) to alleviate the suffering of the serfs, championed education and the arts, and led Russia into an era of enlightenment. Oh, and she was pen-pals with Voltaire. Voltaire!

If you adored Catherine the Great, you won't be disappointed with Massie's other books on the Russian royals: Peter the Great: His Life and World,  Nicholas and Alexandra, and The Romanvos: The Final Chapter. If you have a hankering for royal ladies beyond the Russian realm, I suggest Cleopatra: A Life and Marie Antoinette: The Journey.

1. Wedding in the Loire Valley, by Shawn Connell of Christian Oth Studios; 2. Catherine Palace at Tsarskoe Selo, via Saint; 3. The Bronze Horseman, via A View on Cities; 4. Doors at Peterhof Palace, by Korzun Andrey; 5. Peterhof ballroom, by Nicola Baltico;  6. The Peacock Clock, via the State Hermitage Museum; 7. Brocade, via Holy Young Fashion; 8. Audrey Tautou, via I Love You Audrey Tautou; 9. Bowtie flats, by BHLDN; 10. Monogram of Catherine the Great, via the State Hermitage Museum; 11. Detail Catherine the Great in her Coronation Robe, 1778-1779, via Art Details; 12. Antique books, via FFFFOUND!.

* I love the sound of all Catherine's lovers' names. I've taken several of them on as a sort of mantra. When I need to calm myself or clear my head, I'll repeat Sergei Saltykov (her first lover, the father of her first child, Paul {the one stolen by the Empress}, and a total scoundrel) and Stanislaw Poniatowski (Polish noble, became King of Poland with Catherine's support)Also Tsarskoe Selo. (pronounced: ts-ar-kow say-low). Say it softly to yourself. Isn't it magical?


  1. What a wonderfully enthusiastic review - this sounds amazing! I can think of few people that truly need 575 pages to do them full justice but Catherine the Great is certainly one of them. I can well imagine how absorbing it must have been once you really got into it! I don't know all that much about Russian history so it's encouraging to hear that Massie makes it so accessible. This is definitely going on my wish list.

  2. This book is packed with enough relationship drama and court intrigue to be a novel, while the reader can impress the people he knows with his new knowledge. With Catherine, Massie has made a valuable contribution not only to women's and Russian history, but also to literature. It should be considered a must-read by any student of world culture.


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