Catherine the Great (Massie)

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman
Robert K. Massie, 2011
Random House
656 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780679456728

The Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Peter the Great, Nicholas and Alexandra, and The Romanovs returns with another masterpiece of narrative biography, the extraordinary story of an obscure young German princess who traveled to Russia at fourteen and rose to become one of the most remarkable, powerful, and captivating women in history.

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.

The story is superbly told. All the special qualities that Robert K. Massie brought to Nicholas and Alexandra and Peter the Great are present here: historical accuracy, depth of understanding, felicity of style, mastery of detail, ability to shatter myth, and a rare genius for finding and expressing the human drama in extraordinary lives.

History offers few stories richer in drama than that of Catherine the Great. In this book, this eternally fascinating woman is returned to life. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Where—Lexington, Kentucky, USA
Education—B.A., Yale University; Oxford
   University (as a Rhodes Scholar)
Awards—Pulitzer Prize
Currently—lives in Irvington, New York

Robert Kinloch Massie III is an American historian, author, Pulitzer Prize recipient. He has devoted much of his career to studying the House of Romanov, Russia's royal family from 1613-1917.

Born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1929, Massie spent much of his youth in Nashville, Tennessee and currently resides in the village of Irvington, New York. He studied United States and modern European history at Yale and Oxford University, respectively, on a Rhodes Scholarship. Massie went to work as a journalist for Newsweek from 1959 to 1962 and then took a position at the Saturday Evening Post.

In 1969—before he and his family moved to France—Massie wrote and published his breakthrough book, Nicholas and Alexandra, a biography of the last Tsar and Tsarina of Russia, Nicholas II and his wife Alexandra of Hesse. Massie's interest in the Imperial family was triggered by the birth of his son, Reverend and politician Robert Kinloch Massie IV, who was born with hemophilia—a hereditary disease that also afflicted Nicholas's son, Alexei. In 1971, the book was the basis of an Academy Award winning film of the same title. In 1995, in his book The Romanovs: The Final Chapter, Massie updated Nicholas and Alexandra with much newly-discovered information.

In 1975 Robert Massie and his then-wife Suzanne Massie chronicled their experiences as the parents of a hemophiliac child and the significant differences between the American and French health-care systems in their jointly-written book, Journey. Massie won the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for Biography for Peter the Great: His Life and World. This book inspired a 1986 NBC miniseries that won three Emmy Awards and starred Maximilian Schell, Laurence Olivier and Vanessa Redgrave. In 2011 Massie published his biography, Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman (2011).

Massie was the president of the Authors Guild from 1987 to 1991, and he still serves as an ex officio council member. While president of the Guild, he famously called on authors to boycott any store refusing to carry Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses. He is currently married to Deborah Karl. (From Wikipedia.)

Book Reviews
[Massie] has always been a biographer with the instincts of a novelist. He understands plot—fate—as a function of character. The narrative perspective he establishes and maintains, a vision tightly aligned with that of his subject, convinces a reader he’s not so much looking at Catherine the Great as he is out of her eyes.... One of the unexpected pleasures of “Catherine the Great” is that the degree to which Massie invites us to identify with his subject as she grows and changes in a role she began cultivating herself to attain at the age of 14.
Kathryn Harris - New York Times Book Review

This is indeed a "Portrait of a Woman," as the subtitle declares, with plenty of attention paid to Catherine's emotions and psychology. It is also an adept portrait of a ruler, sympathetically assessing Catherine as a worthy successor to Peter the Great in the effort to modernize and westernize the vast Russian empire. Historians may wish Massie had devoted more time to underlying forces in Russian society that defined the limits of Catherine's achievements, but general readers will find this an absorbing, satisfying biography of the old school.
Wendy Smith - Los Angeles Times

As he did in Nicholas and Alexandra and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Peter the Great, Massie immerses the reader in Russian history and culture. The author, 82, is clearly enraptured by his extraordinary heroine and by the end, so is the reader. Even bone-deep anti-monarchists will find themselves cheering on this absolute despot.What a woman, what a world, what a biography.
USA Today

Massie writes a lively account of Catherine's life and her reign. His clearly drawn depictions of the schemes, jealousies and maneuvers of the court, and of Catherine, bring the era and the woman to life. The book is big. It has to be to cover the scope of Catherine's life. But it is so engrossing, it's a quick read.
Mary Foster - Associated Press for Denver Post

In Catherine the Great, Massie has created a sensitive and compelling portrait not just of a Russian titan, but also of a flesh-and-blood woman.

(Starred review.) The Pulitzer-winning biographer of Nicholas and Alexandra and of Peter the Great, Massie now relates the life of a minor German princess, Sophia of Anhalt-Zerbst, who became Empress Catherine II of Russia (1729–1796). She was related through her ambitious mother to notable European royalty; her husband-to-be, the Russian grand duke Peter, was the only living grandson of Peter the Great. As Massie relates, during her disastrous marriage to Peter, Catherine bore three children by three different lovers, and she and Peter were controlled by Peter’s all-powerful aunt, Empress Elizabeth, who took physical possession of Catherine’s firstborn, Paul. Six months into her husband’s incompetent reign as Peter III, Catherine, 33, who had always believed herself superior to her husband, dethroned him, but probably did not plan his subsequent murder, though, Massie writes, a shadow of suspicion hung over her. Confident, cultured, and witty, Catherine avoided excesses of personal power and ruled as a benevolent despot. Magnifying the towering achievements of Peter the Great, she imported European culture into Russia, from philosophy to medicine, education, architecture, and art. Effectively utilizing Catherine’s own memoirs, Massie once again delivers a masterful, intimate, and tantalizing portrait of a majestic monarch.
Publishers Weekly

Discussion Questions
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Also consider these LitLovers talking points to help get a discussion started for Catherine the Great:

1. The subtitle of Robert Massie's biography is "Portrait of a Woman." Is the author's attempt to fashion his portrait successful? Does he imbue Catherine with enough color—complexity and depth—to bring her to life?

2. Follow-up to Question 1: What kind of a woman was Catherine? How did her upbringing shape the woman she would later become?  Consider, in particular, Catherine's mother, Johanna, and her influence over her daughter, known then as Sophia Augusta Fredericka?

3. How did Johanna, married to a minor German prince, manage to jostle her daughter to the forefront of European princesses in order to catch the eye of the Russian empress? Talk about Johanna's stratagems.

4. Follow-up to Question 3: What was it about Sophia that made the empress take note? Which of sophia's virtues impressed Elizabeth and inspired her to consider Sophia a suitable match for her nephew?

5. Massie says that Sophia understood early on that people preferred "to talk about themselves rather than anything else." How did Catherine use that insight to benefit herself—and ultimately to gain and maintain power over others? Was Catherine's use of this basic human trait cold and calculated? Or was it a result of her own sympathetic personality which she simply put to use? Or...something else?

6. Discuss young Peter and his ineffectual qualities—both as husband and czar? What mistakes did he make in his short reign? Consider, especially his desire to remake both the Russian church and army.

7. How do you view Catherine's coup d'etat and arrest of her husband? Were her actions justified? Regarding Peter's death, what do you make of Massie's assertion that "the circumstances and cause of death, and the intentions and degree of responsibility of those involved, can never be known.” Is Massie exculpating Catherine and her involvement because, as a biographer, he has lost objectivity for his subject? Or is his assessment correct?

8. Catherine made it her practice to appear in uniform at military parades, to wear plain apparel in public, to mingle with her subjects in the park, and to inoculate herself with a new, untried small pox vaccine. Talk about how she used those actionas as symbols in order to secure her position as "the mother of all Russia." Were her actions born of manipulation...or of a genuine understanding of the needs of her subject?

9. Massie writes that Catherine's need for adulation from her subjects grew out of a "permanent wound" as a result of her mother's rejection. Do you agree? Or is it an oversimplification?

10. Talk about the Pugachev revolt and its outcome. What effect did the rebellion have on Catherine's idealism, her desire to end serfdom and relax her hold over her subjects.

11. Overall, how would you describe Catherine's reign as Czarina of the Russian people? What were her greatest accomplishments...and her failures?

12. What did you know about Catherine the Great before you began this biography? Were your views of her altered by the end? If so, in what way?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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