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Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman [Format Kindle]

Robert K. Massie
4.0 étoiles sur 5  Voir tous les commentaires (1 commentaire client)

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Sophia's Childhood

Prince Christian Augustus of Anhalt-Zerbst was hardly distinguishable in the swarm 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. Born in 1690, he had made a career as a professional soldier in the army of King Frederick William of Prussia. His military service in campaigns against Sweden, France, and Austria was meticulously conscientious, but his exploits on the battlefield were unremarkable, and nothing occurred either to accelerate or retard his career. When peace came, the king, who was once heard to refer to his loyal officer as "that idiot, Zerbst," gave him command of an infantry regiment garrisoning the port of Stettin, recently acquired from Sweden, on the Baltic coast of Pomerania. There, in 1727, Prince Christian, still a bachelor at thirty-seven, bowed to the pleas of his family and set himself to produce an heir. Wearing his best blue uniform and his shining ceremonial sword, he married fifteen-year-old Princess Johanna Elizabeth of Holstein-Gottorp, whom he scarcely knew. His family, which had arranged the match with hers, was giddy with delight; not only did the line of Anhalt-Zerbst seem assured, but Johanna's family stood a rung above them on the ladder of rank.

It was a poor match. There were the problems of difference in age; pairing an adolescent girl with a man in middle age usually stems from a confusion of motives and expectations. When Johanna, of a good family with little money, reached adolescence and her parents, without consulting her, arranged a match to a respectable man almost three times her age, Johanna could only consent. Even more unpromising, the characters and temperaments of the two were almost entirely opposite. Christian Augustus was simple, honest, ponderous, reclusive, and thrifty; Johanna Elizabeth was complicated, vivacious, pleasure-loving, and extravagant. She was considered beautiful, and with arched eyebrows, fair, curly hair, charm, and an exuberant eagerness to please, she attracted people easily. In company, she felt a need to captivate, but as she grew older, she tried too hard. In time, other flaws appeared. Too much gay talk revealed her as shallow; when she was thwarted, her charm soured to irritability and her quick temper suddenly exploded. Underlying this behavior, and Johanna had known this from the beginning, was the fact that her marriage had been a terrible-and was now an inescapable-mistake.

Confirmation first came when she saw the house in Stettin to which her new husband brought her. Johanna had spent her youth in unusually elegant surroundings. Because she was one of twelve children in a family that formed a minor branch of the ducal Holsteins, her father, the Lutheran bishop of Lübeck, had passed her along for upbringing to her godmother, the childless Duchess of Brunswick. Here, in the most sumptuously magnificent court in north Germany, she had become accustomed to a life of beautiful clothes, sophisticated company, balls, operas, concerts, fireworks, hunting parties, and constant, tittering gossip.

Her new husband, Christian Augustus, a career officer existing on his meager army pay, could provide none of this. The best he could manage was a modest gray stone house on a cobbled street constantly swept by wind and rain. The walled fortress town of Stettin, overlooking a bleak northern sea and dominated by a rigid military atmosphere, was not a place where gaiety, graciousness, or any of the social refinements could flourish. Garrison wives led dull lives; the lives of the wives of the town were duller still. And here, a lively young woman, fresh from the luxury and distractions of the court of Brunswick, was asked to exist on a tiny income with a puritanical husband who was devoted to soldiering, addicted to rigid economy, equipped to give orders but not to converse, and eager to see his wife succeed in the enterprise for which he had married her: the bearing of an heir. In this endeavor, Johanna did her best-she was a dutiful if unhappy wife. But always, underneath, she yearned to be free: free of her boring husband, free of their relative penury, free of the narrow, provincial world of Stettin. Always, she was certain that she deserved something better. And then, eighteen months after her marriage, she had a baby.

Johanna, at sixteen, was unprepared for the realities of motherhood. She had dealt with her pregnancy by wrapping herself in dreams: that her children would grow into extensions of herself and that their lives eventually would supply the broad avenue on which she would travel to achieve her own ambitions. In these dreams, she took it for granted that the baby she was carrying-her firstborn-would be a son, an heir for his father, but more important a handsome and exceptional boy whose brilliant career she would guide and ultimately share.

At 2:30 a.m. on April 21, 1729, in the chill, gray atmosphere of a Baltic dawn, Johanna's child was born. Alas, the little person was a daughter. Johanna and a more accepting Christian Augustus managed to give the baby a name, Sophia Augusta Fredericka, but from the beginning, Johanna could not find or express any maternal feeling. She did not nurse or caress her little daughter; she spent no time watching over her cradle or holding her; instead, abruptly, she handed the child over to servants and wet nurses.

One explanation may be that the process of childbirth nearly cost Johanna her life; for nineteen weeks after Sophia was born, the adolescent mother remained confined to her bed. A second is that Johanna was still very young and her own bright ambitions in life were far from fulfilled. But the stark, underlying reason was that her child was a girl, not a boy. Ironically, although she could not know it then, the birth of this daughter was the crowning achievement of Johanna's life. Had the baby been the son she so passionately desired, and had he lived to adulthood, he would have succeeded his father as Prince of Anhalt-Zerbst. Then the history of Russia would have been different and the small niche in history that Johanna Elizabeth earned for herself never would have existed.

Eighteen months after the birth of her first child, Johanna gave birth to the son upon whom she had set her heart. Her fondness for this second infant, Wilhelm Christian, became all the more intense when she realized that something about the child was seriously wrong. The boy, who appeared to suffer from rickets, became her obsession; she petted him, spoiled him, and scarcely let him out of her sight, lavishing on him all the affection she had denied her daughter. Sophia, already keenly aware that her own birth had been a disappointment to her mother, now observed the love with which Johanna surrounded her little brother. Gentle kisses, whispered endearments, tender caresses all were bestowed on the boy-while Sophia watched. It is, of course, common for the mother of a handicapped or chronically ill child to spend more time with that child, just as it is normal for other children in the family to resent this disproportionate attention. But Johanna's rejection of Sophia began before Wilhelm's birth, and then continued in aggravated form. The result of this maternal favoritism was a permanent wound. Most children, rejected or neglected in favor of a sibling, react more or less as Sophia did: to avoid more hurt, she sealed off her emotions; nothing was being given her and nothing was expected. Little Wilhelm, who simply accepted his mother's affection as normal, was quite innocent of any wrongdoing; even so, Sophia hated him. Forty years later, writing her Memoirs, her resentments still simmered:

It was told me that I was not very joyfully welcomed._._._._

My father thought I was an angel; my mother did not pay much attention to me. A year and a half later, she [Johanna] gave birth to a son whom she idolized. I was merely tolerated and often I was scolded with a violence and anger I did not deserve. I felt this without being perfectly clear why in my mind.

Thereafter, Wilhelm Christian goes unmentioned in her Memoirs until his death in 1742 at the age of twelve. Then, her brief account is unemotionally clinical:

He lived to be only twelve and died of spotted [scarlet] fever. It was not until after his death that they learned the cause of an illness which had compelled him to walk always with crutches and for which remedies had been constantly given him in vain and the most famous physicians in Germany consulted. They advised that he be sent to baths at Baden and Karlsbad, but he came home each time as lame as before he went away and his leg became smaller in proportion as he grew taller. After his death, his body was dissected and it was found that his hip was dislocated and must have been so from infancy._._._._At his death, my mother was inconsolable and the presence of the entire family was necessary to help her bear her grief.

This bitterness only hints at Sophia's enormous resentment against her mother. The harm done to this small daughter by Johanna's open display of preference marked Sophia's character profoundly. Her rejection as a child helps to explain her constant search as a woman for what she had missed. Even as Empress Catherine, at the height of her autocratic power, she wished not only to be admired for her extraordinary mind and obeyed as an empress, but also to find the elemental creature warmth that her brother-but not she-had been given by her mother.

Even minor eighteenth-century princely families maintained the trappings of rank. Children of the nobility were provided with nurses, governesses, tutors, instructors in music, dancing, riding, and religion to drill them in the protocol, manners, and beliefs of European courts. Etiquette was foremost; the little students practiced bowing and curtseying hundreds of times until perfection was automatic. Language lessons were paramount. Young princes and princesses had to be able to speak and write in French, the language of the European intelligentsia; in aristocratic German families, the German language was regarded as vulgar.

The influence of her governess, Elizabeth (Babet) Cardel, was critical at this time in Sophia's life. Babet, a Huguenot Frenchwoman who found Protestant Germany safer and more congenial than Catholic France, was entrusted with overseeing Sophia's education. Babet quickly understood that her pupil's frequent belligerence arose out of loneliness and a craving for encouragement and warmth. Babet provided these things. She also began to give Sophia what became her permanent love of the French language, with all its possibilities for logic, subtlety, wit, and liveliness in writing and conversation. Lessons began with Les Fables de La Fontaine; then they moved on to Corneille, Racine, and Molière. Too much of her education, Sophia decided later, had been sheer memorization: "Very early it was noticed that I had a good memory; therefore I was incessantly tormented with learning everything by heart. I still possess a German Bible in which all the verses I had to memorize are underlined with red ink."

Babet's approach to teaching was gentle compared to that of Pastor Wagner, a pedantic army chaplain chosen by Sophia's fervently Lutheran father to instruct his daughter in religion, geography, and history. Wagner's rigid methodology-memorize and repeat-made little headway against a pupil whom Babet had already described as an esprit gauche and who asked embarrassing questions: Why were great men of antiquity such as Marcus Aurelius eternally damned because they had not known of Christ's salvation and therefore could not have been redeemed? Wagner replied that this was God's will. What was the nature of the universe before the Creation? Wagner replied that it had been in a state of chaos. Sophia asked for a description of this original chaos; Wagner had none. The word "circumcision" used by Wagner naturally triggered the question: What does that mean? Wagner, appalled at the position in which he found himself, refused to answer. By elaborating on the horrors of the Last Judgment and the difficulty of being saved, Wagner so frightened his pupil that "every night at dusk I would go and cry by the window." The next day, however, she retaliated: How can the infinite goodness of God be reconciled with the terrors of the Last Judgment? Wagner, shouting that there were no rational answers to such questions, and that what he told her must be accepted on faith, threatened his pupil with his cane. Babet intervened. Later Sophia wrote, "I am convinced in my inmost soul that Herr Wagner was a blockhead." She added, "All my life I have had this inclination to yield only to gentleness and reason-and to resist all pressure."

Nothing, however, neither gentleness nor pressure, could assist her music teacher, Herr Roellig, in his task. "He always brought with him a creature who roared bass," she later wrote to her friend Friedrich Melchior Grimm. "He had him sing in my room. I listened to him and said to myself, 'he roars like a bull,' but Herr Roellig was beside himself with delight whenever this bass throat was in action." She never overcame her inability to appreciate harmony. "I long to hear and enjoy music," Sophia-Catherine wrote in her Memoirs, "but I try in vain. It is noise to my ears and that is all."

Babet Cardel's approach to teaching children lived on in the empress Catherine, and, years later, she poured out her gratitude: "She had a noble soul, a cultured mind, a heart of gold; she was patient, gentle, cheerful, just, consistent-in short the kind of governess one would wish every child to have." To Voltaire, she wrote that she was "the pupil of Mademoiselle Cardel." And in 1776, when she was forty- seven, she wrote to Grimm:

One cannot always know what children are thinking. Children are hard to understand, especially when careful training has accustomed them to obedience and experience has made them cautious in conversation with their teachers. Will you not draw from that the fine maxim that one should not scold children too much but should make them trustful, so that they will not conceal their stupidities from us?

The more independence Sophia displayed, the more she worried her mother. The girl was arrogant and rebellious, Johanna decided; these qualities must be stamped out before her daughter could be offered in marriage. As marriage was a minor princess's only destiny, Johanna was determined "to drive the devil of pride out of her." She repeatedly told her daughter that she was ugly as well as impertinent. Sophia was forbidden to speak unless spoken to or to express opinions to adults; she was made to kneel and kiss the hem of the skirt of all visiting women of rank. Sophia obeyed. Bereft of affection and approval, she nevertheless maintained a respectful attitude toward her mother, remained silent, submitted to Johanna's commands, and smothered her own opinions.

From the Hardcover edition.

Revue de presse

“Enthralling.”—USA Today
“Gripping.”—The New York Times Book Review
Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman has it all: jealous mothers, indulgent eccentrics, greedy social climbers, intrigue, infidelity, murder, political coups, sex, war and passion.”—Bookreporter
“Exhaustively researched and dramatically narrated.”—The Boston Globe
“[Robert K. Massie] brings great authority to this sweeping account of Catherine and her times. . . . a compelling read.”—The Washington Post
“Meticulously, dramatically rendered.”—O: The Oprah Magazine
“Reads like an epic Russian novel.”—San Antonio Express-News
“Will transport history lovers.”—People
“Massie makes Catherine’s story dramatic and immediate.”—The Kansas City Star
“Graceful and engrossing.”—Minneapolis Star Tribune
“A biography as captivating as its subject.”—MacLean’s

Détails sur le produit

  • Format : Format Kindle
  • Taille du fichier : 13286 KB
  • Nombre de pages de l'édition imprimée : 656 pages
  • Editeur : Random House (8 novembre 2011)
  • Vendu par : Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Langue : Anglais
  • ISBN-10: 158836044X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1588360441
  • ASIN: B004J4X9L0
  • Synthèse vocale : Activée
  • X-Ray :
  • Word Wise: Activé
  • Composition améliorée: Activé
  • Moyenne des commentaires client : 4.0 étoiles sur 5  Voir tous les commentaires (1 commentaire client)
  • Classement des meilleures ventes d'Amazon: n°200.629 dans la Boutique Kindle (Voir le Top 100 dans la Boutique Kindle)

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Par Soraya
Format:Format Kindle|Achat vérifié
The subtitle "Portrait of a Woman" accurately reflects the book's contents: a detailed and passionate description of the life and character of Catherine II of Russia. Her story reads like a novel. The first half of the book deals with her as a young woman, before she became an Empress. She arrives as a young princess in a foreign Court, marries the heir to the throne, but faces great enemies and obstacles on the way to become accepted. The second part of the book relates her accession to power after ousting her own husband and the incredible events that marked her 34-year reign as Russian autocrat.

The book is broadly chronological but from time to time there are some thematic chapters. This generally did not bother me, although it got me a little confused about the chronology at times. Massie's work belongs to this hybrid literary genre between the biographical novel and the academic biography. I could not help but wonder whether some of the many dialogues quoted were really authentic. The Author's note at the end of the book listing his sources for each chapter are very valuable in that respect, and very impressive.

Despite some allusions to turning points of her reign in the beginning of the book, Massie manages to tell key episodes of Catherine's life with real suspense, making us wonder what would have happened if things had turned out just a little different. But what makes Catherine II above all such an enjoyable reading experience is the author's obvious passion for his subject. Massie makes Catherine a very vibrant and endearing character, while revealing her darker side too.
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Amazon.com: 4.5 étoiles sur 5  1.137 commentaires
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5.0 étoiles sur 5 Massie Does It Again! 26 septembre 2011
Par Kayla Rigney - Publié sur Amazon.com
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I really enjoyed this biography of Catherine the Great. Like Robert K. Massie's other biographies, *Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman* is well-researched and well-written. His deep connection and understanding of the ways of Imperial Russia are strangely effortless. He steps into his subject's world and takes us there, too.

I was immediately struck by the way Massie made Catherine *accessible.* I felt empathy for her -- an empathy I didn't feel before. The story of her hideous marriage to Grand Duke Peter has been portrayed often in film and in print. All sources agree he was a monster who preferred his mistress to his wife, was scarred mentally as well as physically by small pox, and had he lived, would have gutted the Russian Orthodox Church -- and probably brought down an entire empire. *Portrait of a Woman* shows not only how badly Catherine was treated by her so-called "husband" but also how quickly she learned the *game* of the Imperial Court. Catherine was beautiful and intelligent -- and frankly, a better ruler than Peter could ever have been. She was well-read and well-educated in a time when most women couldn't read or write. In order to survive in the court, she spent years honing her skills in diplomacy. When her husband didn't produce an heir, she found a lover who would. I felt compassion for this Catherine, *because* she was resourceful and *because* she took action when it was needed. And some of those actions as Empress were taken with her subjects in mind.

Reading *Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman,* allowed me to rediscover a strong, intelligent woman who wanted to bring her Imperial Russia *forward.* In 1768, she and her son Paul were inoculated with small pox -- hoping to show her subjects that there was a way to avoid getting a devastating case of the disease. This small act of bravery on her part was completely overshadowed by the epidemic of bubonic plague which decimated the population of Moscow and eventually led to rioting. How could I have forgotten these important pieces of history? And yet, I had. There are no new answers regarding the murder of Grand Duke Peter -- did she or didn't she? And as to Catherine's relationships with other men in her life, it becomes apparent that there was always that underlying, chafing question of balance of power. (But on the whole, she had good relationships with her lovers; and she rewarded their loyalty.) Her own son, Paul, hated her -- believing that she'd murdered his father, when he wasn't Grand Duke Peter's son in the first place. Paul punished her after her death by reinstating the right of male succession only.

Massie reintroduced me to the very human Catherine, who so loved her dogs that she had a special cemetery created for them at Tsarskoe Selo, And this flawed, yet generous Empress once made a gift of an expensive diamond ring to a serf -- in spite of the uproar it caused. And finally, Catherine, who enjoyed books, reading and philosophy, purchased Voltaire's library of books from his niece after he died. I liked seeing this side of Catherine the Great. I needed to be reminded that her passions and loves were varied as my own are varied.

I spent my weekend immersed in *Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman.* I was transported into Catherine's life -- and into a rich, harsh, ugly, beautiful, lost past. Massie's latest biography joins *Nicholas & Alexandra,* *Peter the Great: His Life and World,* and *The Romanovs: The Final Chapter* as must-have books about the rulers of Imperial Russia.
224 internautes sur 238 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 The Life Of A Woman And A Nation 26 septembre 2011
Par John D. Cofield - Publié sur Amazon.com
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Catherine the Great is second only to Peter the Great as a great modernizing ruler of Russia, a country which repeatedly falls behind the rest of the world, then races to catch up, at least on the surface, within a few years' time. Catherine's story is even more remarkable than Peter's, since she was not born in Russia and had not a drop of Russian blood, and her original name wasn't even Catherine.

Sophia Fredericka of Anhalt-Zerbst was an impecunious little princess in an insignificant prinicipality buried deep in Germany. In her early years she seemed destined to marry someone just as obscure as she and to remain unknown to the larger world. Her ambitious mother, who had the good fortune to be related by marriage to the Swedish and Russian royal families, had other plans. She kept in touch with the Empress Elizabeth of Russia, whose nephew and heir was just the right age for Sophia, for many years until Elizabeth sent word for mother and daughter to come to St. Petersburg for a visit. Shortly after they arrived, Sophia's mother and the Empress had arranged for a marriage between 14 year old Sophia and the 15 year old Grand Duke Peter, heir to the Russian throne. Sophia converted to Orthodoxy and had her name changed to Catherine, then married the future Emperor.

It sounds like a fairy tale, but it turned into a nightmare. Peter was a snivelling little wretch who hated Russia, his aunt, and Catherine. Covered with smallpox scars, mentally undeveloped and psychologically unbalanced, Peter refused to have anything to do with Catherine and spent night after night playing with toy soldiers. Catherine, tucked into bed beside him but completely ignored, spent her time reading and learning all she could about her new country. She had a quick and agile mind and did an excellent job educating herself through the writings of the French Enlightenment philosophes. However, all this reading and studying was not going to help her achieve her primary purpose, to have children who would continue the Romanov dynasty. After nine years she achieved this goal with the assistance of a Russian nobleman and gave birth to her son Paul.

In 1762 Empress Elizabeth died and Peter III took the throne. Within six months he had so outraged the Russian people that Catherine, with the assistance of her current lover and his brothers and friends, was able to quickly overthrow him and become Empress Catherine II. Her reign of 34 years saw Russia increase in wealth, population, and land area. She fought and won wars with Turkey and Sweden and helped to partition Poland out of existence. Her wide ranging reading had convinced her of the desireability of religious toleration, increased civil liberties, and of representative government, but she was just as convinced that Russia wasn't ready for such Enlightenment principles. When she did try to make reforms she was frightened into limiting or discarding them entirely by serf rebellions and eventually by the French Revolution. She did encourage education and development, assisted by her friendships with Voltaire and Diderot among others, and she was responsible for beginning the magnificent Hermitage art collection and for a number of beautiful palaces and other buildings in and around St. Petersburg.

Of course, what most people think of when they think of Catherine the Great is her colorful personal life. Catherine had a number of lovers throughout her life, but the popular image of a sex crazed hoyden isn't accurate. She seems to have valued her men friends for their intellectual as well as their physical abilities, and to have craved attention and affection above all. She was faithful to each of her favorites (more than they were to her) and when one retired or was replaced he was given money and land and remembered fondly. As she aged she grew in dignity and influence, and by the time of her death in 1796 Russia was a much larger and more powerful nation which, while still backwards in many ways, had made a surprising amount of progress.

Robert K. Massie's newest work is a fitting companion to Nicholas and Alexandra, Peter the Great, and The Romanovs: The Final Chapter. It also compares well to his excellent studies of Anglo-German rivalry before and during World War I: Dreadnought and Castles of Steel. As always, he writes clearly with a good eye for an entertaining anecdote which helps Catherine's life fit into the larger Russian and European context during the tumultuous eighteenth century. Massie introduced me to Russian history when I first read Nicholas and Alexandra at the age of 14 and confirmed me in my love of the subject with his other books. His Catherine the Great is just as remarkable and appealing, and I cannot recommend it too highly.
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5.0 étoiles sur 5 The definitive Catherine 25 septembre 2011
Par P. B. Sharp - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format:Relié|Commentaire client Vine pour produit gratuit (De quoi s'agit-il?)
Portrait of a WOMAN, not an empress, not an autocrat. In his own highly talented way, Pulitzer Prize winner Massie is going to tell us what made Catherine tick underneath the ermine. Massie feels a huge kinship to the House of Romanov, because his son, Robert K. Massie IV, has hemophilia, the disease that devastated many royal families, the most famous sufferer being Alexei, the only son of Tsar Nicholas II. If you've read "Nicholas and Alexandra" "Peter the Great" and other Massie biographies you know how beautifully he writes about Russian royalty and the reader feels that part of Massie's heart is in Russia. He understands and appreciates the handsome and captivating Catherine well as he brings her to life in this splendid biography.

We are going to see a fourteen year old unknown German princess, Sophia of Anhalt, the future Catherine, morph herself into a ship of state with enormous powers. If it is possible for a royal personage to pull herself up by her own bootstraps, Sophia did.

Sophia was ignored by her own mother, Johanna, who wanted a boy, until Johanna realized Sophia was marketable as a bride and peddled her around Germany and later Russia. Massie points out that Sophia-Catherine, denied love as a girl, had a psyche that was seriously wounded, and as an adult and empress she would demand both love and admiration perhaps to an excessive degree. Nevertheless, at fourteen years old Sophia was astonishingly mature and participated with relish in the search for a husband.

That husband would be Peter, nephew of the Empress Elizabeth. The Empress was the daughter of Peter the Great. Massie deals sympathetically with Peter, but a less prepossessing child would have been hard to find with his thin, straggling blonde hair, his protuberant eyes, his weak chin, his lack of being good at anything. A fearsome attack of small pox left his face horribly scarred. A less attractive bridegroom could hardly be imagined but Sophia, who had learned Russian and converted to Orthodox, determined to do her best and the new Catherine was born. The new Catherine with a mind like a steel trap and ambition to match.

Empress Elizabeth wanted an heir and she was obsessed. After their wedding neither Peter nor Catherine seemed to know what they were supposed to do. At night they lay side by side like two logs for days, for weeks... for nine years. Massie discusses the physical problem Peter may have had that prevented him from sexual performance, marveling that France's Louis XVI may have had exactly the same problem. Simple surgery corrected the abnormality in Louis' case and very likely in Peter's, too. At any rate, after nine barren years Catherine gave birth to a boy. Empress Elizabeth as Massie says "kidnapped" the baby, installed him in her own apartments and brought him up as her own.

More or less off the hook as a baby-producer, although she had other children by her lovers. Catherine embarked on the first of the twelve affairs she would have in her life. She also began reading everything penned by Enlightenment philosophers. She corresponded with the famous thinkers of her time, including Voltaire, Frederick the Great, Marie Antoinette and would you believe John Paul Jones?

Catherine, when still very young, learned to keep her head in the treacherous atmosphere of the Romanov court. Back-biting, spite, jealousy, greed, all mingled together in a horrible stew in which a person could be on the top of the pot one day, on the bottom the next and very likely dead, too.

When Empress Elizabeth died on Christmas Day in 1761 Peter was crowned as Peter III and nobody was happy about this except perhaps one of his mistresses. Peter was a total disaster with few if any redeeming points. In a complicated but bloodless coup Peter was overthrown and imprisoned and a few days later strangled. Whether Catherine had any complexity in her husband's murder is argued to this day, but it is quite possible she was innocent.

"She sat on the throne of Peter the Great, and ruled an empire, the largest on earth. Her signature...was law, and if she chose could mean life or death for any one of her twenty million subjects."

Catherine's friends, enemies, lovers, family, generals parade across the Russian panorama and author Massie integrates them into Catherine's life with great skill. Catherine brought Russia out of the dark ages in a massive plan of "Westernization". The government, foreign policy, cultural affairs, the squashing of a huge rebellion by an illiterate peasant imposter who claimed to be Peter III, the massive problem of serfdom were all in her dainty hands.

But governing for Catherine wasn't enough. She thirsted for love and her twelve lovers, all Guards officers are described in detail. These relationships were rocky, filled with accusations on both sides. Catherine's husband, Peter III had not touched her for nine years, her own mother used her as a pawn to advance herself. As Catherine aged, the men became younger and younger as Catherine tried to find love and retain her youth.

The most famous of her lovers was Gregory Potemkin who was the most important person in her life for seventeen years and was it was possible that they married secretly. He was in everything but name co-ruler. When the couple's ardor waned, Gregory found young handsome Guards to fill the void in Catherine's life while remaining on friendly terms with Catherine There were a lot of ménage a trois.

One of the last dramas of Catherine's life concerned her son Paul, who had been taken from her at birth. There was some doubt that Paul was Peter III's son. He was an odd-looking boy with features rather like a pug dog. Paul and his mother hardly knew one another and there was no love lost between them. But Paul gave Catherine many grandchildren, and she doted on them and named the first two boys herself, Alexander and Constantine.

Catherine had assembled the greatest art gallery in Europe, the Hermitage and she commissioned the statue of Peter the Great, "The Bronze Horseman" who still rides his rearing horse near the Winter Palace. She established schools and orphanages and hospitals. She had herself inoculated with the new vaccine for smallpox as an example, which took courage. Massie believes that Catherine as a female ruler had only one equal: England's Elizabeth the first. She died November 6, 1796 and she passed into history beside Peter the Great as Russia's two greatest rulers.
215 internautes sur 256 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
3.0 étoiles sur 5 A merely good book on a great subject 8 novembre 2011
Par Sam A. Mawn-Mahlau - Publié sur Amazon.com
Tackling Catherine the Great is not, and never has been, for the faint of heart. There is a heavy shelf filled with works by the eminent and the colorful, by Oldenberg, Troyat, and others, and there is fascinating original material available as well. But it is no good to praise someone for their Alpine skill when they climb the Himalayas - they have chosen the tougher climb, and it will measure them.

Massie brings capable writerly craftsmenship, a deep knowledge of Russian history, and a reader-friendly commercial sheen to bear, applying each tool with care, and writes a highly readable and engaging biography. But, in the end, I'm left unsatisfied. It was a fun read and the hours were well-spent. The work is worthy of, and will get, some attention; the subject is worthy, however, of more and better. Massie's opening chapters draw so heavily from Catherine's own memoirs that I wish I would have read them instead. The book adds a bit of harmless gloss to the memoirs, but gives us a redacted and bloodless summary in place of the real thing. Massie's later chapters promise a deeper analytical framework yet skate through with less detail or analysis than, say, the great Riasanovsky surveys. Massie offers little here that is terribly new and interesting. There was no Eureka moment, no insightful rebellion, just a recital from the Orthodox liturgy.

If you have a bias toward reading contemporary works instead of dusty classics, you may prefer Massie's Catherine over those other books on the shelf. But, in the end, I wish Massie had applied his tools to some interesting but inadequately explored character he could have brought to life rather than writing what is really just another capable book on an already heavy shelf, adding a pound or two but not much more to what is already there. He gets a solid three stars, but no more.
13 internautes sur 13 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
2.0 étoiles sur 5 Adequate, hardly stellar 22 février 2012
Par Doug - Publié sur Amazon.com
I've often heard that Robert Massie is an excellent history writer. This book provides little evidence of that greatness. The first third of the book is about an unknown princess plucked from obscurity by an empress to be the wife of her nephew, the future Czar Peter III of Russia. Her early life was full of parties, balls, and family politics.

The book gets better, though that's not an endorsement. The remaining two thirds are a bit jumbled. Massie organizes much of the book by topic, not chronologically. After the chapter documenting the death of her former favorite, and probably only husband, Grigory Potemkin, in 1791, we get a chapter on her interest in collecting art, beginning in 1771. There are several such bounces and they were disorienting. Perhaps the disorientation was magnified by the fact that I was listening to the book on my daily commute, not reading it with a chance to check my progress or look things up in the index.

Finally, there are several very long, and possibly tangential, asides on several topics. For example, I now know quite a bit more than before about the French Revolution and the advantages (and experiments to test those advantages) of the guillotine as a method of execution. I expected stories of blinking heads in Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, but not here I'm not sure why I needed to know so much about these events or this device to understand how this lead to Catherine's imposition of censorship in Russia.

I will give Mr. Massie another chance, having already purchased Dreadnought but if it's on the same level as this one, I won't make it to the end.
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