Catherine the Great

Happy Tuesday, everyone! I just realized that it is Tuesday. I got back from a weekend trip to Santa Fe late last night, and this morning rolled out of bed and went to see what was going on with the Riskies today….

On my trip, I started reading one of my birthday gifts, Robert K Massie’s new biography of Catherine the Great. I love Massie’s work–his Nicholas and Alexandra was what got me interested in Russian history in the first place, when I read it years ago, and this book was no less fascinating. Massie has the gift of making history come alive and feel immediate and real, and in the coomplicated, fascinating figure of Catherine he has the perfect subject.

Catherine was born Princess Sophia Fredericka Augusta of Anhalt-Zerbst, the daughter of a minor German princeling who had not much money or influence. But her mother’s brother had been engaged to Empress Elizabeth of Russia before dying on the eve of the wedding, and Elizabeth (an equally complex character!) had fond memories of him. Plus she wanted a young girl she could control who could give Russia an heir. She brought Sophia to Russia and married her to her nephew Grand Duke Peter, a disfigured, alcoholic obesessed with the Prussian military (a complete wackjob, in other words). But after years and years of a painful marriage, loneliness, and virtual imprisonment (which luckily gave her much time to read and plan) Catherine overthrew her deeply unpopular husband in a coup d’etat and became Empress in her own right. She reigned from 1762–1792.

Among other achivements, Catherine added 200,000 square miles to Russian territory (mostly at the expense of the Turks and the Poles), was a patron of the arts, literature, and education (she corresponded with French philosophes like Voltaire and Diderot, whose libraries she eventually purchased), opened the Smolny Institute to educate girls, wrote the “Nazna” (a code of laws), and tried to impose Enlightenment ideas on her vast empire (with mixed results). She also had at least 12 lovers, including the vastly gifted Gregory Potemkin. As she got older they got younger and dumber (the last of them, Zubov, was 40 years her junior)….

Massie’s book is full of court intrigue, seductions, romance, illegitimate children, bloody uprisings, power grabs, battles–and a 389 carat ruby. What can be better???

For more info on her complicated life, look here

What have you been reading lately??? What books have sparked a love of history and historical heroines in your life?

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10 years ago

My book club is planning to read Massie’s Catherine the Great when it comes out in PB (our one rule), so in preparation we read his Peter the Great. Russian history has certainly had its fair share of fascinating, compelling characters. Peter was 6’7″ tall yet loved to go out incognito or, in reality, to pretend to be incognito. He too greatly expanded Russian territory, modernized the military, abd brought in Western ideas, including the idea that upper class men and women should dine together. Unfortunately, to pay for everything and conscript enough men for his army and navy, he tightened controls on the serfs. When he fought Charles XII and took large swathes of formerly Swedish territory, part of me wanted to cry out “Oh no, 200 years from now the people would be far happier as Swedes than Russians.” Fascinating stuff, and Massie expertly blends personal, social, political, and military histories.

Amanda McCabe/Laurel McKee

Susan, I think this would be the perfect book-club book…

Diane Gaston
10 years ago

I reading Organize Your Mind Organize Your Life by Paul Hammerness

Hee hee.

Louisa Cornell
10 years ago

I need to read that organizing book, O Divine One. I will definitely put Massie’s book on my wish list! I’ve always been fascinated by her story.

I’m reading Regency research and romance at the moment. However, Lesley Hazleton’s Jezebel (which is about the REAL Jezebel) was a fascinating read about a much maligned woman. It sparked my interest in Phoenician religions and culture.

10 years ago

Oh my gosh! I’ve always thought Catherine the Great was so interesting. There was a great documentary about her on PBS once and about how her husband didn’t stay with her their wedding night and it all went down hill from there…

raspberry tart
10 years ago

how was santa fe? i used to live there for a year and it was amazing – were you doing research for your next book?

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