Thursday, June 13, 2013

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie


I think 2013 is going to be The Year of the Great Nonfiction Reads for me.  I keep finding more and more nonfiction I want to read.  Seriously, I'll bet I could read nothing but nonfiction for the rest of the year and never finish all the books on my list.

I was looking for a great biography for my library book group and this kept popping up on the radar, and after narrowing the selection down to three or four books, I took them all out to lunch with me.  After a few pages of this one, I was hooked, and would have kept right on reading it except I try very hard to wait until the month before to start it.  Normally, I allow even less time, since I like to keep the book fresh in my mind for the discussion.  This time I let myself start it a month early because it's about 600 pages long.

I never really knew very much about European history during the 18th century -- I've read War and Peace (though I've forgotten most of it) and I remember some stuff I've read about the French kings and the Revolution, but that's pretty much it.  All the 18th century history I remember is mostly about the American Revolution.  For example, I had no idea that both Catherine AND her husband Peter were actually German -- Catherine (born Sophia) was a minor German princess whose mother's brother had originally been engaged to Empress Elizabeth, though he died while they were still betrothed.  Elizabeth never married and after she seized power years later, she decided to that her heir, her nephew Peter (grandson of Peter the Great) should marry Catherine, his cousin, so they could produce an heir and ensure that Peter's lineage would continue.  Catherine embraced the Russian language and culture though Peter always hated it and wanted to return to Germany.

Basically, Catherine was AWESOME.  This is in the 1700s, when doctors thought it was still an good idea to drain your blood when you were sick, America hadn't even signed the Declaration of Independence, and a huge percentage of the Russian population was poor or even serfs.  Meanwhile, Catherine was educated and enlightened -- she corresponded regularly with Voltaire and Diderot; spent two years trying to create an enlightened system of government, with a document called the Nakaz, (which ultimately failed) -- even before the Americans wrote the Constitution; she even had herself inoculated against smallpox in 1780, to show that it was safe.  By 1800, more than 2 million Russians had been inoculated as well.

If this sounds dry, and boring, well, it wasn't.  I probably should have waited until nearer the discussion because it was an absolute page-turner.  Intrigues, scandals, plotting -- seriously, parts of this book are like an 18th-century version of Game of Thrones, but without the dragons.  Catherine's husband definitely reminded me the vile Prince Joffrey, and Catherine the Great is just as clever as Margaery Tyrell.   Lord Vaerys and some the other King's Landing courtiers would have fit right in the palaces in Moscow and St. Petersburg, if they had warmer costumes.

Margaery and Joffrey aka Catherine the Great and Peter

This book has really spurred my interest in royal biographies -- I still have The Duchess by Amanda Foreman and Marie Antoinette: The Journey by Antonia Fraser on the TBR shelf, so I'm ready to tackle those.  And Massie's other books about the Russian royalty are definitely going on my to-read list.  I haven't decided if I should go backward in time and read his biography of Peter the Great, or skip forward and read about the Romanovs.  I'm also thinking about reading some Russian lit this summer, probably Dead Souls by Gogol.

Has anyone else read Robert Massie's books?  Which did you like best?  And what about Russian lit?  I'm a little scared off since I read Anna Karenina, but if Gogol goes well I might even try Dostoevsky!

12 comments:

  1. Awesome! I really love biographies and now that I've got so many books I want to read, I forget that I need to keep up with the bios. I have one of Catherine around here somewhere - not this one. And I own on Virginia Woolf that I seriously should dust off and begin SOON.

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    1. This was a really easy read, hardly any of it was dry political stuff at all. I now have an long list of biographies I want to read. I'm not a huge Woolf fan but her life sounds interesting so if you review that one it'll probably end up on my list as well.

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  2. You make this book sound so good! I have a copy on my kindle already, now I can't wait to get to it.
    Antonia Fraser's Marie Antoinette book is excellent, it's one of my history favourites.

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    1. There was a section at the end about the French Revolution which was occurring towards the end of Catherine's life, so now I'm really intrigued about this period. I've signed up to post some books on France for the July in Paris reading event, so Fraser's book will probably be one of them.

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  3. Wasn't this great? I realized when I started reading it that I knew absolutely nothing about her except her name. I wasn't even sure of her era. It just proves that a great storyteller can capture your interest no matter what he/she is talking about. I read Massie's book on Nicholas and Alexandra years and years ago - but I remember it also being very good.

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    1. Absolutely, Massie's a great storyteller and he made the period very interesting. I'm usually much more interested in the 19th century but he really brought the story to life.

      I'm really impressed by how many great nonfiction books are available right now -- it it just me or has it gotten much better the past few years? I think the writing is so much better than before.

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  4. I love Robert Massie although I haven't read this one yet. I'm tempted by the audio book as I've just listened to Jane Ridley's Bertie (Edward VII) & it was fantastic. Massie's Nicholas & Alexandra is one of my favourite books so I'd recommend that next. Peter the Great is another larger than life character, a big man with grand ideas, but N&A is a more domestic story in the midst of revolution & war. As to Russian fiction, I'd recommend Gogol's Dead Souls & Chekhov's short stories to start with. They're a bit smaller scale than Tolstoy so if Anna put you off, you might want to try something like those. Pushkin's short stories like The Queen of Spades, are also lovely.

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    1. I did listen to this partially on audio and it was excellent, the reader was very good (nice to have the proper pronunciation for all the Russian names!). I definitely want to read Nicholas and Alexandra, then probably the follow up he wrote about the Romanovs in the 1990s.

      And I did check out Dead Souls from the library! Several people have told me it's quite funny so I thought that would be a good introduction. I've read some of Chekhov's short stories as well. I liked them but I can't remember any of them, maybe I should try Pushkin.

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  5. I've only heard excellent things about this one. I, too, am finding myself enjoying non-fiction immensely lately (which is a surprise!)

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    1. I just loved it and now I'm fascinated by Russian history and novels. What other good nonfiction books have you read lately?

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  6. You make it sound interesting. I myself enjoy reading biographies, last time I've read about Elizabeth I., and is on my shelf waiting The Churchills by Mary S. Lovell.

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  7. As others have said, Nicolas and Alexandra is excellent. It's quite a page-turner, so when this one came out I knew I wanted to read it. Haven't yet, though.
    As far as Russian lit goes, I'd say one of my favorites is Crime and Punishment.

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