Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Greatness of Catherine II, Empress of Russia

Quite a few of the staff at my library are all a buzz about Eva Stachniak's new novel The Winter Palace: a novel of Catherine the Great (M). Along with a shared enjoyment of the novel, there was a general agreement among these readers that Catherine II was a truly fascinating historical figure, somebody they would be quite interested in learning more about. Fortunately there are quite a few biographies available on Catherine II, Empress of Russia:

Catherine the Great : portrait of a woman (M)
by Robert K. Massie (2011)

“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.“ - Publisher’s Weekly

Catherine the Great (M)
by Simon Dixon (2001)

"Neither a comprehensive 'life and times' nor a conventional biography, this is an engaging and accessible exploration of rulership and monarchial authority in eighteenth century Russia. Its purpose is to see how Catherine II of Russia conceived of her power and how it was represented to her subjects. Simon Dixon asks essential questions about Catherine's life and reign, and offers new and stimulating arguments about the Enlightenment, the power of the monarch in early modern Europe, and the much-debated role of the "great individual" in history." - publisher

Catherine the Great: love, sex and power (M)
by Virginia Rounding (2007)

"This is the story of Catherine the woman, whom power alone could never satisfy, for she also wanted love, affection, friendship and humor. She found these in letter-writing, in grandchildren, in gardens, architecture and greyhounds--as well as in a succession of lovers which gave rise to salacious rumors throughout Europe. The real Catherine, however, was more interesting than any rumor. Using many of Catherine's own words from her voluminous correspondence and other documents, as well as contemporary accounts by courtiers, ambassadors and foreign visitors, Virginia Rounding penetrates the character of this most powerful, fascinating and surprisingly sympathetic of eighteenth-century women" -publisher

Great Catherine: the life of Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia (M)
by Carolly Erickson (1994)

“Erickson's fluid, captivating portrait of Catherine the Great reads like a first-rate historical novel. Courageous, fair, and generous Empress Catherine began life as plain but precocious Princess Sophie in a tiny German principality. Her mother never warmed to her willful, intelligent, and athletic daughter, but others discerned Sophie's charm and magnetic personality, including members of the court of Russia's Empress Elizabeth (another intriguing personality). Young, ambitious, and daring, Sophie made the arduous journey to St. Petersburg, was christened Catherine after her conversion to Greek Orthodoxy, and with a firm belief in her destiny to rule, resigned herself to marrying the repulsive, demented, and impotent grand duke. During the course of their unconsummated union, Catherine was subjected to appalling deprivations and mental cruelty, tests that ultimately tempered her resolve and honed her considerable political acumen.

The tale of her rise to power is a tale of restraint, genius, and sacrifice. Erickson makes it clear that Catherine was, in many respects, a modern woman, devoted to her work, if you will, but just as determined to have love in her life. It's high time we stopped sniggering over long-stale nonsense about her allegedly voracious sexual appetite and recognize Catherine for what she was: a woman of remarkable powers and one of the world's great leaders. “- Booklist

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