It’s Friday, December 1, 2023 and 57°F in Austin, Texas
Catherine the Great - a New Biography
a new book by my old friend Robert Massie
An old friend of mine, Bob Massie, has a new book out I think you'd be interested in reading. It's a biography of Catherine II - called 'the Great' in the West. She was a minor German princess in the small state of Anahlt-Zerbst - Sophie was her original name - who came to Russia to marry the heir to throne at the age of 14. Catherine went through many adventures to become the most richest and most powerful woman in the world. Along the way she overthrew her idiot husband (who soon after died at the hands of her lover Grigori Orlov and his brothers) brought the Enlightenment to her adopted country and expanded the power of Russia throughout Eurasia. Most people know Catherine from the legends they have heard about her - such as the story of her and a horse (totally untrue). Catherine had many lovers and in this sense she was more like a male ruler of the time. All across St. Petersburg, Moscow and European Russia you can still see the results of her mania for building. She created the art collection of the Hermitage and her treasures are the core of the museum's treasures today.
My interest in Catherine radiates from the fact that she built the Alexander Palace in Tsarskoe Selo in 1796 as a gift for her grandson, Alexander, on the occasion of his wedding to another German Princess, Elizabeth. The Alexander Palace was designed by the famous Palladian architect, Quarenghi, who came from the city of Bergamo in Italy. In Russia he designed many of Catherine's most beautiful buildings, among them the Hemitage Theater and Smolnyi Institute in St. Petersburg. The Alexander Palace is considered his masterpiece and one of the greatest examples of Neoclassicism in the world and it has been one of primary interests since I was a kid.
Most people know the Alexander Palace for the role it played in the reign of the last Tsar, Nicholas II, and specifically in the Russian Revolution of 1917. The palace was the home of the Nicholas, Alexandra and their five children.
To get back to Bob's new book... it's beautifully written and easy to read. It will satisfy those who are reading about Catherine for the first time and also historians of Russian history. Catherine's story is vast and dramatic, full of legendary events and colorful personalities. Bob's book could have been twice as long and it still could not encompass her life. Deciding what to include and what to edit must have been a Herculean task for the author. The story flows naturally and is almost impossible to put down. You really get a feeling of being there; of meeting all the people in Catherine's story in realtime.
It would be easy for a biography of Catherine to get bogged down in endless trivia and detail, loaded with endless quotes from her comtemporaries and Catherine's own autobiography. Massie is a brilliant writer and story-teller. He uses just the right balance of narrative and original sources.
I really encourage you to read the book. You can get it from Amazon by clicking here.
Robert Massie is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Peter the Great, Nicholas and Alexandra, Dreadnought and The Romanovs: The Final Chapter. He lives in Irvington, New York.
The portrait of Catherine below is my favorite. It shows her at the time of her marriage to the Tsarevich Peter. She was 16 at the time and the original was painted by Groot. This is a copy I have in my collection.
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