Thursday, September 15, 2011

'Catherine the Great'

For the past few years, female historical figures have finally had their truths revealed.  First, Mary Magdalene, then Cleopatra.  Now it's time for one of the greatest female leaders in Russian history.

Robert Massie, the author of 'Nicholas & Alexandra', 'The Romanovs:  The Final Chapter', and 'Peter the Great' (for which he won a much-deserved Pulitzer), has returned with one of the most interesting biographies I've read in the last two years: 'Catherine the Great'.  

Cast aside the 'horse-on-woman' myth, but know that the number of lovers in her life was no exaggeration.  But the lovers weren't merely playthings for the most powerful woman in the world.  Catherine was born into a minor noble German family (the chapters regarding her mother's dreams of importance made me cringe), and during her young teen years, she became betrothed to Peter, adopted son of Empress Elizabeth of Russia.  Peter was weak and bullying, the result of an abusive tutor; when he and Catherine were married, their physical relationship was non-existent for nine years.  Lacking physical intimacy and love, Catherine eventually took a lover, who, in turn, left her as soon as he became bored with her.  For the rest of her life, she found love with many men; some weak, some brilliant.  But it was with Gregory Potemkin (rumor has it that they were secretly married) that she found her greatest ally.  Together, they worked to build Russia into one of the most powerful countries in the world, culturally and militarily.  It was Catherine who commissioned the building of her beloved Hermitage, which houses some of the most extraordinary, and famous, pieces of art in the world.

Although Catherine's early life in Russia would make even the strongest person harbor plans of escape, she found solace in literature, music, and the works of enlightened minds, such as Voltaire and Rousseau.  She immersed herself in the Russian culture and even converted to the Orthodox faith.  Ruling for thirty-four years, she contended with domestic rebellions, foreign wars, and the welfare of her people.  She was a brilliant woman, but because of her intelligence and strength, was wrongly maligned after her death and up to the present time.

I couldn't put this book down and consider it a wonderful companion to Massie's 'Peter the Great'.  Massie has written a biography that is well-researched, revealing, and intimate.  He has brought to life a woman I have admired for many years.

I smell a Pulitzer.

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