The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik
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March 31, 2012

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman

After Potemkin's death, Catherine wrote an epitaph for herself:
Born in Stettin on April 21, 1729.
In the year 1744, she went to Russia to marry Peter III. At the age of fourteen, she made the threefold resolution to please her husband, Elizabeth, and the nation. She neglected nothing in trying to achieve this. Eighteen years of boredom and loneliness gave her the opportunity to read many books.
When she came to the throne of Russia she wished to do what was good for her country and tried to bring happiness, liberty, and prosperity to her subjects.
She forgave easily and hated no one. She was good-natured, easy-going, tolerant, understanding, and of a happy disposition. She had a republican spirit and a kind heart.
She was sociable by nature.
She made many friends.
She took pleasure in her work.
She loved the arts.
from Catherine the Great:  Portrait of a Woman,
by Robert K. Massie

I had Robert K. Massie's new biography of Catherine the Great out of the library three times before  (once as an audiobook, twice for my Nook), before last week, when it arrived unannounced on the reserve shelf and I decided that I'd give myself the gift of getting it read. It's 575 pages, not counting the endnotes, the bibliography and the index, but I could keep it for two weeks and all I'd have to do is 'budget' about 50 pages or so a day.

Arranged marriages. Secret marriages. Twelve lovers. Toy soldiers. Cossacks. Serfs. Imposters. Snow-covered fields and frozen rivers. St. Petersburg. Moscow. The Winter Palace. The Hermitage. Peter the Great.  Bread and salt (a welcome and a blessing in my family, too). Generals wearing gray satin nightgowns. Coronations. A coup d'etat. Scheming ladies-in-waiting. Tall, handsome Ukrainians (I'm descended from some). Millions of rubles. Honors, titles, palaces, prisons. Diamond-encrusted portraits.  Voltaire at Ferney {how did I miss going there?} The French Revolution.  The American Revolution. Smallpox. The plague. Alliances, wars and treaties. England, France, Turkey, Prussia, Poland, Austria, Sweden. 

As it turned out, I can probably return the book early, because I've been curled up with this readable, suspenseful, engaging, approachable book every possible minute that I had this week for reading. What has really impressed me is that for someone as barely steeped in Russian history as I am, Mr. Massie made the larger context {with its  religious and politic conflicts, shifting alliances, and military campaigns} so easy to follow. Even his chapter titles worked as signposts for what was going to happen next.

 I read his book on Nicholas and Alexandra many years ago, and that, more than the subject matter, is what prompted me to add this one to my reading list. But this is another book {like this one} that's sparking a new interest in reading history. {And just look at that list! A novelist couldn't make all that
stuff up.}


Claire (The Captive Reader) said...

What a wonderfully enthusiastic review - this sounds amazing! I can think of few people that truly need 575 pages to do them full justice but Catherine the Great is certainly one of them. I can well imagine how absorbing it must have been once you really got into it! I don't know all that much about Russian history so it's encouraging to hear that Massie makes it so accessible. This is definitely going on my wish list.

JoAnn said...

I really want to read (or listen) to this, too!

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