Portrait of a Woman
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Prince Christian Augustus of Anhalt-Zerbst was hardly distinguishable in the swarm of obscure, penurious noblemen who cluttered the landscape and society of politically fragmented eighteenth-century Germany. Possessed neither of exceptional virtues nor alarming vices, Prince Christian exhibited the solid virtues of his Junker lineage: a stern sense of order, discipline, integrity, thrift, and piety, along with an unshakable lack of interest in gossip, intrigue, literature, and the wider world in general. Born in 1690, he had made a career as a professional soldier in the army of King Frederick William of Prussia. His military service in campaigns against Sweden, France, and Austria was meticulously conscientious, but his exploits on the battlefield were unremarkable, and nothing occurred either to accelerate or retard his career. When peace came, the king, who was once heard to refer to his loyal officer as "that idiot, Zerbst," gave him command of an infantry regiment garrisoning the port of Stettin, recently acquired from Sweden, on the Baltic coast of Pomerania. There, in 1727, Prince Christian, still a bachelor at thirty-seven, bowed to the pleas of his family and set himself to produce an heir. Wearing his best blue uniform and his shining ceremonial sword, he married fifteen-year-old Princess Johanna Elizabeth of Holstein-Gottorp, whom he scarcely knew. His family, which had arranged the match with hers, was giddy with delight; not only did the line of Anhalt-Zerbst seem assured, but Johanna's family stood a rung above them on the ladder of rank.
It was a poor match. There were the problems of difference in age; pairing an adolescent girl with a man in middle age usually stems from a confusion of motives and expectations. When Johanna, of a good family with little money, reached adolescence and her parents, without consulting her, arranged a match to a respectable man almost three times her age, Johanna could only consent. Even more unpromising, the characters and temperaments of the two were almost entirely opposite. Christian Augustus was simple, honest, ponderous, reclusive, and thrifty; Johanna Elizabeth was complicated, vivacious, pleasure-loving, and extravagant. She was considered beautiful, and with arched eyebrows, fair, curly hair, charm, and an exuberant eagerness to please, she attracted people easily. In company, she felt a need to captivate, but as she grew older, she tried too hard. In time, other flaws appeared. Too much gay talk revealed her as shallow; when she was thwarted, her charm soured to irritability and her quick temper suddenly exploded.
Excerpted from Catherine the Great by Robert K. Massie. Copyright © 2011 by Robert K. Massie. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Review by Martin A. Miller
Robert Massie has established a special place for himself in the world of Russian cultural history. He has had a lifelong fascination with the Romanov dynasty that ruled over the vast Russian landscape that has inspired him to fashion a number of widely read biographical studies. His book about Peter the Great has sold more copies than all the scholarly biographies of Russia’s first emperor in English combined. His portrait of the last emperor and his wife, Nicholas and Alexandra, has attracted a following that has permitted the book to remain in print for decades.
In his latest effort, he has turned his considerable biographical skills on the extraordinary personality and career of Catherine the Great. Undeterred by the seemingly endless spate of books on Catherine, Massie has once again demonstrated his ability to write in a way that will attract a wide audience. Readers will doubtless forgive his need to take us on a 579-page journey before we stand figuratively before Catherine’s graveside because of the rich and florid description he displays throughout the long book.
How could such a long and productive reign dominated by such a complex personality be dealt with otherwise? The contradictions of her authoritarian reign still retain their attractive force. She became the empress of Russia, the largest country in the world at the time, despite the fact that she herself was German. She was one of Russia’s most intelligent rulers, a product and missionary of the French Enlightenment who sought to transform her subjects into Europeans as Peter the Great had ordained.
Yet, as an enlightened autocrat, her limits became clear and transgressing them led to severe censorship and repression. She expanded the boundaries of her empire in every direction for Russia’s benefit, including incorporating a large portion of the dismemberment of Poland, while refusing to release the vast majority of her population from the bondage of serfdom. She began her reign with a flurry of innovative edicts that promised to alter the rigid autocratic power structure in line with her admired intellectual mentors, Montesquieu and the leading French philosophes, and was in correspondence with Voltaire, Diderot and the brothers Grimm in Switzerland.
This had little influence when the alarming news of the French Revolution reached her, which she saw as the unexpected outcome of the critique raised by the Enlightenment thinkers. She took immediate action by taking out her rage against the writer, Alexander Radishchev, whose 1790 travelogue containing conversations of peasant complaints of authority she imagined as the specter of revolt in her own country. The culture she once so adored had produced what she now called “the French madness.”
This is the challenging content of Massie’s descriptive canvas, full of both invented conversations and colorful descriptions of Catherine’s struggle to fulfill her own personal and very private passions as well as her desire to make Russia a major player among the powers of Europe.
Hardcover Book : 656 pages
Publisher: Random House Inc. ( November 08, 2011 )
Item #: 13-433628
Product Dimensions: 6.25 x 9.25 x 1.64inches
Product Weight: 36.0 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
All of the previous reviews are correct. This is much more a biography of Catherine as an individual as opposed to what was happening in Russia at that time. This is what is different about this book from Massie's previous efforts. This can be interpreted as not as ambitious but it is in truth, just different. I liked this book and learned a lot about Catherine but less about Russia in her era.
Reviewer: Richard H
This is the first book by this author I have read. So far (I have not finished it yet) I'm finding it to be interesting. He does a good job of explaining the interpersonal relationships, and the lifestyle and culture of the time and place.
I picked up this booking and couldn't put it down. If what the other reviewers said is true I can't wait to read some of Massie's other books.
Reviewer: Raymond S
I've heard that Robert Massie is an excellent writer of historical non-fiction. This book provides little evidence of that. I did not like the way the book was organized or his writing style.
There are many tangential asides. I've never learned so much about the French Revolution - but there is a significant review of the events leading up to the execution of Louis XVI and his wife. This all lead up to an explanation of why Catherine introduced censorship in Russia, but I think the background was more thorough than the discussion of the consequences.
Parts of the book was also arranged by subject rather than chronologically. So right after the chapter covering the death of Grigory Potemkin, in 1791, we learn that Catherine was a great art collector, starting in 1771. This was confusing.
I left this book rather disappointed. Nicholas and Alexandra and Peter the Great were both such wonderful books, I expected more - especially as Catherine was such a prolific writer herself and there's a treasure trove of her letters. Instead, Massie just glosses over everything in the life of this remarkable woman. He barely goes into her troubled relationship with her son Paul, and seems to have believed her detractors who called her (at best) wanton. Very disappointing.