Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Catherine the Great, Portrait of a Woman

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The Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Peter the Great, Nicholas and Alexandra, and The Romanovs returns with another masterpiece of narrative biography, the extraordinary story of an obscure young German princess who traveled to Russia at fourteen and rose to become one of the most remarkable, powerful, and captivating women in history.

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Born into a minor noble family, Catherine transformed herself into Empress of Russia by sheer determination. Possessing a brilliant mind and an insatiable curiosity as a young woman, she devoured the works of Enlightenment philosophers and, when she reached the throne, attempted to use their principles to guide her rule of the vast and backward Russian empire. She knew or corresponded with the preeminent historical figures of her time: Voltaire, Diderot, Frederick the Great, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, Marie Antoinette, and, surprisingly, the American naval hero, John Paul Jones.

Once upon a time, there was a minor German princess named Sophia. She went on to become the world's richest and most powerful woman, ruler of its then-largest empire, revered as "Catherine the Great." Her accomplishments and shortcomings as an autocrat and a woman make for a remarkable saga, and though many have tried, there may be no better author to take on the daunting task of chronicling than Robert K. Massie, a seasoned biographer of the 400-year Romanov dynasty, most notably with Peter the Great: His Life and World, which won a 1981 Pulitzer Prize. Massie situates Catherine's early life and three-decade reign amidst the tumult of the European Enlightenment, enriching his own narrative with telling excerpts of her letters and rich discussions of her political environment and personal motivations. The result is an utterly memorable book, a towering accomplishment, one of the year's best in any genre

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