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Powerful and Captivating: Catherine the Great

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If you’re up for the experience of exploring a detailed, historically accurate biography of one of the most fascinating women in history, be sure to read Catherine the Great, Portrait of a Woman by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Massie and published by Random House in 2011.

This 600-page book seems, at first glance, to be a formidable challenge. But as this extraordinary story unfolds, you will become increasingly caught up in the drama of an obscure German princess who, at age 14, traveled to Russia and transformed herself into an empress by sheer force of will and determination.

I read this book with one powerful flashlight and 18 candles (tapers, pillars, votives) during a five-day electrical blackout courtesy of Hurricane Sandy. It was great, because with no TV and no computer as distractions, I could give it my full attention.

A Masterpiece of Narrative Biography

Possessing a brilliant mind and an insatiable curiosity, Catherine devoured the works of 18th century Enlightenment philosophers and, when she reached the throne, attempted to use their principles to guide her rule of the vast and backward Russian empire. Alas, she found herself contending with the deeply ingrained realities of Russian life, including serfdom.

She persevered, and for 34 years the government, foreign policy, cultural development and welfare of the Russian people were in her hands. She dealt with domestic rebellion, foreign wars, and the tidal wave of political change and violence churned up by the French Revolution.

Catherine’s family, friends, ministers, generals, lovers and enemies are all vividly described. The cast includes: her ambitious mother who was 16-years-old when Catherine was born; her weak husband, Peter (who left her lying untouched beside him for nine years after their marriage); her four children including her son and heir Peter, who hated her; her male companions (a total of 12 serial beaus over the years); and the love of her life, Gregory Potemkin.

A Comparison of Then and Now

Halfway through this New York Times bestseller, you’ll come across harrowing descriptions of smallpox tragedies, which frightened Catherine so much she asked to be inoculated. This small act of bravery on her part was completely overshadowed by the epidemic of bubonic plague, which decimated the population of Moscow and eventually led to rioting.

Reading this, I couldn’t help but compare Russia of the 18th century and our lives today. I came to the conclusion that the loss of electrical power – in our Greenwich Village area at least – was simply an inconvenience. I also came to appreciate the breakthroughs and advances in the medical world in the last 200 years – which are staggering and absolutely incredible. This book is definitely a must-read.


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