Friday, December 9, 2011

Day 9: The World of Catherine the Great

Welcome to Day 9 in our 24 Days of Books. Last year Cleopatra: A Life reigned as the hot biography during the holidays. This year a new biography of another powerful woman leader is catching the wave: Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, by Pulitzer-Prize-winning author Robert K. Massie and published by Random House.

Massie, who was born in Kentucky and studied American history at Yale and European history at Oxford, won the Pulitzer Prize for his biography Peter the Great: His Life and World. He also wrote Nicholas and Alexandra and The Romanovs: The Final Chapter, along with other books -- spending almost a half a century studying czarist Russia. He served as president of the Authors Guild from 1987 to 1991.

Catherine the Great was born as Sophia Augusta Fredericka on April 21, 1729,  a minor German princess, to her sixteen-year-old mother Johanna. From these humble beginnings she rose to become one of the most remarkable, powerful, and captivating women in history, corresponding with major historical and literary figures of her time -- Voltaire, Frederick the Great, Maria Antoinette, Gregory Potemkin (her lover and possible husband), and even the American naval hero John Paul Jones.

At the age of 15, the young German princess was swept from obscurity to marry the heir to the Russian throne, and Sophia -- renamed Catherine -- eventually went on to rule Russia for more than thirty years. She was intelligent. charming, fiercely determined, and a voracious reader. One of her boldest moves was the attempt to abolish serfdom—the Russian brand of slavery, but she was unsuccessful. She was able to amass a remarkable art collection, help to bring about advancements in medicine and science, and win important military victories during her reign.

History offers few stories richer than that of Catherine the Great, and as the New York Times says in its review of the book, Massie has always been "a biographer with the instincts of a novelist." Massie brings to his biographies historical accuracy, depth of understanding, felicity of style, mastery of detail (and lots of it), the ability to shatter myth, and a rare genius for finding and expressing the human dram in extraordinary lives.

Massie first became interested in the Romanov family when his oldest son, Robert Massie Jr., was diagnosed with hemophilia. As he and his wife struggled to manage their son's illness, they reviewed case studies of history's most famous hemophiliac, Tsarevich Alexis. Massie became convinced that Alexis’ disease, and the resulting need for secrecy and dependence on Rasputin, was a larger contributing factor to the dynasty’s downfall than it had been considered previously. This research led to Massie's first major book, Nicholas and Alexandra, published in 1967.

Here is a link to Diana Rehm of WAMU interviewing Robert Massie.

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