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Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie []



This is a detailed biography of Catherine II, from her childhood as a minor princess in a small German principality to her long reign as empress and autocrat of all the Russias and one of the most powerful women in Europe. My favorite part: when Catherine donned a uniform and the led the army to arrest her husband and seize his throne! And what lover of books and libraries can resist the story of how Catherine made Denis Diderot her personal librarian? When Catherine heard that the great encyclopedist had run into financial difficulties and wished to sell his library, Catherine bought the entire collection for more than his asking price, insisted that the books stay with Diderot in Paris, and paid him a handsome salary so he could continue his work.

Catherine’s life was full of court politics, international intrigues, subtle power struggles, and secret plots, but also scholarly pursuits, intimate correspondences, lavish parties, extravagant gifts, and love affairs, secret and private. Massie pays great attention to Catherine’s personal life—the excerpts from her love letters are wonderful to read.

Massie’s approach is direct and readable, with chapters based upon subject matter more than chronology.In this book he provides an interesting slice of European and Russian history, a fascinating glimpse of 18th century politics and the influence of Enlightenment thought on a powerful monarch, and an appealing tale of personal struggle and transformation.

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