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Catherine the Great: A Biography

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Dedication Foreword Preface Text Epilogue Bibliography Index

30 review for Catherine the Great: A Biography

  1. 4 out of 5

    Lukasz Pruski

    "[...] the obscure little German princess who had completed the work of Peter the Great and made Russia into an European power." I am coming back to reviewing books after an almost three-month hiatus caused by the demands of remote teaching. Contrary to common perception, I have found out that remote teaching takes way more time than in-person instruction, especially if one wants to do it well (virtual lectures will never be even close in quality to in-person ones, but one should try the best). I "[...] the obscure little German princess who had completed the work of Peter the Great and made Russia into an European power." I am coming back to reviewing books after an almost three-month hiatus caused by the demands of remote teaching. Contrary to common perception, I have found out that remote teaching takes way more time than in-person instruction, especially if one wants to do it well (virtual lectures will never be even close in quality to in-person ones, but one should try the best). I simply did not have time. Anyway... Being Polish by birth I might be expected to have in my blood an intense dislike for Catherine the Great, the 18th-century Empress of Russia. After all, she was instrumental in arranging consecutive partitions of Poland at the end of the 18th century, which resulted in the disappearance of my native country from maps of Europe for well over 100 years. Yet it is obvious to me that we, Poles, ourselves brought the Polish state to ruin 250 years ago by following unwise politics, in the same way as the majority of my ex-compatriots seem to be doing it now, in 2020. As to Catherine the Great: I am deeply impressed by the political talent of this "obscure little German princess" who "made Russia into an European power." I have to admit to a bias, though. I am blatantly sexist and I believe that it is the women who should be in charge of everything in the world while men should only engage in drinking beer, watching football on TV, pretending to be experts on everything, and some other low-responsibility activities. Thus Catherine's life story, which may appear unusual to many people, seems natural to me. Joan Haslip's Catherine the Great (1977) is a traditional, perhaps even "old-style" biography that recounts events chronologically and reports on all aspects of Catherine's life - political, historical, and also personal (in a few places the author is quite gossipy). We follow the future Empress's life path from her birth in Szczecin (then Stettin) in 1729 as Sophia of Anhalt-Zerbst, through the crucial event in 1744, which changed her life and affected European history, when the then Russian czarina Elizaveta Petrovna invited teenage Sophia to come to Russia and make the Romanov's dynasty secure by marrying the grand duke Peter and producing a heir (which eventually happened in 1754). Catherine gradually became interested in politics. She saw her chance to get to the very top and never let it go. People sometimes say "if you want something bad enough, and you work for it hard enough, it's going to happen." That's obviously not true; one has to be clever in working for "it" and one has to be very lucky. Catherine was extremely clever in plotting and scheming - for instance, she had an uncanny ability to convincingly tell clever lies on the spot - and she indeed was very lucky. Czarina Elizaveta Petrovna died at a time that was most opportune for Catherine. Peter III, who ascended to the throne, was too sympathetic to Prussian interests for Russian liking, so that Catherine could arrange an almost "patriotic" coup d'état to soon become Catherine II, the Empress of Russia. The author recounts Catherine the Great's reign (1762 - 1796) with great attention to detail. I am not qualified to summarize the events, so let me just use a quote from Wikipedia "The period of Catherine the Great's rule is considered the Golden Age of Russia." Ms. Haslip pays lots of attention to Catherine the Great's romantic affairs or rather one should say sexual liaisons. The empress was known for her insatiable sexual appetite and we read about the long array of her lovers. There are authors who use salacious details to titillate the reader. This is certainly not true about this biography. Ms. Haslip focuses on how the empress' erotic affairs influenced her politics and the European affairs in general. I will use an example of the fate of Poland and the affair between Catherine and future Polish king, Stanislaw Poniatowski. Ms. Haslip writes: "[...] it was an evil day for Poland when this cultured dilettante came under the spell of a woman as fascinating and as unscrupulous as the grand duchess." The residual effects of this affair facilitated the dismemberment of Poland, during the "first partition" in 1772, when Russia, Prussia, and Austria took large chunks of Polish territory. According to Ms. Haslip, the second partition of Poland in 1793, as well as the third and the final one, when Poland - one of the most powerful countries in Europe - disappeared from the maps, also were at least partly affected by Catherine's erotic affairs. Ms. Haslip also writes the following about Prince Potemkin, one of Catherine's most famous favorites and lovers: "Had Potemkin lived, the second and third partitions of Poland would never have taken place." While this might sound reasonable, one has to realize that, first of all, any partitions of Poland were possible mainly because in the 18th century the powerful segments of Polish society - the aristocracy and top echelons of nobility - cared only about their own interests rather than about the good of the country as a whole. But I am again digressing. I am supposed to write about the book. I find the biography very readable and certainly learned a lot from it! Ms. Haslip's writing style is likely not my favorite, but I recommend the book highly and without hesitation. Three-and-a-half stars.

  2. 5 out of 5

    David Brown

    I checked this book out from the local library after watching the made for tv movie starring Catherine Zeta-Jones. It was boring, but the character of Catherine intrigued me so I wanted to find out the real story. Unfortunately, I chose this book because it was the first listed. This biography reads more like a romance novel. Both in style and due to the author's focus on Catherine II's relationships with her lovers rather than on her accomplishments as the leader of a country. Much time is give I checked this book out from the local library after watching the made for tv movie starring Catherine Zeta-Jones. It was boring, but the character of Catherine intrigued me so I wanted to find out the real story. Unfortunately, I chose this book because it was the first listed. This biography reads more like a romance novel. Both in style and due to the author's focus on Catherine II's relationships with her lovers rather than on her accomplishments as the leader of a country. Much time is given to her youth, but once the young Sophia of Holstein becomes Catherine II, ruler of all the Russia's, one year mingles into another, and the next thing the reader knows, the youthful empress is now a middle aged woman. Although the author has a list of her sources, she does not cite them in the text, making it difficult to check facts. Disturbingly, the author continually makes disparaging comments on Catherine's weight gain and ageing. It's uncalled for, especially in a biography, and seems catty. I continually found myself shaking my head in disgust every time the author derogatorily commented on Catherine's physical decline. There was certainly no point in it. I recommend passing on this book in favor of a better biography about Catherine the Great.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Sue

    Bonehead borderline boring. No pictures . . . we don't play that. Bonehead borderline boring. No pictures . . . we don't play that.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Debbie Brown

    I don't know what audience the author had in mind, but it wasn't people like me with no background in Russian history. The book was interesting, but I was confused most of the time because the author assumes that the reader already knows most of the history. I still have a lot to learn. I don't know what audience the author had in mind, but it wasn't people like me with no background in Russian history. The book was interesting, but I was confused most of the time because the author assumes that the reader already knows most of the history. I still have a lot to learn.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Daniel Suhajda

    Terribly. Boring. Didn’t finish

  6. 5 out of 5

    Edie

    Enjoyable and literate (probably 3 1/2 stars), but not as interesting as Massie's work, or as scholarly as Anderson's. Enjoyable and literate (probably 3 1/2 stars), but not as interesting as Massie's work, or as scholarly as Anderson's.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Erik Graff

    Some weeks ago I read Zoe Oldenbourg's biography of Catherine II, mentioning to my roommate that it would be nice to read a similar work about her grandfather. John subsequently presented me with Massie's Peter the Great. Refreshed with the relevant historical background I went back to Catherine via Haslip, about whom I knew nothing. The first part of Haslip's biography, that dealing with her subject's life before her ascension to the throne, so much recapitulates the material in Oldenbourg that Some weeks ago I read Zoe Oldenbourg's biography of Catherine II, mentioning to my roommate that it would be nice to read a similar work about her grandfather. John subsequently presented me with Massie's Peter the Great. Refreshed with the relevant historical background I went back to Catherine via Haslip, about whom I knew nothing. The first part of Haslip's biography, that dealing with her subject's life before her ascension to the throne, so much recapitulates the material in Oldenbourg that plaigerism was a consideration. Comparing texts, however, it is more likely that the documentary sources for this period are simply meagre, leading to similar summaries, though Haslip does cite Oldenbourg in the bibliography. Getting into the imperial period Haslip's material was far more extensive though, like Oldenbourg, she pays more attention than customary in the genre to personal matters. Haslip's Catherine is a charming, initially well-intended autocrat whose personal concerns continually influenced policy and political appointments. A virgin until her mid-twenties, she made up for it at an ever-increasing pace, becoming sexually voracious by middle age, her countless lovers being picked up and discarded into positions of wealth and authority usually far beyond their competences. The exceptions, of course, are possibly Orlov and certainly Potemkin, whom the author maintains was her surreptitious husband for the second half of her life. He was also her procurer, providing her with handsome young lovers until the last of them, the candidate of his political opponents, was able to successfully challenge his authority--resulting in the disastrous final partition of Poland and Potemkin's removal to the provinces and untimely death. This last lover, Plato Zubov, the playmate of Catherines' grandchildren, his virtual peers, maintained no policy or principle beyond the simple desires for pelf and power--and to oppose what Potemkin proposed. It is a pity that Erik Erikson never did a psychobiography of Catherine. If the stories both biographers tell are true, she would be a highly suitable subject. Few have had the power that Catherine had. Those who have often succumbed to hedonistic excess. Catherine, however, is remarkable for two things in this regard. First, she was a woman. Second, she was, by the standards of the time, a better than average ruler, more involved in government, and more successful in foreign policy, than many. To the author's credit, Catherine's domestic policy, particularly as regards serfdom, is treated as it deserves. Her wars, while often successful, were enormous drains on the Russian people, as were the luxuries she enjoyed and shared with her favorites. Despite an initial sympathy for the enlightened ideas of Diderot, Voltaire and Rousseau, the French Revolution led her to extremes of reaction. Despite her oft-stated intention to improve the lot of the masses, over ninety percent of whom were serfs, virtual slaves, she actually worsened their lot and spread the practice. From any egalitarian ethical perspective, Catherine the Great was a moral monster, one of the worst despots in modern European history. Yet, she was, personally, charming, witty, intelligent, good with kids, the kind of person you could really talk to openly and honestly so far as you did not get on the subject of politics. This is not a scholarly biography, not by a long shot. Yet, by being more focused on the person of Catherine within the context of her political practice, it is a powerful cautionary tale about too much power in too few hands.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Briana Lynn

    Well…………..this was definitely a book about Catherine the Great. Was it a good biography? In my opinion not particularly. Did I learn a lot? No because I was bored out of my mind. Was it well written? It felt overly pretentious and made me feel as though I should’ve done research before reading this. Overall I felt as though Joan Haslip did not do a great job with this book. I feel like at points she was inserting her opinions and viewpoints directly into the biography which felt weird to me. My Well…………..this was definitely a book about Catherine the Great. Was it a good biography? In my opinion not particularly. Did I learn a lot? No because I was bored out of my mind. Was it well written? It felt overly pretentious and made me feel as though I should’ve done research before reading this. Overall I felt as though Joan Haslip did not do a great job with this book. I feel like at points she was inserting her opinions and viewpoints directly into the biography which felt weird to me. My goal was to at least learn more about Catherine the Great and at the end I just felt like I learned nothing. I feel like I would’ve learned more from watching the Weird History Channel or Crash Course on YouTube. I think there are 100% other biographies on Catherine the Great that should be recommended over this one.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Fee

    This book was short and sweet. Catherine the Great was given the name of Great because she tried to continue her grandfather's legacy. She attempted to educate the Russians beyond Peter whom tried to culture his country. She also maintained Peter's life work of port city capital St Petersburg. As you know between, before, and after these two greats, the Russians are a bunch of boneheads. They do make some decent vodka though. I think Catherine was great because the two men she dumped in her life This book was short and sweet. Catherine the Great was given the name of Great because she tried to continue her grandfather's legacy. She attempted to educate the Russians beyond Peter whom tried to culture his country. She also maintained Peter's life work of port city capital St Petersburg. As you know between, before, and after these two greats, the Russians are a bunch of boneheads. They do make some decent vodka though. I think Catherine was great because the two men she dumped in her life, she gave them a severance package. She gave them a mansion and some land after the break ups. That is what you call the sugar momma of the century. Guess you gotta be Russian to give up shit like that, you know American woman are like Ebenezer scrooge when it comes to sharing their shit after break ups. If I am wrong, please educate me or amuse :)

  10. 5 out of 5

    Jan

    hardcover published in 1977. fascintaing biography.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Adena

    I love the close attention to personal details, makes an otherwise tedious topic as entertaining as any soap opera!

  12. 4 out of 5

    Alison Lockert

  13. 4 out of 5

    Peter Shattuck

  14. 5 out of 5

    Julia

  15. 5 out of 5

    Greg McConeghy

  16. 4 out of 5

    Victoria

  17. 4 out of 5

    Rebecca

  18. 5 out of 5

    Carolina Gomez

  19. 4 out of 5

    Lois

  20. 4 out of 5

    Deborah

  21. 4 out of 5

    Stephanie Heath

  22. 5 out of 5

    Cathy C

  23. 4 out of 5

    Madan

  24. 4 out of 5

    Vivian

  25. 5 out of 5

    Gina

  26. 4 out of 5

    Catherine Fancy

  27. 4 out of 5

    Camaria

  28. 5 out of 5

    Kent Miller

  29. 5 out of 5

    Xcar La Bibliófila Nocturna

  30. 4 out of 5

    Joen Wolfrom

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