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Extended Audio Sample Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, by Robert K. Massie Click for printable size audiobook cover
3 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 5 3.00 (19,598 ratings) (rate this audio book) Author: Robert K. Massie Narrator: Mark Deakin Publisher: Penguin Random House Format: Unabridged Audiobook Delivery: Instant Download Audio Length: Release Date:
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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.

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.

Reaching the throne fired by Enlightenment philosophy and determined to become the embodiment of the “benevolent despot” idealized by Montesquieu, she found herself always contending with the deeply ingrained realities of Russian life, including serfdom. She persevered, and for thirty-four 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 that swept across Europe. Her reputation depended entirely on the perspective of the speaker. She was praised by Voltaire as the equal of the greatest of classical philosophers; she was condemned by her enemies, mostly foreign, as “the Messalina of the north.”

Catherine’s family, friends, ministers, generals, lovers, and enemies—all are here, vividly described. These included her ambitious, perpetually scheming mother; her weak, bullying husband, Peter (who left her lying untouched beside him for nine years after their marriage); her unhappy son and heir, Paul; her beloved grandchildren; and her “favorites”—the parade of young men from whom she sought companionship and the recapture of youth as well as sex. Here, too, is the giant figure of Gregory Potemkin, her most significant lover and possible husband, with whom she shared a passionate correspondence of love and separation, followed by seventeen years of unparalleled mutual achievement.

The story is superbly told. All the special qualities that Robert K. Massie brought to Nicholas and Alexandra and Peter the Great are present here: historical accuracy, depth of understanding, felicity of style, mastery of detail, ability to shatter myth, and a rare genius for finding and expressing the human drama in extraordinary lives.

History offers few stories richer in drama than that of Catherine the Great. In this book, this eternally fascinating woman is returned to life.

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Quotes & Awards

  • “A consistently nimble and buoyant performance, defying what might in a lesser writer's hands prove a deadly undertow of exhaustively researched historical facts. Of course, Massie…has always been a biographer with the instincts of a novelist. He understands plot—fate—as a function of character, and the narrative perspective he establishes and maintains, a vision tightly aligned with that of his subject, convinces a reader he's not so much looking at Catherine the Great as he is out of her eyes.”

    New York Times Book Review

  • “[A] tale of power, perseverance and passion…A great story in the hands of a master storyteller.”

    Wall Street Journal

  • “Graceful and engrossing.”

    Minneapolis Star Tribune

  • “A biography as captivating as its subject.”


  • “Massie makes Catherine’s story dramatic and immediate.”

    Kansas City Star

  • “Will transport history lovers.”


  • “Reads like an epic Russian novel.”

    San Antonio Express-News

  • “Massie delivers a fascinating account of dog-eat-dog politics in eighteenth-century Europe and the larger-than-life Russian empress who gave as good as she got.”

    Kirkus Reviews

  • “Massie once again delivers a masterful, intimate, and tantalizing portrait of a majestic monarch.”

    Publishers Weekly

  • “Meticulously, dramatically rendered.”

    O, The Oprah Magazine

  • “[Robert K. Massie] brings great authority to this sweeping account of Catherine and her times…Compelling.”

    Washington Post

  • Selected for the December 2011 Indie Next List
  • A New York Times Bestseller
  • A USA Today Bestseller
  • Winner of the AudioFile Earphones Award
  • A 2011 Barnes & Noble Best Book for Nonfiction
  • A 2011 Publishers Weekly Top 10 Book for Nonfiction
  • A 2011 USA Today Best Book
  • A 2011 New York Times Best Book for Nonfiction
  • A 2011 Washington Post Best Book for Nonfiction
  • A 2011 Boston Globe Book of the Year for Nonfiction
  • A 2011 San Francisco Chronicle Best Book for Nonfiction
  • A 2011 Chicago Tribune Book of the Year for Nonfiction
  • A 2011 Salon Magazine Best Book of the Year for Nonfiction
  • A 2011 BookPage Best Book for Nonfiction
  • A 2011 Los Angeles Times Book Prize Nominee for Biography
  • A 2011 New York Times Book Review Notable Book

Listener Opinions

  • 5 out of 55 out of 55 out of 55 out of 55 out of 5 by Crit | 2/16/2014

    " The life of Catherine was fascinating. Born from non-Russian parents and married at 14 to a baffoon and heir to the Russian throne...Peter, staged a coup to have Peter removed from the throne and making herself Empress of Russian, during her rule Russia boundaries expanded by conquest, and her many liaisons with interesting characters Robert Massie's readability enhances this book. "

  • 5 out of 55 out of 55 out of 55 out of 55 out of 5 by Pgirty | 2/15/2014

    " Did you know that Catherine the Great was asked to send 20,000 Russian soldiers and 1000 Cossack cavalry to stop the American Revolution. She refused. Britain paid Germany for the Hession mercenaries. "

  • 4 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 5 by Renee Johansson | 2/15/2014

    " A fantastic book by one of my favorite authors, Robert K. Massive. As a European history teacher I have always been fascinated by Catherine the Great. Whereas Peter the Great modernized Russia's military, Catherine modernized it's thinking, having introduced the popular French Enlightenment to this hitherto " backwards" nation. This intelligent woman also had a lot of grit and strength of character having been forced to leave the country of her birth in order to marry the heir to a foreign land. She not only survived the humiliating and cruel treatment of a husband who didn't love her, she plotted and carried out his overthrow, competed well against rulers of foreign lands and even orchestrated the takeover and elimination of an entire nation! I highly recommend Massie's book on this highly intriguing woman! "

  • 3 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 5 by Lezlie Oachs | 2/4/2014

    " A favorite sentence: "Peter made Russia a great power; Catherine magnified this power, and advanced the nation toward a culture that, during the century that followed, produced, among others, Derzhavin, Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Chekov, Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, Glinka, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Petipa, and Diaghilev." "

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