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Catherine the Great

Click this cover for a(n) Audiobook sample of Catherine the Great.

Catherine the Great

Portrait of a Woman
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    1

    Sophia's Childhood

    Prince Christian Augustus of Anhalt-Zerbst was hardly distinguishable in the swarm of obscure, penurious noblemen who

    cluttered the landscape and society of politically fragmented eighteenth-century Germany. Possessed neither of exceptional virtues nor alarming vices, Prince Christian exhibited the solid virtues of his Junker lineage: a stern sense of order, discipline, integrity, thrift, and piety, along with an unshakable lack of interest in gossip, intrigue, literature, and the wider world in general. Born in 1690, he had made a career as a professional soldier in the army of King Frederick William of Prussia. His military service in campaigns against Sweden, France, and Austria was meticulously conscientious, but his exploits on the battlefield were unremarkable, and nothing occurred either to accelerate or retard his career. When peace came, the king, who was once heard to refer to his loyal officer as "that idiot, Zerbst," gave him command of an infantry regiment garrisoning the port of Stettin, recently acquired from Sweden, on the Baltic coast of Pomerania. There, in 1727, Prince Christian, still a bachelor at thirty-seven, bowed to the pleas of his family and set himself to produce an heir. Wearing his best blue uniform and his shining ceremonial sword, he married fifteen-year-old Princess Johanna Elizabeth of Holstein-Gottorp, whom he scarcely knew. His family, which had arranged the match with hers, was giddy with delight; not only did the line of Anhalt-Zerbst seem assured, but Johanna's family stood a rung above them on the ladder of rank.

    It was a poor match. There were the problems of difference in age; pairing an adolescent girl with a man in middle age usually stems from a confusion of motives and expectations. When Johanna, of a good family with little money, reached adolescence and her parents, without consulting her, arranged a match to a respectable man almost three times her age, Johanna could only consent. Even more unpromising, the characters and temperaments of the two were almost entirely opposite. Christian Augustus was simple, honest, ponderous, reclusive, and thrifty; Johanna Elizabeth was complicated, vivacious, pleasure-loving, and extravagant. She was considered beautiful, and with arched eyebrows, fair, curly hair, charm, and an exuberant eagerness to please, she attracted people easily. In company, she felt a need to captivate, but as she grew older, she tried too hard. In time, other flaws appeared. Too much gay talk revealed her as shallow; when she was thwarted, her charm soured to irritability and her quick temper suddenly exploded. Underlying this behavior, and Johanna had known this from the beginning, was the fact that her marriage had been a terrible-and was now an inescapable-mistake.

    Confirmation first came when she saw the house in Stettin to which her new husband brought her. Johanna had spent her youth in unusually elegant surroundings. Because she was one of twelve children in a family that formed a minor branch of the ducal Holsteins, her father, the Lutheran bishop of Lübeck, had passed her along for upbringing to her godmother, the childless Duchess of Brunswick. Here, in the most sumptuously magnificent court in north Germany, she had become accustomed to a life of beautiful clothes, sophisticated company, balls, operas, concerts, fireworks, hunting parties, and constant, tittering gossip.

    Her new husband, Christian Augustus, a career officer existing on his meager army pay, could provide none of this. The best he could manage was a modest gray stone house on a cobbled street constantly swept by wind and rain. The walled fortress town of Stettin,...

Reviews-
  • AudioFile Magazine Those who love history, biography, and fine storytelling will soon be immersed in this superb production. Catherine the Great is one of history's most compelling figures, and the author is one of our most esteemed popular historians. Mark Deakins does both credit with a reading that is brisk and dramatic and that, not incidentally, relieves the listener of the burden of dealing with all those long Russian names. The production is flavored but not flooded with the vigor and expressiveness of the Russian language. Massie is a masterful storyteller who makes plain at all times who is who and what role he or she plays. He has a remarkable story to tell, and he knows how to tell it to maximum effect. Working with such exemplary material, Deakins turns in an enthralling performance. D.A.W. Winner of AudioFile Earphones Award (c) AudioFile 2012, Portland, Maine
  • Publishers Weekly, starred review "Massie once again delivers a masterful, intimate, and tantalizing portrait of a majestic monarch."
  • The Daily Beast "[A] rich, nuanced examination of Russia's lone female leader..."
  • The Wall Street Journal "What Catherine the Great offers is a great story in the hands of a master storyteller."
  • USA Today "What a woman, what a world, what a biography."
  • O, The Oprah Magazine "A meticulously, dramatically rendered biography..."
  • Elle magazine "What a Woman!"
  • Newsweek "In Catherine the Great, Massie has created a sensitive and compelling portrait not just of a Russian titan, but also of a flesh-and-blood woman."
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    All copies of this title, including those transferred to portable devices and other media, must be deleted/destroyed at the end of the lending period.
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Portrait of a Woman
Robert K. Massie
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