The best books about Catherine the Great

Many authors have picked their favorite books about Catherine the Great and why they recommend each book.

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Frederick the Great

By Tim Blanning,

Book cover of Frederick the Great: King of Prussia

Growing up in rural Brandenburg, just outside of Berlin, the towering figure of Frederick the Great accompanied my childhood. One of my earliest memories is running down the endless steps of the vineyard terraces at his summer palace of Sanssouci, excited by the splendour of the landscaped gardens below. On these family outings, my father would tell me tales about how ‘Old Fritz’ introduced the potato in Germany and how he won many wars by whipping the Prussian army into shape. But Frederick was also a complicated and troubled man. A patron of the arts and fascinated by the ideals of the Enlightenment, he could also be ruthless in pursuing his ambition to make Prussia a European power. Blanning’s excellent biography captures Frederick in all his complexity. 

Frederick the Great

By Tim Blanning,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Frederick the Great as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Highly readable and deeply researched' - Andrew Roberts

'Masterful ... brilliantly brings to life one of the most complex characters of modern European history' - Sunday Telegraph

'It is sure to be the standard English-language account for many years. It instructs; it entertains; and it surprises' - Philip Mansel, The Spectator

Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, dominated the eighteenth century in the same way that Napoleon dominated the start of the nineteenth. He was a force of nature, a ruthless, brilliant, charismatic military commander, a monarch of exceptional energy and talent, a gifted composer, performer, poet and philosopher, and…


Who am I?

I was born in East Germany and experienced the disappearance of that country and the huge changes that followed as a child. My history teachers reflected this fracture in the narratives they constructed, switching between those they had grown up with and the new version they had been told to teach after 1990. It struck me how little resemblance the neat division of German history into chapters and timelines bears to people’s actual lives which often span one or even several of Germany’s radical fault lines. My fascination with my country’s fractured memory has never left me since. 


I wrote...

Book cover of Blood and Iron: The Rise and Fall of the German Empire; 1871-1918

What is my book about?

Before 1871, Germany was not a nation but an idea. Its founder, Otto von Bismarck, had a formidable task at hand. How would he bring thirty-nine individual states under the yoke of a single Kaiser, convincing proud Prussians, Bavarians, and Rhinelanders to become Germans? Once united, could the young European nation wield enough power to rival the empires of Britain and France—all without destroying itself in the process?

In a unique study of five decades that changed the course of modern history, Katja Hoyer tells the story of the German Empire from its violent beginnings to its calamitous defeat in the First World War. It is a dramatic tale of national self-discovery, social upheaval, and realpolitik that ended, as it started, in blood and iron.

Tsarina

By Ellen Alpsten,

Book cover of Tsarina

Empress Catherine the Great immediately comes to mind when referring to women who ruled Russia. In Tsarina, however, author Alpsten focuses on Catherine Alexeyevna, the wife of Peter the Great, who rose to power in the early 18th century. Born into devastating poverty, Catherine is a woman who holds her cards close and plays them judiciously. She seduces Peter, revels in the riches and debauchery of the Russian court, and emerges not only as his wife, but a linchpin to Russia's future when Peter dies. This is an extraordinary tale of a powerful and intelligent woman often ignored in history.

Tsarina

By Ellen Alpsten,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Tsarina as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"Makes Game of Thrones look like a nursery rhyme." —Daisy Goodwin, New York Times bestselling author of The Fortune Hunter

“[Alpsten] recounts this remarkable woman’s colourful life and times." —Count Nikolai Tolstoy, historian and author

Before there was Catherine the Great, there was Catherine Alexeyevna: the first woman to rule Russia in her own right. Ellen Alpsten's rich, sweeping debut novel is the story of her rise to power.

St. Petersburg, 1725. Peter the Great lies dying in his magnificent Winter Palace. The weakness and treachery of his only son has driven his father to an appalling act of cruelty…


Who am I?

The Romanov saga has intrigued me since I was an undergraduate student in history many moons ago. Three hundred years of Romanov rule were filled with exotic beauty, violence, and tragedy. I went on to teach Russian history at university and was able to share some of the stories of the tsars and tsarinas with my students. Having authored books and articles in my academic field, my teaching career has ended. Now it is historical fiction that has captured my imagination and spurred me to pen my own novels set in 19th-century Africa and Afghanistan, as well as Russia during the reign of Ivan the Terrible.


I wrote...

The Tsar's Locket

By Ken Czech,

Book cover of The Tsar's Locket

What is my book about?

Julian Blunt, a former sea captain and a despised Catholic, is stunned when Queen Elizabeth proposes that he help carry a betrothal locket to Tsar Ivan the Terrible in Moscow. It means an alliance between England and Russia is brewing. Should the locket fall into the hands of the Pope, it could mean war.

Julian joins the queen's messenger, the spirited Jessandra Calcross, in a perilous journey into the heart of Russia. Stalked by a papal assassin determined to prevent the royal marriage, Julian is soon torn between safeguarding Jess and fulfilling his vow to the queen. If he fails the queen he'll never captain a ship again. But if he and Jess continue on to Moscow, they face a darker peril in Tsar Ivan.

Catherine the Great

By Robert K. Massie,

Book cover of Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman

This was a page-turner and a great introduction to Russian history. Massie described her so vividly that years later, I can still visualize Catherine. The most fascinating aspect of the book for me was how a German child named Sophie reinvents herself to become Catherine the Great, the longest-serving Russian empress. 

Catherine the Great

By Robert K. Massie,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Catherine the Great as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The fascinating true story behind HBO's Catherine the Great starring Dame Helen Mirren as Catherine the Great.

Born into a minor noble family, Catherine transformed herself into empress of Russia by sheer determination. 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.

Robert K. Massie brings an eternally fascinating woman together with her family, friends, ministers, generals, lovers and enemies - vividly and triumphantly to life.

History offers…


Who am I?

I fell in love with historical novels as a kid after I began reading books by French authors Alexandre Dumas, the father and the son. I was the kind of kid who read for days and even nights to finish a story. Books moved me, inspired me, and gave me the strength and wisdom that I have today. I cannot imagine a world without them. 


I wrote...

The Lonely War: One Woman's Account of the Struggle for Modern Iran

By Nazila Fathi,

Book cover of The Lonely War: One Woman's Account of the Struggle for Modern Iran

What is my book about?

In The Lonely War, Fathi interweaves her story with that of the country she left behind, showing how Iran is locked in a battle between hardliners and reformers that dates back to the country's 1979 revolution. Fathi was nine years old when that uprising replaced the Iranian shah with a radical Islamic regime. Her father, an official at a government ministry, was fired for wearing a necktie and knowing English; to support his family he was forced to labor in an orchard hundreds of miles from Tehran. At the same time, the family's destitute, uneducated housekeeper was able to retire and purchase a modern apartment—all because her family supported the new regime.

Catherine the Great

By Isabel de Madariaga,

Book cover of Catherine the Great: A Short History

British historian Madariaga, an expert in the field of eighteenth-century Russia, gives the reader a balanced, up-to-date, and insightful, multi-faceted yet concise, description of the vast empire that constituted Catherine’s Russia.  The author describes how a minor German princess seized the Romanov throne, how she contrived to become an autocrat ruling over all the Russias, and, how during her thirty-four-year reign, Catherine guided her country into becoming a major player in international power politics.

Catherine the Great

By Isabel de Madariaga,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Catherine the Great as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An eminent scholar of Russian history here presents the most informative, balanced, and up-to-date short study of Catherine the Great and her reign. This edition includes a new preface dealing with recently discovered sources and revised interpretations of the period.
Praise for the earlier edition:
"A panoramic view of Russia's social, political, economic, and cultural development and of its emergence as a formidable power in the international arena during the thirty-four years of [Catherine's] reign."-Anthony Cross, New York Times Book Review
"De Madariaga's book will be the standard and an essential guide for all students and scholars of Russian and…


Who am I?

I’ve always been captivated by stories about powerful women. After a corporate career as one of the first female executives in the international world of Wall Street, while raising two children as a single working parent, I returned to academia. I am a magna cum laude graduate of Smith College, hold a doctorate in modern European history, with academic distinction, from New York University. I wanted to ascertain whether the mostly male writers of history were correct in attributing the success of exceptional women to the bedroom. Meticulous research yielded a different narrative, one I delight in sharing.


I wrote...

Florence Nightingale, Feminist

By Judith Lissauer Cromwell,

Book cover of Florence Nightingale, Feminist

What is my book about?

The first, full-length biography told from a post-feminist perspective. Born into Victorian Britain’s elite, a brilliant, magnetic teenager decided to devote her life to the indigent sick by becoming a nurse. Her family opposed. Catapulted into the Crimean War, Nightingale brought order to the chaos of British military hospitals, but never forgot her patients.

Despite debilitating illness, she focused on preventing another Crimean catastrophe -- the death of thousands due to avoidable causes. Hygienic army installations, sanitation for India, and the creation of modern nursing owe much to Nightingale. Victorians saw her as the ideal nurturing female. Hindsight provides a wider perspective. By conceiving a career for women that empowered them with economic independence, Florence Nightingale stands among the founders of modern feminism.

Book cover of Doctor Dogbody's Leg (Heart of Oak Sea Classics Series)

This book is about neither pirates nor children, but it belongs on a list about pirates and children nonetheless. It’s certainly a book that children aged eight to eighty (or older) can enjoy, and because the protagonist is a one-legged seaman (Doctor Dogbody) who embodies the spirit of a one-legged pirate (Long John Silver) and a one-handed pirate (Captain James Hook) it deserves mention. Doctor Dogbody is a ship’s surgeon who likes his tipple, and when he’s drained his pint (or two or three) he is happy to tell the tale of how he lost his leg. And every time he tells the tale it’s a completely different saga, each saga more preposterous than the last. This is a laugh-out-loud book which I first discovered via the recommendation of a mountaineer, who would read each chapter aloud to his tent-mates at night while marooned in a snowstorm on the…

Doctor Dogbody's Leg (Heart of Oak Sea Classics Series)

By James N. Hall,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Doctor Dogbody's Leg (Heart of Oak Sea Classics Series) as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Ripping sea yarns from the creator of Mutiny on the Bounty.

James Norman Hall is best known as the co-author of the classic Bounty trilogy. In his later years, his favorite work was writing the tales spun by Dr. Dogbody, a peg-legged old salt who never lets the truth get in the way of a good story. Doctor Dogbody's tales vividly recreate the Napoleonic Wars, and delight with broad comedy, rollicking naval adventure, and characters that will live on in the reader's memory.


Who am I?

Peter Pan was the first book I remember being read to me when I was four. At the age of thirty-two, I discovered the real J.M. Barrie. I read everything I could of Barrie’s and even wrote a one-person play about him. This led me to discover R.L. Stevenson, Treasure Island, and the world of (fictional) pirates. On a visit my wife and I made to Robinson Crusoe Island, I came to believe (through deductive logic and vivid imagination) that this was the three-dimensional embodiment of Neverland. Barrie always envisioned himself as Hook, and though I longed to be Peter, I fear that my soul was a pirate’s soul. Hence Hook’s Tale. 


I wrote...

Book cover of Hook's Tale: Being the Account of an Unjustly Villainized Pirate Written by Himself

What is my book about?

The subtitle says it all. Hook’s Tale concerns the autobiographical adventures of a 14-year-old boy (and later infamous pirate) in search of his lost father. He discovers a treasure map left to him by his missing parent which leads him to a mysterious archipelago where people do not age and from which there appears to be no escape. There he befriends a marooned buccaneer with a scythe, adopts a baby crocodile he names Daisy, and encounters a boy named Peter who has no understanding of Time. He battles monsters, falls in love with a princess, loses a hand, and eventually discovers the unexpected treasure hidden in this astonishing place. Eventually, he comes to understand the importance of growing up, growing old, and accepting mortality. 

Catherine the Great & Potemkin

By Simon Sebag Montefiore,

Book cover of Catherine the Great & Potemkin: The Imperial Love Affair

This historical work traces the improbable rise to power of Catherine the Great and her partnership and love affair with Prince Potemkin. Catherine, a German princess, seizes the throne from her mentally-unstable husband and begins to rule the vast empire that is Russia. She is largely responsible for the partition of Poland. Together she and her lover Potemkin conquer Ukraine and Crimea. It hardly needs stating that these territories are at the center of today’s headlines. Thus we learn a great deal about the background of the current war. Their affair was unbridled but it went far beyond sex. It was a marriage of intellects and politics. Ultimately, they agreed to share power, leaving each of them free to take younger lovers. This is another book about a woman operating in a man’s world, wielding power ruthlessly and giving free rein to her sexuality.

Catherine the Great & Potemkin

By Simon Sebag Montefiore,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Catherine the Great & Potemkin as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A widely acclaimed biography from thebestselling author of The Romanovs: "One of the great love stories of history” (The Economist) between Catherine the Great and the wildly flamboyant and talented Prince Potemkin. • "Captures the genius of two extraordinary Enlightenment figures—and of the age as well." —The Wall Street Journal

Catherine the Great was a woman of notorious passion and imperial ambition. Prince Potemkin was the love of her life and her co-ruler. Together they seized Ukraine and Crimea, territories that define the Russian sphere of influence to this day. Their affair was so tumultuous that they negotiated an arrangement…


Who am I?

For a long time I’ve been fascinated by the challenge of writing novels with strong female protagonists—this is what I set out to do with my books Romance Language and The Diplomatic Coup. Is a male author capable of doing this? Read the books and judge for yourself. I’m fascinated by history, politics, and the pursuit of power both in real life and fiction. Lately, I’ve become more alarmed about the threat posed to the world by a resurgent Russia determined to undermine western democracy and that interest also influenced my choices. As a former journalist, I covered some of the world’s most important leaders and biggest stories and got to see them operating firsthand. 


I wrote...

The Diplomatic Coup

By Alan Elsner,

Book cover of The Diplomatic Coup

What is my book about?

The Diplomatic Coup is a thriller with a strong female protagonist based on the life of a reporter covering the US State Department. It is eerily prophetic featuring a politician with no regard for democracy determined to use any and all means to seize power. Written by a former State Department correspondent, this book is full of authentic detail. What's it like to travel on the plane of the Secretary of State, to file stories under pressure, to attend press conferences with heads of state? Only someone who has really been there can answer these questions. It also features a sweet and unusual love affair and a pounding climax.

Book cover of Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely

In this lively, elegant biography, Andrew Curran retraces the intellectual itinerary of a major eighteenth-century philosopher, Denis Diderot. Very few people ever lived and wrote with as much confidence in the power of posterity to recognize their greatness and the importance of their intellectual contribution after their death. Diderot, indeed, had to hide a significant proportion of his writings because they were just too controversial and ahead of their time. He believed that nothing was more inspirational than to work for the admiration of those who have yet to be born. Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely is a marvelous introduction to the Enlightenment through the portrait of one of its major thinkers, and a great way to understand why people write books for those they will never meet.

Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely

By Andrew S. Curran,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Best Book of the Year – Kirkus Reviews

A spirited biography of the prophetic and sympathetic philosopher who helped build the foundations of the modern world.

Denis Diderot is often associated with the decades-long battle to bring the world’s first comprehensive Encyclopédie into existence. But his most daring writing took place in the shadows. Thrown into prison for his atheism in 1749, Diderot decided to reserve his best books for posterity–for us, in fact. In the astonishing cache of unpublished writings left behind after his death, Diderot challenged virtually all of his century's accepted truths, from the sanctity of monarchy,…


Who am I?

I grew up in Bordeaux, a city that became prominent during the eighteenth century. My hometown inspired my love of eighteenth-century French studies, which led me to the Sorbonne, then to Yale University where I earned a PhD. Today, I am an Associate Professor at The Ohio State University. I am the author of eight novels and monographs published in France and the US, including American Pandemonium, Posthumous America, and Sentinel Island. My work explores numerous genres to question a number of recurring themes: exile and the representation of otherness; nostalgia and the experience of bereavement; the social impact of new technologies; America’s history and its troubled present.


I wrote...

The Paradoxes of Posterity

By Benjamin Hoffmann, Alan J. Singerman (translator),

Book cover of The Paradoxes of Posterity

What is my book about?

Why do people write? It has everything to do with being remembered by posterity. The Paradoxes of Posterity argue that the impetus for literary creation comes from a desire to transcend the mortality of the human condition through a work addressed to future generations. Refusing to turn their hope towards the spiritual immortality promised by religious systems, authors seek a symbolic form of perpetuity granted to the intellectual side of their person in the memory of those not yet born while they write. 

Benjamin Hoffmann illuminates the paradoxes inherent in the search for symbolic immortality: paradoxes of belief, identity, and mediation. Theoretically sophisticated and convincingly argued, this book contends that there is only one truly serious literary problem: the transmission of texts to posterity. 

A Public Empire

By Ekaterina Pravilova,

Book cover of A Public Empire: Property and the Quest for the Common Good in Imperial Russia

This is a remarkable book that defies categorization. Establishing a concept of property that existed between private property and the property of the state, Pravilova imaginatively unites a seemingly unrelated collection of topics: forests, rivers, icons, copyright, archaeological treasures, and much more besides. She offers a profoundly new way of thinking about property and about Russians’ attitudes towards ownership. Deeply rooted in the particularities of Russia, the book also raises issues of universal significance.

A Public Empire

By Ekaterina Pravilova,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Public Empire as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"Property rights" and "Russia" do not usually belong in the same sentence. Rather, our general image of the nation is of insecurity of private ownership and defenselessness in the face of the state. Many scholars have attributed Russia's long-term development problems to a failure to advance property rights for the modern age and blamed Russian intellectuals for their indifference to the issues of ownership. A Public Empire refutes this widely shared conventional wisdom and analyzes the emergence of Russian property regimes from the time of Catherine the Great through World War I and the revolutions of 1917. Most importantly, A…


Who am I?

I have been studying Russia and its history for over 30 years and find that it continues to intrigue me. Having previously focused my attention on religion and its imperial dimensions (including The Tsar’s Foreign Faiths, with Oxford University Press in 2014), I have more recently sought to understand the importance of Russia’s nineteenth century and I am now exploring the history of Russia’s territory with a view to writing a history of the longest border in the world. I teach at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas.


I wrote...

1837: Russia's Quiet Revolution

By Paul W. Werth,

Book cover of 1837: Russia's Quiet Revolution

What is my book about?

Historians often think of Russia before the 1860s in terms of conservative stasis, when the "gendarme of Europe" secured order beyond the country's borders and entrenched the autocratic system at home. This book offers a profoundly different vision.

Drawing on an extensive array of sources, it reveals that many of modern Russia's most distinctive and outstanding features can be traced back to 1837, a seemingly inconspicuous but in fact exceptional year. From the romantic death of Russia's greatest poet Alexander Pushkin in January to a colossal fire at the Winter Palace in December, Russia experienced much that was astonishing in 1837. The cumulative effect was profound. The country's integration accelerated, and a Russian nation began to emerge, embodied in new institutions and practices, within the larger empire. The result was a quiet revolution, after which Russia would never be the same.

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