When the living is easy

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Several summers ago I read three monumental books which I commend to you for your summer reading.

The books were “Peter the Great”, “Catherine the Great”, and “Nicholas and Alexandra”.  I read them in anticipation of the Russian River Cruise that Barbara and I embarked upon in early June, 2014. Robert K. Massie, the author, writes history with such interest that one cannot put the books down.

“Peter the Great” won the Pulitzer Prize in 1981. One reviewer summed it up with the words, “Against the monumental canvas of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe and Russia unfolds the magnificent story of Peter the Great, one of the most extraordinary rulers in history. Impetuous and stubborn, generous and cruel, tender and unforgiving, a man of enormous energy and complexity, Peter the Great is brought fully to life in this exceptional biography”. As Barbara and I walked the magnificent boulevards of St. Petersburg, we marveled at the tenacity and ingenuity of this ruler who raised one of the most beautiful cities in the world out of swamps and bogs.

 

Catherine the Great was the longest reigning female in the history of Russia. Reigning from 1762 to 1796, she brought the first works of art into the Hermitage, which was then the winter palace. Catherine’s reign was marked by vast territorial expansion, which greatly added to Russia’s coffers but did little to alleviate the suffering of her people. Even her attempts at governmental reforms were often bogged down by Russia’s vast bureaucracy. However, Catherine considered herself to be one of Europe’s most enlightened rulers, and many historians agree. She wrote numerous books, pamphlets and educational materials aimed at improving Russia’s education system. She was also a champion of the arts, keeping up a lifelong correspondence with Voltaire and other prominent minds of the era, creating one of the world’s most impressive art collections
in St. Petersburg’s Winter Palace (now home to the famed Hermitage Museum) and even trying her hand at composing opera. (A postscript: if you have Amazon streaming video watch “Ekaterina: The Rise of Catherine the Great”.)

One of my personal highlights on our trip was to visit Catherine’s Palace. Terribly damaged by Nazi shelling in World War II, it has now been restored to its original splendor.  In his commanding book, “Nicolas and Alexendra”, Robert K. Massie sweeps readers back to the extraordinary world of Imperial Russia to tell the story of the Romanovs’ lives: Nicholas’s political naïveté,

Alexandra’s obsession with the corrupt mystic Rasputin, and little Alexis’s brave struggle with hemophilia. Against a lavish backdrop of luxury and intrigue, Massie un- folds a powerful drama of passion and history. The story of a doomed empire and the death- marked royals who watched it crumble.

One caveat: the books are long, over 800 pages each. It took me four months to read all three. But I can tell you, it’s worth every minute of your time

 

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