An intriguing biography of a ruler whose ruthlessness encompassed art.



The self-aggrandizing Catherine II (1729-1796) was an obsessive, voracious collector.

As art journalist Jaques (A Love for the Beautiful: Discovering America’s Hidden Art, 2012) amply shows in this well-researched biography, Catherine amassed paintings, sculpture, books, jewels, furniture, furs, and palaces not because she was an aesthete, but “to legitimize her shaky claim to rule and reinvent herself as Russia’s enlightened ruler.” Married at 16 to the ineffectual Grand Duke Peter in 1762, with a lover’s help, she staged a coup and installed herself as empress. Shortly after, Peter was murdered. Besides legitimizing her claim to rule, Catherine wanted to put Russia on the international stage as a sophisticated, cultivated nation. By 1791, writes the author, her museum at the Hermitage boasted paintings by Europe’s major artists, 38,000 books, 10,000 engraved gems, 10,000 drawings, and an extensive natural history collection. She commissioned the best European jewelers to create “rings, earrings, snuffboxes, and exquisite gem flower bouquets.” At the Winter Palace, she filled her diamond chamber with tiaras, aigrettes, hairpins, and a 189-carat diamond “the size of an egg,” she boasted to her friend Voltaire. Notorious for her spending, she also was infamous for a succession of ever younger lovers, bestowing riches and titles upon them as parting gifts. The longest of her relationships was with Grigori Potemkin, who emerged as her co-ruler, persuading her to annex the Crimea. In addition to augmenting Russia’s dominion, the annexation enriched Potemkin with large parcels of land and serfs to toil on them. Jaques notes that Catherine had “drained Russia’s treasury” by 1789 but does not explain the next seven years of unceasing spending. Russia’s opulence did not fool the visiting Swedish king. “These people are not like those in the rest of Europe,” he remarked. “They have the politeness, the brilliance, the grandeur, the wit and the vices, but they do not have the virtues.” The author provides a unique perspective on the woman who “transformed Russia from a northern backwater to global superpower.”

An intriguing biography of a ruler whose ruthlessness encompassed art.

Pub Date: April 15, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-60598-972-3

Page Count: 480

Publisher: Pegasus

Review Posted Online: Dec. 23, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2016

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If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.


The authors have created a sort of anti-Book of Virtues in this encyclopedic compendium of the ways and means of power.

Everyone wants power and everyone is in a constant duplicitous game to gain more power at the expense of others, according to Greene, a screenwriter and former editor at Esquire (Elffers, a book packager, designed the volume, with its attractive marginalia). We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. This power game can be played well or poorly, and in these 48 laws culled from the history and wisdom of the world’s greatest power players are the rules that must be followed to win. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Each law, however, gets its own chapter: “Conceal Your Intentions,” “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,” and so on. Each chapter is conveniently broken down into sections on what happened to those who transgressed or observed the particular law, the key elements in this law, and ways to defensively reverse this law when it’s used against you. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught. While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. We are told, for instance, to “be conspicuous at all cost,” then told to “behave like others.” More seriously, Greene never really defines “power,” and he merely asserts, rather than offers evidence for, the Hobbesian world of all against all in which he insists we live. The world may be like this at times, but often it isn’t. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project.

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-88146-5

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998

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The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the...


Elie Wiesel spent his early years in a small Transylvanian town as one of four children. 

He was the only one of the family to survive what Francois Maurois, in his introduction, calls the "human holocaust" of the persecution of the Jews, which began with the restrictions, the singularization of the yellow star, the enclosure within the ghetto, and went on to the mass deportations to the ovens of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. There are unforgettable and horrifying scenes here in this spare and sombre memoir of this experience of the hanging of a child, of his first farewell with his father who leaves him an inheritance of a knife and a spoon, and of his last goodbye at Buchenwald his father's corpse is already cold let alone the long months of survival under unconscionable conditions. 

The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the sphere of suffering shared, and in this case extended to the death march itself, there is no spiritual or emotional legacy here to offset any reader reluctance.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2006

ISBN: 0374500010

Page Count: 120

Publisher: Hill & Wang

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2006

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