Massie’s book on Catherine the Great is first and foremost a biography, and never loses sight of this fact. As an empress, there is a temptation to equate her with the state, and end up with more of a history of Russia during her reign. I wouldn’t have minded that, but instead the focus is mostly kept on Catherine herself.

However this is one of the best biographies I’ve read (I don’t read a lot of them) for getting a true sense of the person that is the subject of the book. It is a decidedly sympathetic view (aided by the extensive use of her autobiography for the first part of her life), but this helps with gaining a sense of the ideals she aspired to. Further, the focus is not so narrow that Catherine is the only person you get to know in these pages. Naturally, both Peter III and Empress Elizabeth get a lot of time and attention, and while there there are a lot of other people in these pages, they are the only other ones that get a lot of attention.

As ever, Massie is a great writer, and really brings the 18th century to life. Chapters are generally organized around a subject, so while this is generally a chronological telling, there is also a certain amount of back-and-forth, which gets annoyingly prominent right at the end. Since Catherine did not directly lead in her few wars, there is less of that side of things compared to Massie’s Peter the Great, and instead there is a lot of attention paid to her relationship with Enlightenment values.