I'm going to come right to the point: I loved Robert K. Massie's Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman (Random House). I can't imagine any literate person today having any idea of the history of Russia without having experienced Massie's sure hand in telling the story of some of its most notable figures, including of course Peter the Great and Nicholas and Alexandra. Of course these are larger-than-life figures with stories to match, but assimilating the material, making those stories comprehensible and human, is no small art.
In many ways, Catherine was the most remarkable of all: a German princess from a fairly obscure family, she was wrested from her homeland (and her not-so-happy childhood) by Empress Elizabeth of Russia with the single-minded intent of marrying Elizabeth's nephew Peter, actually also a German but nonetheless a bona-fide grandson of Peter the Great, in order to engender an heir who would continue the dynasty. Unlike her fiancé, Catherine took very seriously the notion of becoming Russian. She learned the language--although of course most court life and correspondence was carried on in French, in which she was also fluent--and converted to the Orthodox faith. And she waited: waited for Peter to enter puberty so they could get married, waited for years to have sexual relations with him after they were married.
Catherine's accomplishments are of course not wholly approvable by good liberals of the Twenty-First Century; to take one example, the multiple partitions of Poland (along with Prussia and Austria), which resulted in its complete extinction as a nation. On the other hand, what she accomplished was done in such a masterful way that one admires the skill even if not always admiring the result. And in other areas she in fact fell short of important goals that she wanted to achieve. Yes she was unable to come up with a way to abolish serfdom, but it is certainly clear that she was fully aware of it, how evil it was, and that she repeatedly tried to create a solution. Likewise for a comprehensive reform of the legal code, which commenced with a kind of summary or template that she wrote herself, but which ultimately could not be enacted. And through it all the sense of her as person comes through vividly; this is, after all, the portrait of a "woman", as the subtitle tells us.
As this is being written the news is filled with the group of clowns seeking the Republican nomination for President of the United States, and one is totally aware that we are very far from anyone in public life being called "the Great" (I'm not sure that there actually were any after Catherine). Massie, with his overwhelming knowledge and abundant story-telling skill, shows us how clearly the title was deserved by this remarkable woman.
— Jeremy Nussbaum