Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Massie's research into the life of Catherine II is extensive (for example, he used three different translations of her Memoirs) and wide-ranging and the writing style is engaging enough to almost make one forget this is a nearly 600 page book (it's the weight that gives it away).
While I knew something about her life, there was much I hadn't and was fascinated to learn. I knew she was a German princess, but not that it was of some small, unimportant state. I knew she and her mother didn't get along, but not the extent of the difficulties. Etc. Intertwined with her story is that of those around her, so we meet people like Empress Elizabeth and Voltaire and Potemkin fully-fleshed out rather than as sketches.
Several rumors are debunked here, like the one about the Potemkin Village (Massie states that those that talked about them weren't on her trip down the Dnieper, and those that were on the trip never mentioned anything amiss - even those representatives of foreign governments who would certainly have done so had there been fakery). Nothing about horses, however, except that she didn't like to ride sidesaddle.
I really wanted this to be a solid 5, but... I just couldn't do it. The missing star is due to four factors: one, there were phrases that were used again and again to describe people (eg, virtually every time an Orlov is mentioned, we hear again that she owes her throne to them); two, there's an entirely unnecessary chapter devoted to the intricacies of the French Revolution (which is interesting in itself, but goes into detail not needed for a book about Catherine); three, there were pieces that I felt were missing, as when she is persuaded that Lutheranism and Russian Orthodoxy are "virtually the same", yet many readers may not understand the depth of the differences between the two; and four, while mentioning many times that Gregory Orlov was "the father of her son, Bobrinskoy" we never actually learn what happened to his child.
Having read his Nicholas and Alexandra, I now think I'll try to find Peter the Great!