This gripping, well written book about Russian Empress Catherine the Great introduced me to a non-England and France centered European history that I knew almost nothing about, and to the very human but inspiring Catherine II. Catherine was born to a German family of minor nobility, and being a girl she was a disappointment to her poor but socially ambitious mother. The lack of affection she experienced during her childhood prepared her well for the marriage her mother managed to arrange to the future Peter III, ruler of Russia. Peter was immature and petty, and extremely resentful that he’d been removed from his life in Prussia to be the heir of his childless aunt, Empress Elizabeth. Catherine bided her time, observing the Russian court and learning everything she could. One escape from her loveless marriage was reading, and she absorbed many of the beliefs and tenets of Enlightenment writers such as Voltaire and Diderot, who later became her friends and correspondents. Smart and well liked, Catherine was always interested in having the chance to rule. When her unpopular husband was overthrown in a coup she helped lead only six months after his aunt’s death, Catherine assumed power and began trying to apply the ideals of the Enlightenment to the feudal world of eighteenth century Russia. Though it had been her goal she was never able to free the serfs, and after the French Revolution her views became more conservative, but Catherine accomplished many great things for Russia during a fascinating era of history. She sought to involve citizens in the making of laws by authorizing councils that included all levels of Russian society, she expanded Russia’s boundaries into Ottoman Empire territory to gain a Black Sea port, she improved public health by her pioneering support of a vaccine for the bubonic plague, and she became one of Europe’s leading patrons of the arts. Catherine attracted the attention of the rest of Europe and brought Russia power and prestige. She worked tirelessly, rising by 6:00 every morning to deal with the business of the state, but she lived passionately too. After spending her early years married to a man uninterested in physical intimacy she had a series of twelve young lovers, including the military commander Potemkin. Before her rule, Russia was considered backwards by most Europeans. Catherine the Great forced them to change their minds. This is the first book I’ve read by Robert K. Massie, but now that I’ve discovered him I’m eager to read his Peter the Great and Nicolas and Alexandra.