Russian history readers will welcome Robert K. Massie’s new biography of Catherine the Great. The Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Peter the Great, Nicholas and Alexandra, and The Romanovs accounts for the life of the young German princess who came to Russia at 14 and became its ruler for 34 years. Author Massie, who studied American history at Yale and European history at Oxford, reports in Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman (Random House) that the empress had a brilliant mind and an insatiable curiosity, devouring the works of Enlightenment philosophers. When she assumed power, he writes, she made an effort to apply their principles to her rule of what the press release rightly describes as the vast and backward Russian empire. Massie notes that Catherine was “intellectually opposed to serfdom”. As grand duchess, she proposed that serfs be freed every time an estate was sold, though Rhodes scholar Massie is far less contextual about America’s founding fathers owning slaves than he is about a monarch’s interest in the Enlightenment.

Besides Voltaire, Frederick the Great and Marie Antoinette, Catherine also knew and corresponded with the founder of the American navy, John Paul Jones, whom she met and considered for admiralty in the Russian Navy. Jones, who had heard of the post through the American minister to France, Thomas Jefferson, wrote that he was “entirely captivated by her and I put myself into her hands without making any stipulation for my personal advantage.” Massie writes that Catherine was determined to become the embodiment of the “benevolent despot” idealized by Montesquieu.

Praised by Voltaire as the equal of the greatest of classical philosophers, Empress Catherine II ruled Russia from 1729 until 1796, during which time she endured her scheming mother, who considered her daughter, born Sophia Augusta Fredericka, arrogant and rebellious. Of course, Catherine’s mother had become pregnant at 16 and, when the child who would become Catherine was born, mother refused to hold or caress Catherine, handing her off to servants and wet nurses. Catherine married an equally inaccessible husband, Peter, and had a son and heir Paul—and she took in countless young men for sex and companionship. Massie also accounts for her relationship with Gregory Potemkin, her true love and equal, whom Massie asserts may have also been her husband.

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman is a crisply written, factual narrative about a compelling person in history. She founded a hospital with her own money in order to prevent infanticide, oversaw the building of the Russian navy and became the first royal in the world to be injected with the smallpox vaccine (Jefferson beat her to it) which was an example to mystical people with irrational fears of medicine. More than anything, Massie shows how her active mind worked throughout history, as in this excerpt about Catherine’s childhood lessons about God and religion, during which she dared to ask about circumcision and wondered: “How can the infinite goodness of God be reconciled with the terrors of the Last Judgment? [Her tutor] Wagner, shouting that there were no rational answers to such questions, and that what he told her must be accepted on faith, threatened his pupil with his cane. … Later Sophia wrote, “I am convinced in my inmost soul that Herr Wagner was a blockhead.” She added, “All my life I have had this inclination to yield only to gentleness and reason—and to resist all pressure.”