Massie is so familiar with the figures of the Russian court that he (and consequently we) never feel lost. Among the personalities he presents, the Empress Elizabeth, Peter the Great’s daughter, is especially engaging. She had been placed on the throne through a coup that imprisoned the “rightful” tsar, the infant Ivan VI, and for the next 20 years indulged herself in privilege, a couple of wars, and fitful slackness (she habitually put off governmental business). She proved a positively queenly ruler, but was childless, so she coerced one of Peter’s grandsons, Peter III, to leave his beloved German state of Holstein and come to Russia and marry and impregnate the German princess Sophia (renamed Catherine by Elizabeth). Contrary to the amusing and kitschy Josef von Sternberg movie of Catherine’s life, "The Scarlett Empress," starring Marlene Dietrich, Peter III was not a half-wit. Peculiar, yes, but he had plenty of marbles and being Lutheran and culturally German, his distaste for Russian customs and religion are understandable.
From girlhood to power-player, Catherine is ever interesting and intelligent; she’s usually likable though not necessarily admirable. The basis of the first half of Massie’s biography is Catherine’s own memoir. She wrote lucidly and remarkably candidly about her miserable life as the wife of Peter III, who it seems never once slept with her: “Never did two minds resemble each other less. We had nothing in common in our tastes or ways of thinking.... I was constantly left to myself and suspicions surrounded me on all sides.”