She was pen pals with Voltaire , a hard-working single mother who always kept a lover — 12 of them over the years. She rewrote Russia’s laws, expanded its borders and powers, made America’s John Paul Jones briefly an admiral in her navy and became Europe’s greatest art collector. A gown in the Kremlin Armory testifies to her amazing waist — whisper-thin when she was young.

Catherine the Great ascended to the Russian throne when her husband, Peter III, was removed in a coup in 1762. She herself led 14,000 soldiers to arrest him, charging along on a white horse, in uniform, a sword at her side. She ruled for 34 years, going to bed at 10 p.m., rising at 6 a.m., drinking black coffee and getting to work, running her empire until she died of a stroke on Nov. 6, 1796, at age 67.

She wrote diligently, to her lovers, to her diplomats, to friends, and left detailed memoirs, all put to good use by Robert K. Massie, biographer of the tsars, who brings great authority to this sweeping account of Catherine and her times. His story of this epic life is warm, sure and confiding, even when plowing through yet another war with the Turks.

Catherine was a 14-year-old small-town German princess named Sophia when she was summoned to Russia by Empress Elizabeth, daughter of Peter the Great, who was looking for a wife for her nephew, Peter’s grandson, Peter III.

The intelligent and fortuitously demure Sophia passed muster and soon married Peter, her second cousin and a difficult young man brought up in Germany (his mother had married a German prince, and both parents died when he was young) by a domineering tutor who managed to stunt him emotionally and intellectually. Sophia obligingly gave up her Lutheran faith, embraced Russian Orthodoxy, took the name Catherine, and worked hard at becoming Russian, a transformation of little interest to Peter. That proved his undoing.

‘Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman’ by Robert K. Massie (Random House)

The marriage was awful. Catherine said it was never consummated. She retreated to books, immersing herself in the works of the Enlightenment. Peter occupied himself with drilling soldiers and missing Germany. Both took lovers. After Elizabeth died, Peter was crowned but quickly made himself unpopular, and Catherine, considering herself better fit to rule, was receptive to a coup. Peter acquiesced without a fight, was imprisoned and killed a week later in shadowy circumstances.

“Hatred of foreigners was the chief factor in the whole affair,” Catherine herself wrote, “and Peter III passed for a foreigner.”

Massie bravely leads us through a great fretwork of minor and significant nobility, everyone related to everyone else, most of them German, with a few Swedes, Austrians, French and English thrown in. With so many dates, realms, princes, grand duchesses, emperors, wits, towering philosophers and valorous soldiers steadily occupying about 600 pages, the author pauses from time to time to repeat, stopping just short of repetitiveness.

He leaves us frustrated only once. Early on, Massie mentions the steely ambition that will propel Catherine through some of history’s most remarkable moments. Yet he never really plumbs it. We see, however, that she is curious, disciplined and orderly. She relishes laughter, and she needs to be loved. She is very much alive.

Inspired by her reading of Montesquieu, stirred by friendships with Voltaire and Diderot, Catherine set out to draft laws providing for “the safety of every citizen.” She spent two to three hours a day for two years working on it. Torture would be prohibited, not only as inhumane but unreliable — agony made the victim say whatever he must to stop the pain. Serfs would be freed. Due process would be enshrined. Delegates to a Legislative Commission were selected to discuss the code, which in the end produced only disagreement. And then it was forgotten.

There were other reversals. The Pugachev revolt of 1774-75 killed thousands when an illiterate Cossack, speaking to the suffering of the serfs, set off civil war, with cruel reprisals from landlords. The French Revolution unnerved her, and she introduced censorship — Alexander Radishchev was sentenced to beheading for writing a book critical of serfdom. Catherine commuted his sentence to exile. (He was made a hero in the Soviet era, streets are named after him across Russia, and every schoolchild knows his name.)

Having put aside the ideals of the Enlightenment, Catherine settled down to making her control unshakeable and her empire more powerful, an impulse that has informed ensuing regimes, including the Soviet Union and today’s managed democracy.

Still, she insisted on being inoculated against smallpox in 1768, when most Europeans considered it too experimental and dangerous (though Thomas Jefferson had done so in 1766). When Diderot, who had compiled the Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment, was threatened by penury in 1775, she bought his entire library and hired him as its librarian. While America was declaring itself independent, she was signing a decree to establish the Bolshoi Theater. She filled the Hermitage with paintings by Rembrandt, Rubens and Van Dyck and hired the world’s best talent, though John Paul Jones was not to last long.

She cried when she quarreled with her lovers, and cherished the ones who offered intelligent conversation. She wanted more than a pretty face. The favorite of the favorites was Gregory Potemkin, he who built the supposedly fake “Potemkin” villages to impress her. This, Massie argues, is a myth. The villages were real.

Today, 215 years later, the authorities are still promising Enlightenment — now they call it modernization — and their people are still accusing them of building Potemkin villages. Catherine’s life is as instructive as ever, and Massie has made it into a compelling read.

Kathy Lally is The Washington Post’s Moscow bureau chief.


Portrait of a Woman

By Robert K. Massie

Random House. 625 pp. $35