cover image Great Catherine

Great Catherine

Carolly Erickson. Crown Publishers, $25 (0pp) ISBN 978-0-517-59091-1

To her critics, Catherine the Great (1729-96), Empress of Russia, was an imperialist who eradicated Polish sovereignty and waged financially draining wars, an absolutist ruler who brought back the defunct secret police, an insatiable sexual adventuress and a possible accomplice in the murder of her husband Peter III. Historian and biographer Erickson ( Blood Mary ), in this sympathetic, vibrant portrait, presents a shrewd, headstrong, cultivated woman, a political reformer and supporter of education and the arts, who codified laws, built schools and asserted her independece in a land where women had low status. Born Sophie Augusta Fredericka, princess of a tiny German state, Catherine (the baptismal name she took upon joining the Russian Orthodox Church) rightly feared her tyrannical, drunken husband who wanted to dethrone her and replace her with his mistress. Catherine's menage a trois with Gregory Potemkin, her chief deputy, and her young Polish secretary, Peter Zavadovsky, elicited an avalanche of censure and gossip. Drawing on Catherine's memoirs and letters, Erickson has fashioned an engrossing, astonishingly vivid, if not always convincing portrait. (June)