Troyat's smirks and shrugs, half-inappropriate in a biographer of Catherine the Great (1980), are wholly inappropriate to dealing with her grandson Alexander I. The abiding questions of Alexander's life--his sincerity as a reformer, his capabilities as a commander, his turn to religious devotion-are quashed by treating him from the outset as a dissimulator, ""a weak reed,"" an oscillator, an opportunist. Growing up, he humors both his advanced-thinking grandmother and his hidebound father; as a young monarch, he wavers ""between initiative and tradition, between the desire to forge ahead and the fear of losing an ounce of his authority."" (So, naturally, he frees the serfs but doesn't make landowners of them.) Troyat, who sees everything in personal terms, has no apparent acquaintance with the political concept of enlightened autocracy (or council-chamber pragmatism). Neither, in foreign affairs, does he recognize the imperatives of national prestige: ""He forgot the wretched fate of the serfs in his own country and dreamed of the international fame of Catherine the Great."" Thereafter, the Battle of Austerlitz, Alexander's great humiliation, is over in a page; his historic meeting with Napoleon--on a raft mid-river at Tilsit--reduces almost to apocryphal words and conjectural emotions', the Congress of Vienna (Alexander, Metternich, Talleyrand, et al.) quickly adjourns from the conference table to the drawing room (where ""the licentious Princess Bragation"" is rejected by Talleyrand, ""the virtuous Empress Elizabeth"" encounters an old lover, etc.). As for Alexander's religiosity, well: ""No doubt he was satiated with glory. . . . The vanity of the noblest human enterprises deprived him of all incentive and brought him nearer to God."" No depth of characterization, no historical substance, no evidence of scholarship. . . and not much fun, either, once Alexander weds the nubile Elizabeth and wicked old Catherine dies. Alan Palmer's solid and insightful Alexander I (1974) also has more genuine vitality.