The most striking thing about the Empress Catherine II, who ruled Russia for 34 years after overthrowing her husband in a coup, is that she lived like a man. After her unsatisfactory first marriage she took a series of lovers, starting with men of her own age and abilities but moving on to a string of what would now be called toyboys. The last, Platon Zubov, was only 22 when 60-year-old Catherine chose him; he was approved by Prince Grigory Potemkin, a former lover who sometimes took on the responsibility of finding new candidates for the Empress's affections.
There seems little doubt that Catherine enjoyed sex and her behaviour, if she had been a male monarch, would hardly have been remarkable in the 18th century. But it scandalised her court, prompting censorious gossip and disapproving reports from ambassadors. When she dumped an earlier favourite, Semyon Zorich, for Ivan Rimsky-Korsakov (ancestor of the composer), the British ambassador Sir James Harris reported to his masters that the switch "gives rise to many unpleasant reflections, and sinks in the eyes of foreigners the reputation of the Empress".
There may have been an element of jealousy in such reactions for Catherine showered her lovers with honours and some enjoyed extraordinary influence at court. But her frank sexual appetite gave rise to the most notorious anecdote associated with her name: the bizarre canard that she died having sex with a stallion in a specially-constructed frame. A German visitor to Russia had published the calumny that Russians had a tendency to commit sodomy with horses, and Catherine was an enthusiastic rider in youth. Even so, it's hard to imagine a slander which could more strongly express the misogyny and sexual disgust that motivated the Empress's detractors.
There are plenty of charges that could legitimately be made against Catherine. This most rational and scientific of monarchs - she championed inoculation against smallpox, inviting its English pioneer Thomas Dimsdale to Russia in 1768 to try it on herself and her son - achieved power through a coup against her husband, Peter III. She did nothing to prevent his murder, even if she did not actually order it. Her reforms of local government and education were enlightened but, despite her correspondence with philosophers such as Voltaire and Diderot, she wielded absolute power in a court frequently torn apart by whims and intrigues.
Towards the end of her reign, this self-described "republican soul" was horrified by the French revolution, ordering six weeks' mourning for the death of Louis XVI, "cruelly murdered by his rebellious subjects". Indeed Catherine's latest biographer, Virginia Rounding, points out that the first two years of the reign of an Empress who "set so much store by reason and enlightened principles" were marked by assassinations - of Peter and the previously-deposed Ivan VI - and an execution.
The child-emperor Ivan had been overthrown by Peter's aunt, the Empress Elizabeth, who unintentionally set in train her nephew's downfall when she married him off in 1745 to an obscure princess, Sophie Frederica Auguste of Anhalt-Zerbst - one of 300 principalities that then made up Germany.
Sophie took the name Catherine when she converted to the Orthodox church. She was summoned to the Russian court as a prospective bride in 1744, aged 14, travelling to the old capital, Moscow, with her mother, Princess Johanna Elizabeth. Sophie's father was excluded from the invitation, which brought about their parting, while her mother was a self-centred and hypochondriac companion.
Rounding records their journey in minute detail, quoting original sources at a length which may seem protracted to the general reader. If she had been more selective, especially about who took part in the court's interminable ceremonies, it might have been a livelier read; it would also have made sense, especially in view of the subtitle, to have more analysis of Catherine's inner life and character.
This is fruitful territory for speculation. Catherine soon discovered that her husband-to-be was painfully immature, spending most of his time in his room playing soldiers. Not long before the wedding, the groom contracted smallpox, which he survived with his appearance much changed; his face was swollen and badly scarred, to a point where Catherine recorded that she found him "frightful to look at".
It was not an auspicious start to married life and, after her mother was packed off home, the couple had little to do with each other. She later wrote that "after the dogs I was the most miserable creature in the world". The marriage was not consummated for years, to the consternation of Empress Elizabeth, who expected an heir. After earnest discussions of what might be wrong, a young widow was recruited to initiate the Grand-Duke into the mysteries of sex. By this time Catherine was passionately in love with someone herself, the dashing chamberlain Sergei Saltykov.
Rounding speculates that her own initiation occurred with both men at roughly the same time in 1752. Two years later she gave birth to a son - the Grand-Duke Paul, later Tsar Paul I - whose paternity has never been established with certainty. Rounding inclines to the view that he was her husband's child.
The baby was immediately removed by Elizabeth, who took over his care and education, and it was made clear to Catherine that she was of no account now she had done her duty; instead of learning from her own distress at this time, she would one day impose a very similar regime on her daughter-in-law. The lesson she derived, according to Rounding, was that "she would have to create her own destiny in Russia".
That she did so after enduring such a lengthy catalogue of separation, loss and despair in her youth explains much about her reign, not least her habit of cauterising herself against painful emotions, her own and other people's. This is a familiar strategy, more common in men than women, and it is not surprising that it produced a ruler who was Great in the male sense: intellectually gifted, mildly reformist but distracted by transient passions.
Joan Smith's 'Moralities' is published by Penguin