At the International Fur Trade Federation held in Moscow last November guests were treated to an unusual musical recital. In the lavish surroundings of the State Historical Museum on Red Square, a young soprano, Maria Vinenkova, sang three arias from Russia’s first ever Broadway–style musical.

A page from Sally Feldman's A Tsar is Born, New Humanist March/April 2008Due to premiere in Ekaterinburg in April, the show is based on the life of Catherine the Great – at the same time a natural choice of subject and an intriguing one. In many ways, hers is an ideal story for a West End hit, seething with love and passion, murder and betrayal, the grand panorama of politics, war and power. And for a Russia straining to prove its worth as a modern, flourishing capitalist success, what could be a better passport to acceptance than a musical genre born and bred in the West?

And yet it’s difficult to imagine quite what kind of a musical can possibly do justice to Catherine’s complex magnificence. She was both a brutal authoritarian and a committed reformer, a flamboyant adventuress with a string of lovers and a shrewd political operator who managed to effect a coup to dethrone her husband, then very probably concurred in his murder, before setting out to modernise, secularise and Westernise her empire.

So will she be presented on stage as a misunderstood Kate, needing to be kissed into submission? A femme fatale Evita-style, hypnotising the crowds with her dissembling rhetoric? An enlightened monarch, herald of the great revolution? Or a tyrannical despot crazed with power?

What is so fascinating about Catherine is that she was all of these, an embodiment of myriad contradictions and dilemmas. She was the archetypal “enlightened despot”, crushing dissent and ruling her expanding empire with iron discipline. “Russia became so powerful under Catherine that no one could fire a cannon anywhere in Europe without consulting her first,” commented the musical’s composer Sergei Dreznin. “If she were corresponding with God,” Prussia’s Frederick the Great once said, “she would claim at least equal rank.”

At the same time, though, Catherine was also an intellectual who was genuinely inspired and fascinated by learning, culture and, above all, ideas. “I am one of the people who love the why of things,” she wrote. Her Great Instruction, which aimed to create a legal constitution for Russia, was a digest of thoughts and principles culled from the works of the most influential Enlightenment thinkers.

Catherine also maintained a long correspondence with Voltaire, who hailed her as a Northern star. And while she voraciously set out to furnish her palaces with great European treasures, she wasn’t just doing it for show. She would employ sophisticated art connoisseurs to seek out old masters and rare objects for what became her greatest legacy: the Hermitage Museum.

One of her agents was the philosopher Denis Diderot, architect of the Enlightenment Bible, the Encyclopédie. According to Virginia Rounding in her recent biography, Catherine was an avid reader of the Encyclopédie and, when Diderot was in such dire financial straits that he had to put his library up for sale, Catherine bought it for more than the asking price on condition that it remained in his home during his lifetime. She also threw in an extra 1,000 livres a year for him to act as librarian.

Eventually she persuaded Diderot to spend time at her court, to provide her with instruction and philosophical conversation. Their spiky, uneasy and yet intimate relationship is the subject of Malcolm Bradbury’s novel To The Hermitage, in which he points out that it was far from unusual for European monarchs to court the great philosophers of the day. Queen Christina of Sweden inveigled René Descartes to come and join her at court. A hundred years later, Frederick the Great invited Voltaire. These monarchs chose the French philosophes to demonstrate how enlightened, educated and informed they were, but also how fashionable. Philosophers were the glittering celebrities of the time, intellectual court jesters who could enhance the image of rulers without unduly threatening their supreme power.

It was this tension between ideas of liberation and their harsh realities that characterised Catherine’s tutorials with Diderot. “If I had followed his advice,” she wrote to the Comte de Segur, “everything would have been turned upside down in my Empire; legislation, administration, politics, finance – I would have upset everything in order to substitute impractical theories for them.”

She went on to report her now famous remarks to him. “Monsieur Diderot, I have listened with the greatest pleasure to everything which your brilliant mind has inspired you to say; but with all your grand principles, which I understand perfectly well, one could produce good books and bad governance. You forget in all your plans of reform the difference between our two positions: you work only on paper, which permits everything; it is uniform, supple, and presents no obstacles either to your imagination or to your pen; whereas in my case, poor Empress that I am, I work on human parchment, which is on the contrary irritable and sensitive.”

Diderot’s growing impatience with Catherine, her refusal to link ideas with action, is brilliantly captured in Bradbury’s dramatisation of their dialogues:

SHE: Tell me, sir, have you read my ‘Great Instruction’?
HE: The ‘Grand Nakaz’? Of course. The state censor banned it in Paris. I read it immediately.
SHE: And your opinion?
HE: I thought it was a … really great instruction. I admired it profoundly. A model for all civilised societies. Such a pity the Great Instruction’s only a Faint Suggestion.
SHE: I’m sorry?
HE: I understand you’ve yet to put it into practice.

And that, of course, is what she was quite unable to do. As Bradbury cuttingly remarks in his opening page, when Diderot first arrives at the palace: “Our Cunning, Beautiful, Russian Despot has succeeded in dressing herself up in the false clothes of liberalism yet again.”

Catherine loved the intellectual challenge of the new thinking but refused to apply it to her own position. What she did do, though, was adopt the techniques of soft government to reinforce her supremacy.

“It is not as easy as you think to see your will fulfilled,” she explained to Prince Potemkin’s secretary, Popov. “In the first place my orders would not be carried out unless they were the kind of orders which could be carried out … I take advice, I consult … and when I am already convinced in advance of general approval I issue my orders and have the pleasure of observing what you call blind obedience. And that is the foundation of unlimited power!”

She may have found democratic ideals seductive, but Catherine had little patience with the common people. She adamantly refused to liberate the serfs, who were little more than indentured slaves. “What do cobblers know about ruling?” she snorted on hearing of the revolution in France. Once regarded as the muse of Enlightenment thinkers and even as the midwife of the American Revolution, she was shocked and revolted by both events, referring to the spread of French ideas as “poison” which she was determined to suppress in Russia.

“Far from a revolutionary,” explains Simon Sebag Montefiore in Catherine the Great and Potemkin, “she was a believer in Russian absolutism. Indeed, most of the philosophes themselves, those enemies of superstition, were not democrats, just advocates of reason, law and order imposed from above. Catherine was sincere, but there was an element of window-dressing, for it showed her confidence and Russia’s stability.”

Catherine’s inability to connect theory with practice, ideas with action, is exemplified in her torrid love life and many lovers, for which she is so frequently and cruelly ridiculed. Too often, she has been unfairly caricatured as an unfulfilled victim, searching for love and endlessly disappointed. The reality was less straightforward.

It’s certainly true that her early marriage to the simpleton Peter, heir to the Russian throne, was disastrous and very probably unconsummated. Indeed, she was covertly encouraged to take a lover in order to produce a much-needed heir. Once she was free of Peter she was able to assume complete power. And in order to retain it she needed to remain independent, just as Elizabeth I had to two centuries earlier. But far from remaining unsatisfied and unloved, Catherine developed a two-tier approach to the men in her life. Those who displayed intellect and ability were promoted in government, given high office and huge power even after the romantic affairs ended. Others, those strapping young “gentlemen of the bedchamber”, satisfied her physical needs.

One man, however, managed to combine an animal physicality with an immense intellect and he, according to Sebag Montefiore, was the love of her life. “She was never bored with Potemkin and always bored without him: he was protean, creative and always original. When she had not seen him for a while, she grumbled: ‘I’m bored to death. When will I see you again?’ But, as so often happens in love affairs, the laughter and the love-making seemed to lead inexorably to each other.”

Ultimately, though, Catherine simply couldn’t bear the intensity of her love for Potemkin. Passion, she discovered, was a threat to the quality she most treasured: reason.

“Catherine had no doubts that she could hold her own in conversation with the most advanced philosophers of her age,” writes Rounding. “She could not, however, quite reconcile the image of herself as an intellectual with the mad and girlish lover she seemed to have become. ‘How awful it is for someone with a mind to lose it!’ she wrote to Potemkin. ‘I want you to love me. I want to appear lovable to you. But I only show you madness and extreme weakness.’”

And so the scorching love affair between Catherine and Potemkin was replaced by a more mature and rational relationship, possibly even resulting in a secret form of marriage, in which Catherine appears to have divorced her reason from her passion, her lust for Potemkin from her admiration for his mind. Having chosen the statesman and strategist Potemkin over the magnetic, lustful lover, she turned in later life to a series of increasingly young lovers to satisfy her.

But despite their tumultuous rows and jealousies, infidelities and compromises, Catherine and Potemkin’s was, as Sebag Montefiore demonstrates, a great imperial love affair. They were joint rulers of a massive empire, bonded by power and duty and utterly devoted. But the one passion that was more powerful than her love for Potemkin was her ambition for Russia. Her strategy was to underline her empire’s greatness by making it ever greater. And for this she relied on Potemkin, who was outstandingly successful as a politician, able to quell rebellions and muster support for his empress. Above all, he was a brilliant military strategist, responsible for all of the significant advances associated with her reign: the conquering of Turkey, the inroads into the Ottoman empire, the decimation of Poland. It was very largely due to her chief advisors, but especially Potemkin, that under Catherine Russia expanded to the west and the south, stretching, as one aria in the musical puts it, “from the Arctic ocean to the Crimean shores”.

It was a later dictator, Joseph Stalin, who recognised that Catherine’s greatness “lay in her choice of Prince Potemkin and other such talented lovers and officials to govern the State.” And Vladimir Putin, a confessed admirer of Stalin, also bears an uncanny political resemblance to Catherine. They share a passionate patriotism, devout religious beliefs and, more than anything, a ruthless exercise of absolute power, which has always appealed to Russian sensibilities. As Michael Binyon points out, this is a nation that has always had a fondness for autocratic rule. That is why Church and Communist party have become almost interchangeable. They’re the new Tsars.

Putin, a former KGB colonel, has made liberal use of his secret police, just as Catherine relied on hers. Both invoked nationalism as a key to popularity, even though Catherine was from Prussia and painstakingly acquired her Russian persona.

“It’s possible,” observed the Independent’s Moscow correspondent Shaun Walker recently, “that Vladimir Putin’s chief ideologist, Vadislav Surkov, read a few biographies of Catherine before coining the term ‘sovereign democracy’ to describe the Kremlin’s idiosyncratic notion of democratic development.”

Jay Winik, author of The Great Upheaval, an analysis of the interrelationships of the major political powers during the 1700s, goes further. “If the West is truly going to come to grips with Putin and a resurrected Russian state, it would do well to see him not as something relatively new but as something old, drawing on historical routes stretching back to the 18th century and Catherine the Great. Indeed, it is far more likely that Putin and his allies are following not the ghosts of Stalin and Khrushchev but spiritual masters such as Empress Catherine in seeking to reestablish Russia as a great nation on the world stage.”

Putin’s influence has barely been diminished by his replacement. Indeed, he more or less handpicked him, just as the ancient Tsars and Empresses used to appoint theirs. His successor, Dmitry Medvedev, already appears to be advancing Putin’s courting of wealth and glamour. And this, too, echoes the aspirations of Catherine, who sought to emulate and even to outclass the sumptuous luxury of the European courts and major cities.

Like Catherine, Putin is also a dogged expansionist. “Having just grabbed a piece of the Arctic the size of Western Europe,” Winik comments, “the Russian military has announced ambitious plans to establish a permanent presence in the Mediterranean for the first time since the end of the Cold War.”

Russian bomber patrols have recently been made over the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic oceans and come close to the borders of Nato airspace. They’ve even approached the Bay of Biscay off France and Spain to test-launch missiles, as well as setting their sights on the eastern Mediterranean. Only last month, in one of his last speeches as president, Putin warned: “It’s clear that a new arms race is unfolding in the world.”

So it seems unlikely that the new musical will dwell on the progressive, ardent idealism of the Empress, and it certainly won’t celebrate the triumphs of the Revolution. Like Putin himself, it will be proud, patriotic, smart and flashy but without an underlying steely intellect. For despite the parallels between the two absolute rulers, Vladimir Putin betrays none of Catherine’s lust for knowledge, art and culture and certainly not her passion for reform or for enlightenment.

Catherine’s anguished struggles between reason and desire, ideas and action, destructive love and overweening ambition, are not really the stuff of Broadway musicals at all. They are far too grand and sweeping, too dangerous and Wagnerian, too brimming with forbidden passion and power. Her life should be Die Walküre and Tristan und Isolde, towering trumpets and swelling strings, fat ladies singing and powerful basses swooning.

But the My Fair Lady version will play like a dream in Putin’s Russia.