A triptych of 18th century Empresses -- none of them distinguished sovereigns, sympathetically delineated by Longworth. Neither Catherine I, the simple peasant gift whom Peter the Great made his consort, nor Anne, Peter's niece who decorated her court with dwarfs and cretins, nor Elizabeth, Peter's luscious daughter, achieved anything like the stature of Catherine the Great but Longworth does his chivalrous best to exonerate them from the deprecations of historians who have labeled them, respectively, ""a sot, a sadist and a nymphomaniac."" Surrounded by court intrigue and vulnerable to the plots of the fractious and greedy aristocracy, all three ladies struggled to secure their shaky positions in a society which relegated women to subservient, decorative roles. As a result, none of the Empresses was equipped to rule, and during their reigns the condition of the peasantry worsened and the chronic financial crises of the government were aggravated by the growing opulence and voluptuousness of life at court. Yet Longworth credits all three, even the perverse and cruel Anne, with helping to civilize the brutish tastes of the Russian upper classes by introducing Western art and fashion to a backward land. Racine, Moliere and Corneille rendered in atrocious French may not seem like much of a legacy but after the Spartan regime of Peter the Great the court was eager to indulge in expensive affectations patterned on Versailles -- and all three women did have some few redeeming qualities. In any case Longworth wends his way gracefully through the glitter of the great balls, the building of the rococo palaces and the boudoir capers -- proving once again that male or female, the Romanovs excelled in corrupt glamour.