Catherine the Great and her many lovers. Just don’t mention the horses…

Catherine the Great is one of the more famous Russian rulers. She was Empress for over 30 years in the late eighteenth century. But during and after a disastrous marriage, Catherine had many lovers – and there were even rumors that these lovers included animals. But did the human lovers help to make her a visionary who was ahead of her time? Rebecca Fachner explains.

Catherine the Great and her many lovers. Just don’t mention the horses…

Catherine the Great, circa 1745. By George Christoph Grooth,

Throughout history we hear about royals having affairs outside of their royal marriages, absolute power seeming to coincide with adding notches to regal bedposts.  Almost without exception, however, royal adultery is the prerogative of men, not women.  Which is probably why that is the main thing, although certainly not the only thing, that is fascinating about Catherine the Great, the lady who ruled Russia from 1762 to 1796.  Perhaps adultery is not strictly the correct word for her though, as several of her affairs were committed after her marriage had ended.

Before we get too deep into Catherine’s tortured marital history and her impressive list of ‘favorites’, to use the historically appropriate euphemism, this would be a good time to get the horse out of the way.  There is a persistent rumor that Catherine the Great was intimate with animals, specifically horses.  What is interesting about these rumors is that they date from her own lifetime, and were used as a rather blatant attempt to discredit her.  The rumors about a horse, or anything else, are nothing more than that – rumors.  There isn’t a scintilla of truth to any of it, and most of the people alive at the time knew it. Catherine’s political enemies gave credence to the rumors for several reasons: they already disliked her and wanted to see her reduced by ridicule, they were already predisposed to enjoying rumors that highlighted her unfitness to rule, and they didn’t like being politically bested by a woman.


The path to power

Catherine the Great was not born particularly great, nor was she born Catherine.  Her birth name was Sophie, and she was the daughter of a relatively minor German prince, from a small and impoverished principality not far from Berlin. Her parents were well connected, however, and Sophie was proposed as a consort for the heir to the Russian throne, Peter, nephew to the reigning Empress Elizabeth. As was usual for these matches, actual compatibility between the proposed couple was not a significant factor in the machinations of their elders, and Sophie moved to Russia, converted to Orthodoxy and became Catherine. 

Even by the poor standards of royal arranged marriages, Catherine and her new husband were a supreme mismatch almost from the very beginning.  Peter has been described as petty and small minded, mean and entitled.  It is fair to note that much of what we know about his character has come from his wife or those loyal to her, and thus may be exaggerated for effect.  Whatever the cause and whoever was at fault, the end result was that the two could barely stand to be in the same room together.  They had one child together, future Emperor Paul, born nine long years into their marriage.  Catherine hinted in her memoirs that Peter was impotent, hence the long delay in having a child.  It has even been suggested that Paul was not Peter’s son, that he was actually the son of Catherine’s lover, Sergei Saltykov.  Catherine herself encouraged these rumors, although it appears more out of malice towards her son than anything else.  Paul actually strongly resembled Peter, rather than the handsome Saltykov. 

Peter inherited the throne in January 1762, but was a strong Germanophile. Even worse, he hated all things Russian, and allied himself with several pro-German groups in the Russian court.  This, combined with his acerbic personality, quickly caused a conspiracy to form against him and he was deposed in July 1762.  Catherine was certainly the beneficiary and probably the architect of the coup that overthrew him, and was quickly crowned Empress in her own right. 



She never married again, but took a succession of lovers.  Saltykov was the first, followed by Stanislaus Poniatowski and Grigory Orlov, both while she was still married to Peter.  In fact, she was heavily pregnant with Orlov’s child when Peter ascended the throne.  She bore both Poniatowski and Orlov children; Poniatoski’s little girl, Anna, did not live long, but Orlov’s son Alexis became Count Bobrinsky under his half brother Paul’s reign.  Gregory Orlov was a key ally in the coup to overthrow her husband and they remained close for many years after she became Empress.  After her affair with Orlov ended she began an affair with Grigory Potemkin, to whom she remained closely connected for the rest of his life, even though her affair with Potemkin did not last as long as her affair with Orlov.  They remained so close, in fact, that he personally chose many of her lovers after their affair had ended.

If you were going to have an affair with a monarch, you could do a lot worse than Catherine.  She was extremely generous to her former (and current) lovers, showering them with gifts, jewels and offices.  She made one of her lovers a king, which is a fairly decent parting gift by any standards. It wasn’t a king of Russia, but of Poland, and technically Poniatowski was elected, but he was strongly supported by Catherine at a time when Russian support meant a great deal in Poland.  Potemkin was made the head of all Russian military forces, later becoming Governor of several new southern provinces that he had conquered for Russia.  Orlov was given the title of Count, a palace in St. Petersburg, and several impressive positions in her government.  Later lovers were given pensions, jewels, lands, and occasionally titles, although they did not enjoy anywhere near the political influence that her early lovers had wielded.


Ahead of her time…

She had lovers right up until the end of her life, and although she aged, her lovers tended to remain in their 20s.  She spent her closing years in a similar fashion to many male monarchs, even many non-royal men: using her power and money to purchase the affections of ever-younger partners.  Her last lover, Count Zubov, was more than 40 years younger than Catherine, and it was about this time that the rumors of the horse started to circulate as a way to ridicule her obvious interest in men.  It is probable that her last favorites were more companions than lovers, but it is evident that she enjoyed the company of men throughout her life, something that was in no way an accepted practice for women of her time, either in Russia or anywhere else. Catherine was ahead of her time as a ruler and as a woman, but she would not have identified herself as a feminist.  She was certainly pre-feminist in her attitudes toward men, if nothing else.  And that is probably why we remain interested in her.  She is the eighteenth century’s equivalent of celebrity gossip, with the added bonus of bending some gender roles into the bargain.


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