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The young Empress Catherine the Great.

Catherine the Great

Debunking the Horse Myth

?The salaciousness of a rumour often helps it survive?take Catherine the Great and how she is remembered. Catherine has been slandered for several centuries.

During and after the reign of the flamboyant and powerful Empress Catherine II of Russia, whose long rule led to the modernization of the Russian Empire, many urban legends arose, some false and others based on true events, concerning her sexual behaviour.

Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia was so infamous for her sexual freedom?that when she died?there was even a sexually themed rumour. I learnt about Catherine the Great at school, about how she modernised Russia, pioneered women?s education, enlisted Voltaire to her cause and presided over the age of the?Russian Enlightenment. Her kinky side, however, was rudely omitted from my education.

Catherine II of Russia (1729-1796) was one of history’s most unlikely rulers. After marrying into Russia’s Romanov family, she found herself part of a coup to unseat her husband and place her on the throne. The achievements of her reign, which lasted for 34 years, have often been overshadowed by her personal life, one of the most scandalous of her?or any?era. However, behind the rumour and gossip lay one of the most astute and skillful rulers in Russia’s long, turbulent history.

The rumour is that the lusty czarina was crushed to death while trying to make love to a stallion. The story holds that the harness holding the horse above her broke, and she was crushed. This story took root after her servants reported her visits to the stalls of Arabian stallions for long hours without supervision. Another story claiming that she died on the toilet when her seat broke under her is true only in small part: she did collapse in a bathroom from a stroke, but after that she died while being cared for in her bed. This tale was widely circulated and even jokingly referred to by Aleksandr Pushkin in one of his untitled poems. literal translation: “Decreed the orders, burned the fleets / And died boarding a vessel,” the last line can also be translated as “And died sitting down on the toilet.”) There existed also a version on alleged assassination, by spring blades hidden in a toilet seat.

Of course, it’s all completely false: Catherine died from a stroke in her bed at the age of 67. The fact that the horse legend has survived for over 200 years is testament to the wily persistence of rumour.

While that might not be true, it is true that Catherine had a rich love life with many courtiers. She also appointed official foot-ticklers who would pleasure her by tickling her feet while telling salacious stories or singing songs. The ticklers were selected from women of aristocratic birth. It was a highly coveted position due to the intimate relationship they built with the czarina. The ticklers might even have been present during some of Catherine?s sexual dalliances and refreshed the czarina between sessions by tickling her feet or giving her a smack on the bottom.

Catherine the Great was Tsarina of Russia, one of the most powerful women in European history. So how did the idea she died while attempting an unusual practice with a horse become one of the most virulent myths in modern history, transmitted by whispers in school playgrounds across the western world? It’s unfortunate that one of history’s most interesting women is known to most people as a beastite, but the combination of perverse rudeness and the relative foreignness of its subject makes this a perfect slander. People love hearing about sexual deviance, and they can believe it of a foreign person they don’t know much about.

During past centuries the easiest way for people to offend and verbally attack their female enemies was sex.

Marie Antoinette, the hated queen of France, was subjected to printed myths so deviant and obscene they would make spam emailers blush and certainly can’t be reproduced here. Catherine the Great was always going to attract rumours about her sex life, but her sexual appetite ? while modest by modern standards – meant that the rumours had to be even wilder to make up the ground.

Historians believe the horse myth originated in France, among the French upper classes, soon after Catherine’s death as a way to mar her legend. France and Russia were rivals, and they would continue to be on and off for a long time (particularly thanks to Napoleon), so both slated the citizens of the other. It still happens today just as easily as it happened to Catherine the Great

Catherine had many male lovers throughout her life, some of whom would reap political benefits from their relationship with her, and many of whom were significantly younger than her. In addition to her sexual relationships, her multiple illicit relationships with Russian royalty, a propensity to collect erotic furniture, and an atmosphere of palace intrigue cultivated by her son Paul I of Russia, led to negative portrayals of Catherine.

During her lifetime, she made many enemies throughout Europe. After her death, the horse myth probably emerged from the French upper class as a way to mar her legend. She was a woman in power with a promiscuous sex life. Her contemporaries were never comfortable with that. From France, the myth may have travelled into the American press, which was famous for printing scandals at the time. The press of our Founding Fathers makes the?National Enquirer?look tame.

The salaciousness of a rumour often helps it survive. People repeat shocking stories if only to see whether they can be confirmed, and the very act of repetition adds credibility to the story. Since bestiality has remained socially unacceptable, the myth about the ruler and her horse never lost its power to outrage.

Many rumours survive on shock value combined with a nugget of truth. Catherine the Great did not look for fulfillment in the royal stables, but she did handpick lovers from the royal cavalry.

Catherine the Great.

The woman whom history would remember as Catherine the Great, Russia?s longest-ruling female leader, was actually the eldest daughter of an impoverished Prussian prince. Born in 1729, Sophie von Anhalt-Zerbst enjoyed numerous marital prospects due to her mother?s well-regarded bloodlines. In 1744, 15-year-old Sophie was invited to Russia by Czarina Elizabeth, a daughter of Peter the Great who had assumed the Russian throne in a coup just three years earlier. The unmarried and childless Elizabeth had chosen her nephew Peter as heir and was now in search of his bride. Sophie, well trained by her ambitious mother and eager to please, made an immediate impact on Elizabeth, if not her intended husband.

She was taken to Russia to marry the young Grand Duke Peter, heir to the throne and not of a sane mind. The marriage took place on August 21, 1745, with the bride (a new convert to Orthodox Christianity) now bearing the name Ekaterina, or Catherine.

Catherine and her new husband had a rocky marriage from the start. Though the young Prussian princess had been imported to produce an heir, years passed without a child. Some historians believe Peter was unable to consummate the marriage, while others think he was infertile.

For seven years during their marriage Peter spent his time playing with toy soldiers and dogs and showed no interest in sex. In fact he had a physical disability, a very tight foreskin, which may have played an important part in that matter. Finally the empress Elizabeth gave Catherine the permission to take a lover, which she did and was soon pregnant. She convinced Peter it was his own child, as was the plan anyway. In the meantime he had been circumcised so that he could perform the sexual act.

Desperately unhappy in their married lives, Peter and Catherine both began extramarital affairs, she with Sergei Saltykov, a Russian military officer. When Catherine gave birth to a son, Paul, in 1754, gossips murmured that Saltykov?not Peter?had fathered him. Catherine herself gave credence to this rumor in her memoirs, going so far as to say that Empress Elizabeth had been complicit in permitting Catherine and Saltykov?s relationship. While historians today believe that Catherine?s claims were simply an attempt to discredit Peter and that he was indeed Paul?s father, there is little debate over the paternity of Catherine?s three additional children: It?s believed that none of them were fathered by Peter.

Catherine developed a taste for young soldiers. She had a special area built in her bedroom, which was curtained off and where she received her lovers. Gregory Orlov was her on and off lover for around thirteen years. He was said to possess excellent equipment, unbelievable ?stamina? and an insatiable appetite for sex.

The flamboyant and?powerful empress,?Russia?s longest-ruling female leader, had 22 male lovers throughout her life, many of them?significantly younger than her. But aside from her extra-marital affairs and multiple illicit relationships with Russian royalty, Catherine also had a habit?of collecting sexually charged?furniture and even kept an erotic cabinet; rooms stuffed with eccentric period pornography?and walls covered in sexually explicit art.

An erotic cabinet, ordered by Catherine the Great, seems to have been adjacent to her suite of rooms in Gatchina. The furniture was highly eccentric with tables that had large penises for legs. Penises and vulvas were carved out on the furniture. The walls were covered in erotic art. Some erotic artifacts from Pompeii were even brought into Russia to augment this collection. There was also a statue of a naked woman and a naked man in the erotic cabinet.

It?s thought Catherine?kept her cabinet adjacent to her suite of rooms in her favourite palace in St. Petersburg now known as the Pushkin Palace; a salon full of furniture adorned with graphic erotica. The doorknob shaped like a phallus, tables with erect penises for legs, chairs embellished with female genitalia?and pornographic?scenes depicted on the walls.

There are photographs of this room, or at least claiming to be, taken by German soldiers who arrived at the palace in 1941 during WWII and stumbled across the eye-opening boudoir. These Wehrmacht soldiers may very well have been the last witnesses to see the room before the palaces were bombed and most of their contents destroyed in the ensuing fire. Experts and historians however adamantly believe that the contents of the erotic boudoir were most certainly?purposefully removed from the palace and all traces of the erotic cabinet vanished under suspicious circumstances.

Russian authorities have always been very secretive about this peculiar Czarist heritage. Catherine was a confident woman with too much passion who ignored the boundaries of womanhood in her time. Labelled a nymphomaniac and hyper sexual, in reality, her sexual adventures were unlikely all that different from her male counterparts, but Catherine, Empress or not, was born a woman trapped in a man?s world, and the rumours that circulated around her private life?led to negative portrayals of?her reign.

Most of the?pictures taken of the room by the German soldiers are thought to have been?lost in chaos of war, but some of the furniture in the Romanov Russian Imperial family collection was also catalogued at one time before they were executed during the?fall of the Russian Empire.?These catalogue images and grainy soldier?s photographs of erotic Rococco furniture allegedly belonging to Catherine the Great, are believed to?be the only surviving evidence?of her erotic cabinet.

Rumours of Catherine’s private life had a large basis in the fact that she took many young lovers, even while in old age. (Lord Byron’s Don Juan, around the age of twenty-two, becomes her lover after the siege of Ismail (1790), in a fiction written only about twenty-five years after Catherine’s death in 1796.) She also had a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old boy. This practice was not unusual by the court standards of the day, nor was it unusual to use rumour and innuendo of sexual excess politically. One of her early lovers, Stanis?aw August Poniatowski, was later supported by her to become a king of Poland.

Another unfavourable rumour was that Alexander Dmitriev-Mamonov and her later lovers were chosen by Prince Potemkin himself, after the end of the long relationship Catherine had with Potemkin, where he, perhaps, was her morganatic husband. After Mamonov eloped from the 60-year-old Empress with a 16-year-old maid of honour and married her, the embittered Catherine reputedly revenged herself of her rival “by secretly sending policemen disguised as women to whip her in her husband’s presence”. However, another account claims that there is no truth in this story.

According to some contemporaries close to Catherine, Countess Praskovya Bruce was prized by her as “L’?prouveuse”, or “tester of male capacity.” Every potential lover was to spend a night with Bruce before he was admitted into Catherine’s personal apartments. Their friendship was cut short when Bruce was found “in an assignment” with Catherine’s youthful lover, Rimsky-Korsakov, ancestor of the composer; they both later withdrew from the imperial court to Moscow.

In his memoirs?Charles Fran?ois Philibert Masson?(1762-1807) wrote that Catherine had “two passions, which never left her but with her last breath: the love of man, which degenerated into licentiousness, and the love of glory, which sunk into vanity. By the first of these passions, she was never so far governed as to become a Messalina, but she often disgraced both her rank and sex: by the second, she was led to undertake many laudable projects, which were seldom completed, and to engage in unjust wars, from which she derived at least that kind of fame which never fails to accompany success”

Catherine came to power in a bloodless coup that later turned deadly. Elizabeth died in January 1762, and her nephew succeeded to the throne as Peter III, with Catherine as his consort. Eager to put his own stamp on the nation, he quickly ended Russia?s war with Prussia, an act that proved deeply unpopular to Russia?s military class. A program of liberal domestic reforms aimed at improving the lives of the poor also alienated members of the lower nobility. These unhappy factions turned to Catherine, who was also fearful of Peter?s intentions. As tensions mounted, a plan to overthrow Peter took root. When the conspiracy was uncovered in July 1762, Catherine moved quickly, gaining the support of the country?s most powerful military regiment and arranging for her husband?s arrest. On July 9, just six months after becoming czar, Peter abdicated, and Catherine was proclaimed sole ruler. However, what had began as a bloodless coup soon turned deadly. On July 17 Peter was murdered by Alexei Orlov, the brother of Catherine?s current lover Gregory. Though there is no proof that Catherine knew of the murder before it happened, it cast a pall over her reign from the start.

After Catherine granted Muslims the right to build mosques, her Christian subjects voiced their concerns through a petition they sent to her complaining that they were being built too high. Catherine?s response was simple. She was the Tsarina of Russian land?the sky was beyond her jurisdiction.

Catherine faced down more than a dozen uprisings during her reign. Of the various uprisings that threatened Catherine?s rule, the most dangerous came in 1773, when a group of armed Cossacks and peasants led by Emelyan Pugachev rebelled against the harsh socioeconomic conditions of Russia?s lowest class, the serfs. As with many of the uprisings Catherine faced, Pugachev?s Rebellion called into question the validity of her reign. Pugachev, a former army officer, claimed that he was actually the deposed (and believed dead) Peter III, and therefore the rightful heir to the Russian throne. Within a year, Pugachev had drawn thousands of supporters and captured a large amount of territory, including the city of Kazan. Initially unconcerned about the rebellion, Catherine soon responded with massive force. Faced with the might of the Russian army, Pugachev?s supporters eventually deserted him, and he was captured and publicly executed in January 1775.

Being Catherine the Great?s lover came with huge rewards. Catherine was famously loyal to her lovers, both during their relationship and after it ended. Always parting on good terms, she bestowed upon them titles, land, palaces and even people?gifting one former paramour with more than 1,000 serfs, or indentured servants. But perhaps nobody reaped the bounties of her favor more than Stanislaw Poniatowski, one of her earliest lovers and the father of one of her children. A member of the Polish nobility, Poniatowski first became involved with Catherine (who was not yet on the throne) when he served in the British embassy to St. Petersburg. Even after a scandal partly caused by their relationship forced him from the Russian court, they remained close. In 1763, long after their relationship had ended and a year after she had come to power, Catherine successfully threw her support (both military and financial) behind Poniatowski in his effort to become king of Poland. However, once installed on the throne, the new king, who Catherine and others believed would be a mere puppet to Russian interests, began a series of reforms meant to strengthen his country?s independence. What was once a strong bond between the two former lovers soon soured, with Catherine forcing Poniatowski to abdicate and Russia leading the effort to break up and dissolve the newly formed Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

Catherine saw herself as an enlightened ruler. Her reign was marked by vast territorial expansion, which greatly added to Russia?s coffers but did little to alleviate the suffering of her people. Even her attempts at governmental reforms were often bogged down by Russia?s vast bureaucracy. However, Catherine considered herself to be one of Europe?s most enlightened rulers, and many historians agree. She wrote numerous books, pamphlets and educational materials aimed at improving Russia?s education system. She was also a champion of the arts, keeping up a lifelong correspondence with Voltaire and other prominent minds of the era, creating one of the world?s most impressive art collections in St. Petersburg?s Winter Palace (now home to the famed Hermitage Museum) and even trying her hand at composing opera.

Contrary to popular myth, Catherine died a fairly mundane, uneventful death.

Given the empress? shocking reputation, it?s perhaps not surprising that gossip followed her wherever she went, even to the grave. After her death on November 17, 1796, her enemies at court began spreading various rumors about Catherine?s final days. Some claimed that the all-powerful ruler had died while on the toilet. Others took their lurid storytelling even further, perpetuating a myth that has endured for centuries: that Catherine, whose lustful life was an open secret, had died while engaging in a sex act with an animal, usually believed to be a horse. Of course, there is no truth to this rumour. Though her enemies would have hoped for a scandalous end, the simple truth is that Catherine suffered a stroke and died quietly in her bed the following day.

Catherine?s eldest son met the same grisly fate as his father. Catherine had a famously stormy relationship with her eldest son, Paul. The boy had been removed from his mother?s care shortly after his birth and raised largely by the former czarina, Elizabeth, and a series of tutors. After she assumed the throne, Catherine, fearful of retribution for Peter III?s deposing and death, kept Paul far away from affairs of state, further alienating the boy. Relations between the two grew so bad that Paul was at times convinced his mother was actively plotting his death. While Catherine had no such plans, she did fear that Paul would be an incompetent ruler and looked for alternate options for the succession. Much like Elizabeth before her, Catherine took control of the upbringing and education of Paul?s sons, and rumors abounded that she intended to name them her heirs, bypassing Paul. In fact, it is believed that Catherine intended to make this official in late 1796 but died before she was able to do so. Worried that his mother?s will included provisions to this effect, Paul confiscated the document before it could be made public. Alexander, Paul?s eldest son, was aware of his grandmother?s plans but bowed to pressure and did not stand in his father?s way. Paul became czar but soon proved to be just as erratic and unpopular as Catherine had feared. Five years into his reign, he was assassinated, and his 23-year-old son assumed power as Alexander I.