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Sex And The Empress: The Love Life of Catherine the Great of Russia

by Charles Beem 9th June 2020

Charles Beem, author of Queenship in Early Modern Europe, discusses the romantic relationships of Catherine the Great

The sex life of Catherine The Great (1729-1796) was the subject of endless curiosity among her contemporaries in Europe and generations of historians and biographers ever since. By her own admission, she craved love, sex, intimacy, and male companionship. By nature, Catherine, born in Germany as Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst, the daughter of a minor German princeling, was a very a social woman, who loved to talk to people, whether face to face or in epistolary form, and enjoyed mixing informally behind closed doors with friends all her life. Emotional connections were especially important to Catherine, especially considering the lack of affection of her youth and the abomination of her 1745 marriage to the future Tsar Peter III, the designated heir to Tsarina Elizabeth Petrovna of Russia (r. 1741-1762), who had no interest in her sexually or emotionally. But while her husband played with toy soldiers and tortured animals, Catherine nursed her intellect and her ambition, making friends and influencing people while assimilating to Russian culture as her husband never did. Trapped in a loveless and barren marriage, while her husband carried on with his mistress, Catherine never subjugated her desire for physical intimacy, as most queens elsewhere in Europe routinely did in the face of sexless marriages.

When Catherine decided to look for love and intimacy after nine years of a childless marriage, it also benefitted her politically. But Catherine’s choice of sexual partners also reflected a specific set of aesthetic and sexual concerns; Catherine preferred her lovers to be handsome, manly, and possessing sexual prowess, while also possessing wit and the ability to converse with her. Catherine’s first lover, Sergei Saltyov possessed all these attributes, in addition to being descended from the Romanovs. It has long been conjectured that Saltyov was the father of Catherine’s eldest son, the future Paul I, although her husband never challenged his paternity. In fact, the mania for dynastic legitimacy that drove Western European royal houses crazy was largely absent from Imperial Russian court culture. Peter was little concerned with Catherine’s private life, while Elizabeth Petrovna was delighted with the arrival of a male Romanov heir, and not at all concerned about his paternity. Following Paul’s birth Catherine moved on to a Polish nobleman Stanislaus Poniatowski, whom she enjoyed on both a physical and an intellectual level, as both were bibliophiles. For Catherine, the price of an active and unrestrained sex life was pregnancy; Poniatowski left Catherine pregnant before leaving Russia in August 1758., while Elizabeth Petrovna’s official attitude was that Catherine’s daughter Anna, who lived less than two years, was legitimate. No one seemed to care what her husband Peter thought.
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Image credit: Photo by Fedor Rokotov. Avaliable on Wikimedia via CC0

But once Elizabeth Petrovna was dead (January 1762), Peter III was no longer irrelevant; as his antipathy grew malicious, Catherine feared she would be shipped off to a monastery, the usual fate of cast-off Russian Tsaritas. Catherine’s current lover, Gregory Orlov, played an instrumental role in the coup that overthrew Peter III in July, 1762, after a disastrous six month reign, which saw Catherine mount the Russian imperial throne as his replacement, even though she had no hereditary claim to the throne. Once in possession of male gendered power, after the murder of her deposed husband, Catherine saw no reason to remarry and take a formal male consort. Instead, Orlov continued on informally, as Catherine constructed a sexualized political culture in which there was always an officially recognized male favorite. A similar form of culture had also developed around Elizabeth I of England, a queen Catherine greatly admired. But Elizabeth I’s political culture was literary and epistolary, in which courtiers yearned for an unattainable queen in metaphorical and allegorical ways. In Catherine’s political culture, however, the queen was attainable, while the sexual element was physical and intimate.
This pattern was set after Catherine tired of Orlov in 1774. Alexander Vasilchikov, an ensign in the Chevalier Guard Regiment, was the first lover she took on after she had become tsarina, and the power dynamics between Catherine and her lovers shifted accordingly.
Catherine kept Vasilchikov on a short leash, on call day and night for his services, and he was not allowed to leave the palace without Catherine’s permission. Catherine found his tenderness a bit cloying, and after he was replaced by Gregory Potemkin, Catherine pensioned him off, and as she did with all his predecessors, remained friends with him.

Potemkin was easily the most distinguished and powerful of Catherine’s favorites, remaining an important and influential member of Catherine’s administration long after he ceased to be her lover. He had come to her attention during her usurpation, and she recognized his abilities, advancing him through the ranks of the military as well as her government. Potemkin was brilliant, creative, charismatic, and shared Catherine’s imperial vision of an expansive Russian state. While their sexual relationship did not last long, their intimate relationship continued to blossom, while she may have contracted a secret, morganatic marriage with him in 1774; as several of her letters to him suggest.

Potemkin was well versed in the niceties of Catherinian political culture, finding his replacements according to Catherine’s exact specifications. Like Elizabeth I of England, as Catherine got older, her lovers got younger. There were twelve more after Potemkin before Catherine took her final lover, Prince Platon Alexandrovich Zubov, who was 40 years her junior, in 1789. Even Potemkin underestimated Zubov, who came to dominate Catherine’s government, amassing a huge fortune from an ever-grateful Catherine, who showered him with offices and military commands. By the time of her death, Zubov held the imperial court in his thrall as he regulated access to Catherine, even snubbing her heir the Tsarevich Paul. Zubov was on campaign in Persia when Catherine died in October 1796, and Tsar Paul I recalled him to Russia. His fate; losing all the benefits of a favorite with the death of his royal patron.

Catherine’s sexual history was much more reflective of the behavior of male kings rather than the queens regnant of Early Modern Europe, who usually prioritized their queenly chastity. Catherine more properly belongs in the historical category of philandering kings, who often mitigated the impact of their sexual proclivities by their strict and punctual religious observances; Catherine played the role of libertine tsar and pious tsaritsa simultaneously. In fact, this conflation of the masculine and the feminine within Catherine’s imperial persona ranks among her more underrated achievements.
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