Catherine the Great was rumoured to have killed her own husband, and reportedly traded lovers like cards. She was a German Princess of the 18th century, and a sovereign of Russia for thirty-four years. Her expansion of the Russian Empire was unprecedented. She introduced the Enlightenment to Russia, and the Hermitage Museum had its humble beginnings as her personal art collection. But these cultural and political successes aren’t among the reasons I name her Tsar of the Week.
With no actual claim to the throne, Catherine the Great was a master of manipulating her image to consolidate her power. Even her memoirs served her political PR campaign—diary entries reinforcing herself as the chosen leader, and continuously denying the murder of her late husband. As you may know, there are many legends about Catherine, which certainly make her attractive as a subject, but I am charmed by her relatability and masculinity. I love a powerful bitch!
In 1768 Catherine commissioned the French sculptor Etienne Maurice Falconet to erect a monument for Peter the Great in Saint Petersburg. The construction took 14 years. The statue’s pedestal was the largest stone ever moved by humans. Falconet inscribed the statue with “Peter Primo Catherina Secunda.” Many believe Falconet meant the statement as a jab, implying that Catherine should know her place, which was, and always would be, second to the Great modern ruler, Peter I. Was Catherine enraged by Falconet’s petty putdown? We’ll never know for sure. But when the finished statue was unveiled, Falconet was noticeably absent from the ceremony, as he was forced to leave the country for reasons unknown. Catherine ended up embracing the inscription, and the re-interpretation that it meant she came after Peter the Great; that she was the one true heir. Falconet disappeared into nothingness, and The Bronze Horseman statue was seen as a symbol for Catherine’s greatness.
In 1744, Catherine, fifteen years old, came to Russia to marry Peter III, grandson of Peter the Great and heir to the throne. At the border of Germany/Russia, Catherine was stripped of everything—clothing, culture, language and religion. What followed was an infamously disastrous marriage. History textbooks literally use the words “puny” and “weakling” to describe Peter III. The marriage was unconsummated for seven years. Seven years! No wonder Catherine was sneaking off with other men of the court. Peter III was reportedly obsessed with toys, playing with them constantly, and eating onions like apples, skins still on. Catherine wrote that Peter once executed a rat. How sexy! Yet he did openly have sex with many women, of any status. Catherine was humiliated and depressed. Her memoirs describe her husband as “idiot”, “drunkard”, “hideous” and “good for nothing.” Now that’s a memoir I can relate to!
She soon bore an illegitimate son, and Peter agreed to claim fatherhood. Once he began his reign, Peter’s first call to action was to disband the elite guard. Consequently, Catherine was having an affair with a member of the elite guard, and had the group’s full loyalty. On one decisive night, Catherine disguised herself in men’s clothing and snuck out to visit the guards’ quarters, delivering an inspirational speech which prompted a coup d’etat. In a juicy twist, Catherine ordered Peter be put under house arrest. Peter begrudgingly complied but requested he be sent his dog, violin, and mistress. Catherine sent him everything except his mistress. Peter, outraged, threatened to take away Catherine’s power and banish her to a nunnery. Shortly after this, he was strangled by the brother of Catherine’s lover.
Now sitting in the throne, Catherine was the target of hatred and criticism, much of which came from whiney men. The Chevalier de Corberon wrote, “She passes from one extreme to another, I am unable to find a place for her among the great sovereigns.” The First Earl of Malmesbury described her as “weak, vulgar and vain.” Charles Francois Philibert Masson wrote, “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.” I can vouch for the last part—Catherine was cocky. I blushed for her sake when I read her memoirs; “My disposition was naturally so accommodating that no one was ever with me a quarter of an hour without falling comfortably into conversation.” She described herself as joined to the mind and character of a man, while maintaining the charms of a woman.
In her eulogy, Catherine is described as, “firm, masculine, and truly heroic.” Many people believed Catherine had a “feminine flaw”—her submission to her lovers, but this was a misconception, as Catherine was domineering in her relationships, and her ability to separate her love life from her work was unnatural, even a bit chilling. Some historians condemn her for coldness and the propensity to use people as tools for her ambition.
But she was famously loyal to her lovers. Even after deeming them uninteresting, she gifted them land, titles, or servants. Her favorite was Grigory Potemkin, a one-eyed, charismatic, military man born into a middle class family. After their romance fizzled away, Catherine told Potemkin to select her next lover, with instructions that he should have both physical beauty and mental faculties. She promoted Potemkin to Governor General of Russia’s newly gained Southern provinces, as well as giving him the title Prince of Russia, which was quite a stretch, given he had no blood ties to the Romanov Family.
Let’s not forget about her other favourite, Count Poniatowski, who she eventually promoted from lover to King of Poland. She also gave the title “Baby” to her last boy-toy, Prince Zubov, who was forty years her junior. Although she did indeed take many lovers, the number was often exaggerated. Court bystanders, as well as the serfs, had wild concepts of Catherine’s love life. It is true, that in 1941 two Wehrmacht-officers discovered a secret room filled with erotic art and furniture which allegedly belonged to Catherine. After she died of a stroke in 1796, rumours spread that she died from having sex with a horse. Her sexual independence led to many such rumours about her. This isn’t uncommon, the same thing happened to fellow bad bitch, Cher. Catherine, like many powerful women, was depicted as some kind of sexual predator who could not be satiated. Male historians probably concocted this idea because they were afraid of such a badass woman. Catherine the Great did whatever she wanted, and fucked whoever she wanted, and that’s why she is Tsar of the Week!
© 2019 The Editorial Magazine