For nearly four decades Empress Catherine II (1729-1796) ruled Russia like a hermaphrodite creature. She alternated female finesse with male ruthlessness. She was a powerhouse in the council chamber as well as in her bed chamber. Her deft and intelligent leadership contributed to transforming a backwater country into an assertive European nation. Her self-confidence was enhanced thanks to the performance of twelve younger but hunky gentlemen who successively catered to her sexual needs. Expandable, they were generously rewarded when dismissed.
I have just finished reading the delightful biography Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie (Random House, 2011). Catherine the Great is still fascinated biographers who have written hundreds of biographies in tens of languages. Massie’s biography was the second one I read. Decades ago, I read in French Henri Troyat’s landmark Catherine the Great, which is more a novel than a biography.
There was nothing conventional about Catherine’s life. In 1762, she became Empress of Russia by setting up a coup d’état against her wretched and eccentric husband, Tsar Peter III. Soon after Peter died in mysterious circumstances, probably murdered by his wife’s fellow conspirators. Catherine was therefore an usurper. During her long reign, she had to look over her shoulder. No less than 26 pretenders to her throne plagued her reign, some more threatening than others. One even claimed to be her husband. Actually, during her reign, Catherine had fewer lovers than competitors.
Robert Massie is sympathetic to Catherine and does not pass judgment over her taking the throne in such an unorthodox and ruthless manner. Some historians have been trying to rehabilitate the short-lived reign of Peter III, however few miss him.
Sophie (her original Christian name) had been summoned to Russia from Germany to become the teenage bride to the Russian heir, also German born. Catherine began to write her memoirs at an early age. One can suspect that she was not always entirely candid. Her memoirs are her legacy, a vehicle to justify her actions. A couple of unsavory facts have been concealed or water down. These memoirs remain an important source of information for countless biographers.
Catherine,(left) Gregory Orlov (middle) Gregory Potemkin (right)
Catherine’s life reads like a novel. She wrote that at the beginning of their marriage, Peter was more a friend than a lover. She further claimed that her husband never consummated their marriage and that her first son, Paul, was the fruit of her first extra-marital affair with a courtier. Paul who was born after 8 years of marriage, not only looked very much like Peter but acted as erratically as him when he succeeded his mother. Catherine may not have been entirely truthful on this issue.
She had three lovers while married. As a widow, she collected nine more. Many of them were former Guard officers. She was a serial amoureuse: she couldn’t function without love. She was straightforward about her lovers who always escorted her. Her favorites were multi-tasked: in addition to their bed duties, they ran errands and even undertook official missions. They became younger as she aged, toy boys in today’s parlance. Catherine’s last toy boy could have been her grandson. Sometimes she treated him as if he was.
Peter III was killed by the brother of Catherine’s lover du jour, Gregory Orlov. She considered marrying Gregori out of love and gratitude, but changed her mind. She was confronted with the same power/love dilemma as Queen Elizabeth I of England before her. By taking a husband, a woman relinquished most of her independence. Having just secured the throne for herself, Catherine did not want to share power with anyone not even a loved one. Needless to say Gregory felt devalued but he had enough common sense to stick around.
In additional to Paul, Catherine had three other children, all out of wedlock. Her pregnancies were clandestine and she is not remembered as a doting mother.
Catherine was very much her own woman; she was the first truly enlightened autocrat and her achievements and leadership talents are still praised. Her sexual life was considered scandalous by European standards. Conversely, the affairs of Catherine’s male peers were praised. In her memoirs, she acknowledged her sexual needs with confidence, a very non-conformist behavior for an 18th century woman. Obviously Catherine the Empress of Russia could get away with it.
At the outset of her reign in 1762, she was at her sexual peak. In this man’s world, Catherine may have felt very lonely, and sex was the therapy she needed to boost her confidence and self-esteem. Her lovers were selected with care. The résumé of a would-be toy boy needed to include the following attributes: speaking several languages, French being a must as Catherine used it in her correspondence with luminaries such as Voltaire; love of culture; good taste; witty pillow talk; tact; interest in politics; and hunting and horsemanship.
Her successive lovers were obviously aroused by the power and prestige their function carried, as well as the financial rewards. In today’s parlance, they received a golden handshake when dismissed. In her roster of lovers, three were not toy boys. They made names for themselves with Catherine’s help and prodding. One became the last king of Poland, and two others distinguished princes. Her real soul mate was Gregory Potemkin who was totally devoted to her. She had deep feelings for him during her entire life. Potemkin even had a famous battleship of Bolshevik fame named after him. He had many useful talents and Catherine took advantage of them. His most noteworthy accomplishment was to enlarge Russia by grabbing territories from the Turkish Ottoman Empire. Rumor has it that Potemkin may have been Catherine’s second husband.
In love, Catherine was a trend setter. She made use of toy boys long before the term was even coined. She also understood the value of golden handshake to ensure that a deal ended amicably. There is a secret garden she hides as Bruce Springsteen would sing, and she kept a few skeletons in her closet. Was she a regicide? Did she secretly marry Potemkin? History is on her side as in politics the end justifies the means. Contrary to the craziest myth, Catherine died of a stroke alone in her lavatory, not crushed by a horse during an equine intercourse.
Catherine is also remembered for her brainy quotes such as: “Men make love more intensely at twenty but make love better however at thirty” and “I like to praise and reward loudly, to blame quietly.”