Legends of Catherine the Great
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The flamboyant and powerful character of Russian Empress Catherine II of Russia, as well as the dramatic changes the country underwent during her long rule, gave rise to many urban legends, often casting her in an unfavorable light. Some stories were loosely based on true events, others were completely false. The palace intrigue of her son Paul I of Russia was a fertile ground for such rumours.
In reality Catherine had 22 male lovers during her long life. She was partial to handsome young men. She died in her bed, after a stroke.
Personal life narratives
Rumors 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 rumor and innuendo of sexual excess politically. One of her early lovers, Stanisław August Poniatowski, was later supported by her to become a king of Poland.
One unfavorable rumor 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'éprouveuse", 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 François 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".
Several stories about the circumstances of her death at age 67 in 1796 probably originated soon after. A common story states that she died as a result of her voracious sexual appetite while attempting sexual intercourse with 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 stating 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. ("Наказ писала, флоты жгла, / И умерла, садясь на судно."—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.
The erotic cabinet
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 vaginas were carved out on the furniture. The walls were covered in erotic art. Some erotic artifacts from Pompeii were even brought in to Russia to augment this collection.
There are photographs of this room and a Russian eye-witness has described the interior but the Russian authorities have always been very secretive about this peculiar Czarist heritage. The rooms and the furniture were seen in 1941 by two Wehrmacht-officers but they seem to have vanished since then. However, investigators are looking into the possibility of locating these lost rooms with black lights. A documentary by Peter Woditsch suggests that the cabinet was in the Peterhof Palace and not in Gatchina.
- A long-surviving story about the Potemkin villages was false, even though it became eponymous. It states that Potemkin built fake settlements with hollow facades to fool Empress Catherine II during her visit to Crimea and New Russia, the territories Russia conquered under her reign. Modern historians, however, consider this scenario at best an exaggeration, and quite possibly simply a malicious rumor spread by Potemkin's opponents.
- Not a native speaker of Russian, Catherine misspelled eщё ([jɪɕˈɕo] 'more'), written with three letters, as истчо ([ɪstˈtɕo]), consisting of five letters, and that allegedly gave rise to a popular Russian joke: how can five mistakes occur in a word of three letters? (The letter ё was not widely accepted until the 1940s).
- After Catherine granted to Kazan's Muslims the right to build mosques, the city's Christian leadership decided that mosques were being built too high—higher than churches. They sent a petition to Catherine asking her to prohibit the construction of high minarets. As the legend goes, Catherine replied that she was the tsarina of the Russian land and that the sky was beyond her jurisdiction.
- The Polish-Jewish religious leader Jacob Frank spread the rumour that his daughter Eve Frank was Catherine's illegitimate daughter.
- М. Евгеньева, "Любовники Екатерины." – Москва: Внешторгиздат, 1989 (in Russian, M. Yevgen'yeva, "Lovers of Catherine", Moscow, Vneshtorgizdat, 1989)
- Beccia, Carlyn "Raucous Royals" Houghton Mifflin, 2008
- http://petercochran.files.wordpress.com/2009/03/don_juan_canto_9.pdf Lord Byron's Canto IX edited by Peter Cochran with his comments.
- Jan Larecki. Katarzyna Łóżkowa in: Polityka nr. 40 (2623)/2007, p. 85, (Polish)
- John T. Alexander. Catherine the Great: Life and Legend. Oxford University Press, 1989. Page 222.
- Alexander 222.
- Arthur Asa Berger. The Art of the Seductress." iUniverse, 2001. Page 70.
- Secret Memoirs of the Court of St Petersburg by C.F.P. Masson (1800, translated from the French in 1895, I 88-9)
- Raucous Royals
- Igorʹ Semenovich Kon and James Riordan, Sex and Russian Society page 18.
- http://www.trouw.nl/tr/nl/4512/Cultuur/archief/article/detail/1775415/2003/12/06/Het-Geheim-van-Catherina-de-Grote.dhtml Article in Trouw by Peter Dekkers. Retrieved 8 July 2014
- http://www.deproductie.nl/films/het-geheim-van-catherina-de-grote/ Trailer of the documentary by Peter Woditsch. Retrieved 8 July 2014
- Adams, Cecil (2003). "Did "Potemkin villages" really exist?". The Straight Dope. Retrieved 11 March 2007.
- Frank, Eva article by Rachel Elior in the Encyclopedia Judaica.