14 Popular Rumors and Myths About Catherine the Great

The empress Catherine the Great is a figure shrouded in myths. What is the truth behind the stories of her numerous lovers, the murder of her husband, and the sensual horse incident? Was she truly a symbol of the Russian Enlightenment or a German spy plagued by mistakes?

The Antidote, a manuscript written by Empress Catherine the Great (Catherine II, 1729-1796), was translated into English and dedicated to “the first and greatest lady of our time” by an unknown author in 1772. In the words of her contemporaries, the English historian Simon Dixon wrote more than two centuries after her death that she was “the most renowned lady in Europe.”

There were other women at the top of their fields in Europe during the 18th century, but none of them reigned for as long or as well over such a big country. In the absence of contemporary media, this caused people to speculate wildly about the empress, her politics, and her personal life, leading to widespread wonder and adoration among onlookers at the time. Passed from person to person, these tales of encounters with the Russian empress took on new twists and turns until they no longer resembled the original, which may or may not have been completely authentic.

Catherine the Great had many lovers and frequently changed them

Count Grigory Grigoryevich Orlov and Catherine II (the Great) together in a picture with their son Alexei.
Count Grigory Grigoryevich Orlov and Catherine II (the Great) together in a picture with their son Alexei. (Credit: Wikimedia)

Because of the rich material provided by Catherine’s private life, rumors and speculations abound. One of her contemporaries, the American historian John Alexander, called the Russian empress the sex symbol of her period and said that there was always a male favorite figure next to her. Meanwhile, historians have identified 12 men who were Catherine’s “favorites” or “lovers” over her long life (from 1753 until her death in 1796). While some historians have added a few more names to the list of Catherine the Great’s lovers, the evidence supporting these claims is not strong.

Keep in mind that Catherine was separated from her first two lovers (Sergei Saltykov and Stanislaw Poniatowski) against her will and that her relationships with other favorites lasted for decades. To give just one example, her relationship with Grigory Orlov lasted for more than a decade.

Catherine the Great lived in a strongly patriarchal society where she was surrounded by males and had to interact with and command other men. She worked hard on the throne, solving problems big and small, some of which sometimes affected the lives of millions of people. She was under continual pressure and knew that people who wanted to influence her judgments had created a web of intrigue around her.

She wanted someone she could confide in entirely, someone who would be true to her and who understood her. This was the political importance of having a favorite: They acted as a bridge between the empress and patriarchal society, and their presence made people less eager to move up in the imperial hierarchy than they would have been otherwise.

Although Catherine the Great seemed to fall deeply in love with each new chosen one, not everyone was deserving of her affection. Dmitriev-Mamonov, for one, proclaimed his love for one of the Empress’ ladies-in-waiting, and Rimsky-Korsakov, for another, was unfaithful to Catherine. Alexander Lansky was the one person who appeared to understand Catherine, but he died when he fell off his horse. It took Catherine a long time to get over her grief when Alexander passed away.

Verdict: It’s half-true.

Did Catherine the Great’s lovers rule on her behalf?

Coronation of Catherine II (the Great) by Stefano Torelli.
Coronation of Catherine II (the Great) by Stefano Torelli.

Catherine the Great was a leader who took complete control of decision making and was heavily involved in politics. She was an “enlightened despot.” In the eyes of some scholars, Catherine’s co-ruler was Grigory Potemkin. In the Catherine period, he was the most influential politician, holding the positions of Field Marshal-General, President of the Military Collegium, and Yekaterinoslav Viceroyalty (Governorate). Catherine did take his advice and was frequently persuaded by him, as in the case of the Russian annexation of the Crimean peninsula. However, the Empress had the last say and made all decisions.

Verdict: It’s not true.

Catherine the Great was so dissolute that she even slept with a horse

Catherine the Great on horse
Catherine the Great, dressed as a guard, sits on a horse in this portrait. Artwork by Vigilius Eriksen, 1778.

One of the most pervasive and equally improbable tales about Catherine is this one. The myth claims that Catherine passed away while having sex with a horse, but the actual facts of her death are well documented, proving that it has nothing to do with reality. Researchers who have attempted to understand the development of this story connect it to typical dreams of sex brought on by Catherine’s status as a sort of sex symbol of her day and the personification of the horse as a representation of power and masculinity.

Verdict: It’s not true.

Catherine the Great did not give birth to Paul from Peter III

the portrait of Emperor Paul I of Russia
Emperor Paul I of Russia.

Speculation regarding this had already begun circulating in the 18th century. While it was common knowledge that Catherine had had lovers, Peter’s manhood was called into doubt. But there’s no reason to believe these reports. Nobody could compare to Paul, who resembled Peter III of Russia in many ways, both in appearance and personality.

Verdict: It’s not true.

Did Catherine the Great have illegitimate children?

Bobrinsky, Alexei Grigorievich. Carl Ludwig Johann Christinek's painting from 1769.
Bobrinsky, Alexei Grigorievich. Carl Ludwig Johann Christinek’s painting from 1769. (Hermitage Museum)

Both a girl who died in infancy and a boy named Alexei Grigorievich Bobrinsky were the result of Catherine II’s connection with Orlov. The latter was raised initially with the family of Vasily Shkurin, former valet to the Empress, and later, along with Vasily’s sons, Alexei studied abroad, taking his surname from the name of the Bobryk estate handed to him. Another rumored daughter of Potemkin was Elizabeth Temkin, born in 1775. However, this is likely just a tall tale, given Catherine was almost 45 years old at the time, and Temkin’s mother was likely one of Potemkin’s lovers.

Verdict: This is partly true.

Did Catherine the Great love her grandchildren more than her children?

Catherine’s political views impacted her connections with her children and grandchildren. Catherine was not permitted to see Paul much in the first several years following his birth, preventing the development of a mother-son bond. At a later date, and particularly in the early years after she came to power, relations were rather close; nevertheless, as Paul aged, estrangement increased.

Catherine began to see her son less and less as a potential heir to her cause and more as a potential rival, around whom a plot against her arose. This happened in 1773, when Paul’s tutor Nikita Panin attempted to enthrone him, but Catherine learned of the plans in time to prevent the coup. Consequently, Paul’s pent-up drive and unfulfilled aspirations manifested themselves in the form of resentment and a proliferation of complexes directed squarely towards his mother.

Catherine did everything she could to help raise and educate Alexei Bobrinsky, but she ultimately decided that political concerns made it impossible for him to remain with her. There was no way she could form a friendly relationship with his son. Catherine was instead in charge of raising her grandchildren, Alexander and Constantine. She may have done this because her sons had not turned out to be the perfect young men she had hoped for.

Verdict: It’s half-true.

Catherine the Great killed Peter III

Catherine was least interested in associating herself with the assassination of her own husband since she had come to power in a coup, had no legal claims to the throne, and still aspired to be a model of an enlightened monarchy. Peter III’s death is shrouded in mystery, although most contemporary historians agree that he was killed on the orders of Paul’s tutor and plot organizer Panin. Panin probably judged that it would be too risky to let the emperor survive and wanted to compromise Catherine in this way in order to gain leverage over her in the future.

Verdict: It’s not true.

Catherine the Great spoke with an accent and made mistakes in her writing

old catherine ii sitting
Catherine the Great’s portrait, with a map of the Crimea and an ink bottle and quill sitting on a table to the left. British Museum

There were no tape recorders, dictaphones, or even gramophones back then, so we’ll never know how subtle or pronounced Catherine’s accent was. At the end of the 18th century, the rules of the Russian language were still being worked out, so she made some mistakes in her writing, as did other people of her time. 

Verdict: It’s half-true.

Was Catherine the Great a German spy?

Catharine II was not a German spy. Her ties to Germany were already tense, and she spoke and corresponded more fluently in French with all non-native speakers, including other Germans. In fact, “Germany” as a country did not exist at the time, and she saw Prussian King Friedrich (Frederick the Great) as a rival. Above all, she did all in her power to highlight her Russian heritage, and she grew into a real Russian patriot over the years, certain that she had made Russia an example for the rest of Europe.

Verdict: This is not true.

Was Catherine the Great a freemason?

Early in her reign, Catherine had an entourage composed nearly entirely of Freemasons due to the widespread popularity of the organization. However, she took a more permissive approach, thinking that Freemasonry was pointless and boring. By the time Catherine joined the struggle against Freemasonry, Masons had begun engaging in a variety of spiritual and theological journeys that she viewed as a threat to the official philosophy. In particular, the publisher, educator, and well-known author of the period, Nikolai Novikov, fell prey to this conflict.

Verdict: It’s not true.

Catherine the Great was one of the smartest people in Europe

Catherine was undoubtedly a bright and insightful individual, yet intellect is notoriously difficult to quantify. She was able to take in and make good use of the ideas of others, but she readily confessed that her mind was not creative in the traditional sense of the word. Her passion for constructing “Spanish castles,” as she put it, exemplified the Enlightenment‘s logic of mind and dreaminess.

Verdict: It’s true.

Catherine the Great became a symbol of proto-feminism

Catherine did nothing to combat the imbalance of the sexes, and she probably didn’t even realize it existed. Plus, as the empress in a patriarchal society, she was constantly under pressure to be more masculine. That Catherine’s lover, the Prince of Ligne, dubbed her “Catherine the Great” was not coincidental. In other dispute scenarios, however, she was able to empathize with a female participant and rule in her favor, when a male ruler likely would not have. When Baron Alexander Sergeyevich Stroganov sought permission to divorce his wife due to her unacceptable behavior, the empress responded that it was out of her hands since she was sympathetic to women who complained about their spouses.

Verdict: It’s not true.

Catherine the Great represented the Enlightenment (while still enslaving millions of peasants)

Catherine was unquestionably a representative of the Enlightenment and contributed significantly to the dissemination of her own intellectual demands and interests across Russian culture. She is responsible for the birth of the Hermitage and the first public library, the growth of theatre and journalism, the culture of art and music, the resurgence of interest in Russian history, and other things. Catherine was a vehement opponent of serfdom and wrote extensively against it. However, millions more Russians were still held as slaves at the conclusion of her 34-year rule.

Darya Saltykova, a vicious serf landlady, was referred to as a “freak of the human race” in Catherine’s edict. In her 1785 Charter to the Gentry (also called the Charter to the Nobility), Catherine did not mention serfdom and forbade turning the graduates of the orphanage she had built into serfs. Serfdom was extensively traded, and landowners took advantage of the work of serfs, whose requirements were continually expanding, by the end of the 18th century, this social institution had achieved its pinnacle. However, she was unable to abolish serfdom or stop its expansion.

Verdict: It’s half-true.

Did Catherine the Great sell Alaska?

It took almost 70 years after Catherine the Great’s death for Russia to sell Alaska to the United States. Under the rule of Catherine’s great-grandson, Tsar Alexander II, Russia sold Alaska to America in 1867. On the other hand, under Catherine, Russian America actually began to grow; the first Russian settlement there was established in 1772, during Catherine the Great’s rule.

Verdict: It’s not true.

By Hrothsige Frithowulf

Hrothsige works at Malevus as a history writer. His areas of historical interest include the ancient world and early Europe, as well as the history of modern culture.