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Catherine the Great remains one of the most fascinating female figures in history: a girl who was simply a political pawn, married off to a man she barely knew in a far-away land. She became the most powerful woman in the world at the time, deposing her husband and ruling over what is widely perceived to be a Golden Age in Russian history.
Whilst it is far from the most interesting thing about her, Catherine’s love life was widely reported on. Following the removal of her husband, she kept lovers in the same way kings and emperors had kept mistresses: for pleasure, and often for political reasons, amassing 22 known lovers in her life. But who exactly were these men who gave Catherine quite such a reputation?
1. Her husband, Emperor Peter III of Russia
Catherine married Peter, then the Duke of Holstein-Gottorp, aged 16: their marriage was not consummated for another 12 years, due to both Peter’s unstable mental state and his impotence. The couple produced two children: an heir, Paul, and a daughter, Anna Petrovna, who died in infancy.
Peter took mistresses and Catherine responded in kind. Some have questioned the parentage of Paul – Catherine herself heavily hinted in her memoirs that Paul’s father was in fact Sergei Saltykov, one of her lovers at the time.
A mere 6 months into his reign, Peter was overthrown in a coup d’etat orchestrated by Catherine and several leading nobles who were unhappy with Peter’s pro-Prussian policies. Catherine assumed the role of empress regent following Peter’s forced abdication: a position she held until her death in 1796.
2. Stanisław August Poniatowski
Catherine had several affairs before she became Empress: Poniatowski was a Polish aristocrat and diplomat and the two became lovers sometime around 1758. Poniatowski supported a pro-Russian stance within Polish politics, and when Catherine became empress, she wrote expressing her support for his ascension to the Polish throne.
Poniatowski also proposed to Catherine, seeing political advantage in being married to the empress of Russia: however, this seems to have been a widely ridiculed prospect at the time. Poniatowski eventually was elected king in 1763, with the support of Catherine, Russia and 2.5 million rubles. The aim was to have Poland as effectively a puppet state, which was largely accomplished.
3. Grigory Orlov
Orlov was serving as an artillery officer in St Petersburg when he met Catherine, who was then Grand Duchess. The two were conspirators as well as lovers, with Orlov playing an important role in the coup d’etat against Emperor Peter.
Catherine rewarded Orlov handsomely, making him a count as well as Adjutant-General, Director-General of Engineers, and General-in-Chief, and gifting him the Marble Palace in St Petersburg. The Orlov family remained key players at court for a number of years after the coup.
At one point, Catherine was seriously tempted to marry her favourite, but this never came to fruition. Orlov’s rivals defamed him, claiming he had seduced his 13 year old ward, and eventually Catherine’s head was turned by the younger Grigory Potemkin – although not before he had helped Catherine buy the 189 carat diamond which she later named after him: the Orlov Diamond.
She was said to be distraught when he died, despite their estrangement in later years.
4. Alexander Vasilchikov
Vasilchikov was another aristocrat and soldier who was strategically placed in Catherine’s eyeline as a means of removing Orlov from her bed.
Whilst he was awarded all the privilege and prestige expected by the empress’ lover, he was also a virtual prisoner: Catherine forbade him from leaving the palace without her permission, and he was expected to be available to her at all times. In his later writings, Vasilchikov described himself as ‘nothing more to her [Catherine] than a kind of male cocotte’.
The affair with Vasilchikov was relatively short-lived: in a letter to a friend, Catherine described him as a ‘well-meaning but extremely boring bourgeois’. Despite this, Catherine gave Vasilchikov a handsome pension and several properties – he never married, and lived out the rest of his days in Moscow.
5. Grigory Potemkin
Potemkin came from an unremarkable family, enrolling in the army as a young man, before attending the University of Moscow, where he initially excelled. In 1758 things had changed: he was deeply in debt thanks to his penchant for drinking and gambling, and Potemkin was eventually expelled in 1758.
Returning to the military, Potemkin was led a regiment in the palace coup: he was singled out for promotion by Catherine who enjoyed his flirtatious behaviour, sharp mind and talent as a mimic.
The two only became lovers much later: Orlov was still in favour and Potemkin spent time abroad in the army, proving his military prowess. Catherine began to rely him increasingly for military help following revolts and uprisings, and rewarded Potemkin handsomely for his aid: he returned to St Petersburg a war hero.
Catherine and Potemkin’s relationship solidified in 1774, when he openly became her favourite. Potemkin divided the court: many considered him boorish and uncouth, but he was intelligent and Catherine clearly valued his conversation and ideas. Potemkin commissioned the Tauride Palace, which became the model for the palaces of the nobility throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.
Some historians remain convinced that the two married in secret – a morganatic marriage, and that Potemkin was in fact Catherine’s consort. There remains scant evidence to confirm this, although the two remained extremely close and many described them as acting like husband and wife.
By 1776, Catherine seems to have somewhat tired of Potemkin as a lover – she gave him the title of Prince of the Holy Roman Empire, and he remained a favoured minister despite his removal from her bedchamber. She relied heavily on Potemkin for friendship and advice, and it seems that he often vetted her future choice of lover.
6. Platon Zubov
Prince Platon Zubov was a distant relation of the Saltykov family: he met Catherine when he was 22 and she was over 60. He made a strong first impression on the ageing empress and managed to gain significant hold over her affections.
Catherine rewarded her young lover with titles (eventually making him a Prince of the Holy Roman Empire), serfs and money. His political influence meant courtiers and nobles attempted to win his favour too as often Zubov’s favour and Catherine’s favour were one and the same: she relied on him heavily.
On her death, Zubov was said to be distraught – out of genuine feeling for Catherine or at his prospects now she was gone remains unclear. When Paul ascended the throne, Zubov was stripped of his land and titles and forced into ‘voluntary’ exile.