8 Things You Didn’t Know About Catherine the Great

8 Things You Didn’t Know About Catherine the Great

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1. Catherine the Great’s name wasn’t Catherine, and she wasn’t even Russian.
The woman whom history would remember as Catherine the Great, Russia’s longest-ruling female leader, was actually the eldest daughter of an impoverished Prussian prince. Born in 1729, Sophie von Anhalt-Zerbst enjoyed numerous marital prospects due to her mother’s well-regarded bloodlines.

In 1744, 15-year-old Sophie was invited to Russia by Czarina Elizabeth, a daughter of Peter the Great who had assumed the Russian throne in a coup just three years earlier. The unmarried and childless Elizabeth had chosen her nephew Peter as heir and was now in search of his bride. Sophie, well trained by her ambitious mother and eager to please, made an immediate impact on Elizabeth, if not her intended husband. The marriage took place on August 21, 1745, with the bride (a new convert to Orthodox Christianity) now bearing the name Ekaterina, or Catherine.

2. Catherine’s eldest son—and heir—may have been illegitimate.
Catherine and her new husband had a rocky marriage from the start. Though the young Prussian princess had been imported to produce an heir, eight years passed without a child. Some historians believe Peter was unable to consummate the marriage, while others think he was infertile.

Desperately unhappy in their married lives, Peter and Catherine both began extramarital affairs, she with Sergei Saltykov, a Russian military officer. When Catherine gave birth to a son, Paul, in 1754, gossips murmured that Saltykov—not Peter—had fathered him. Catherine herself gave credence to this rumor in her memoirs, going so far as to say that Empress Elizabeth had been complicit in permitting Catherine and Saltykov’s relationship. While historians today believe that Catherine’s claims were simply an attempt to discredit Peter and that he was indeed Paul’s father, there is little debate over the paternity of Catherine’s three additional children: It’s believed that none of them were fathered by Peter.

READ MORE: The Troubled Marriage of Catherine the Great and Peter III

3. Catherine came to power in a bloodless coup that later turned deadly.
Elizabeth died in January 1762, and her nephew succeeded to the throne as Peter III, with Catherine as his consort. Eager to put his own stamp on the nation, he quickly ended Russia’s war with Prussia, an act that proved deeply unpopular to Russia’s military class. A program of liberal domestic reforms aimed at improving the lives of the poor also alienated members of the lower nobility.

These unhappy factions turned to Catherine, who was also fearful of Peter’s intentions. As tensions mounted, a plan to overthrow Peter took root. When the conspiracy was uncovered in July 1762, Catherine moved quickly, gaining the support of the country’s most powerful military regiment and arranging for her husband’s arrest.

On July 9, just six months after becoming czar, Peter abdicated, and Catherine was proclaimed sole ruler. However, what had began as a bloodless coup soon turned deadly. On July 17 Peter died, possibly at the hands of Alexei Orlov, the brother of Catherine’s current lover Gregory. Though there is no proof that Catherine knew of the alleged murder before it happened, it cast a pall over her reign from the start.

4. Catherine faced down more than a dozen uprisings during her reign.
Of the various uprisings that threatened Catherine’s rule, the most dangerous came in 1773, when a group of armed Cossacks and peasants led by Emelyan Pugachev rebelled against the harsh socioeconomic conditions of Russia’s lowest class, the serfs. As with many of the uprisings Catherine faced, Pugachev’s Rebellion called into question the validity of her reign. Pugachev, a former army officer, claimed that he was actually the deposed (and believed dead) Peter III, and therefore the rightful heir to the Russian throne.

Within a year, Pugachev had drawn thousands of supporters and captured a large amount of territory, including the city of Kazan. Initially unconcerned about the rebellion, Catherine soon responded with massive force. Faced with the might of the Russian army, Pugachev’s supporters eventually deserted him, and he was captured and publicly executed in January 1775.

5. Being Catherine the Great’s lover came with huge rewards.
Catherine was famously loyal to her lovers, both during their relationship and after it ended. Always parting on good terms, she bestowed upon them titles, land, palaces and even people—gifting one former paramour with more than 1,000 serfs, or indentured servants.

But perhaps nobody reaped the bounties of her favor more than Stanislaw Poniatowski, one of her earliest lovers and the father of one of her children. A member of the Polish nobility, Poniatowski first became involved with Catherine (who was not yet on the throne) when he served in the British embassy to St. Petersburg. Even after a scandal partly caused by their relationship forced him from the Russian court, they remained close. In 1763, long after their relationship had ended and a year after she had come to power, Catherine successfully threw her support (both military and financial) behind Poniatowski in his effort to become king of Poland. However, once installed on the throne, the new king, who Catherine and others believed would be a mere puppet to Russian interests, began a series of reforms meant to strengthen his country’s independence. What was once a strong bond between the two former lovers soon soured, with Catherine forcing Poniatowski to abdicate and Russia leading the effort to break up and dissolve the newly formed Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

6. Catherine saw herself as an enlightened ruler.
Catherine’s reign was marked by vast territorial expansion, which greatly added to Russia’s coffers but did little to alleviate the suffering of her people. Even her attempts at governmental reforms were often bogged down by Russia’s vast bureaucracy. However, Catherine considered herself to be one of Europe’s most enlightened rulers, and many historians agree. She wrote numerous books, pamphlets and educational materials aimed at improving Russia’s education system.

She was also a champion of the arts, keeping up a lifelong correspondence with Voltaire and other prominent minds of the era, creating one of the world’s most impressive art collections in St. Petersburg’s Winter Palace (now home to the famed Hermitage Museum) and even trying her hand at composing opera.

7. Contrary to popular myth, Catherine died a fairly mundane, uneventful death.
Given the empress’ shocking reputation, it’s perhaps not surprising that gossip followed her wherever she went, even to the grave. After her death on November 17, 1796, her enemies at court began spreading various rumors about Catherine’s final days. Some claimed that the all-powerful ruler had died while on the toilet. Others took their lurid storytelling even further, perpetuating a myth that has endured for centuries: that Catherine, whose lustful life was an open secret, had died while engaging in a sex act with an animal, usually believed to be a horse. Of course, there is no truth to this rumor. Though her enemies would have hoped for a scandalous end, the simple truth is that Catherine suffered a stroke and died quietly in her bed the following day.

READ MORE: Why Catherine the Great's Enemies Turned Her into a Sex Fiend

8. Catherine’s eldest son met the same grisly fate as his father.
Catherine had a famously stormy relationship with her eldest son, Paul. The boy had been removed from his mother’s care shortly after his birth and raised largely by the former czarina, Elizabeth, and a series of tutors. After she assumed the throne, Catherine, fearful of retribution for Peter III’s deposing and death, kept Paul far away from affairs of state, further alienating the boy. Relations between the two grew so bad that Paul was at times convinced his mother was actively plotting his death. While Catherine had no such plans, she did fear that Paul would be an incompetent ruler and looked for alternate options for the succession.

Much like Elizabeth before her, Catherine took control of the upbringing and education of Paul’s sons, and rumors abounded that she intended to name them her heirs, bypassing Paul. In fact, it is believed that Catherine intended to make this official in late 1796 but died before she was able to do so. Worried that his mother’s will included provisions to this effect, Paul confiscated the document before it could be made public. Alexander, Paul’s eldest son, was aware of his grandmother’s plans but bowed to pressure and did not stand in his father’s way. Paul became czar but soon proved to be just as erratic and unpopular as Catherine had feared. Five years into his reign, he was assassinated, and his 23-year-old son assumed power as Alexander I.

Catherine the Great

Catherine II [a] (born Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst 2 May 1729 in Stettin – 17 November 1796 in Saint Petersburg [b] ), most commonly known as Catherine the Great, [c] was empress regnant of All Russia from 1762 until 1796 – the country's longest-ruling female leader. She came to power following a coup d'état that overthrew her husband and second cousin, Peter III. Under her reign, Russia grew larger, its culture was revitalised, and it was recognised as one of the great powers of Europe.

Russian: Екатерина Алексеевна Романова , romanized: Yekaterina Alekseyevna Romanova

In her accession to power and her rule of the empire, Catherine often relied on her noble favourites, most notably Count Grigory Orlov and Grigory Potemkin. Assisted by highly successful generals such as Alexander Suvorov and Pyotr Rumyantsev, and admirals such as Samuel Greig and Fyodor Ushakov, she governed at a time when the Russian Empire was expanding rapidly by conquest and diplomacy. In the south, the Crimean Khanate was crushed following victories over the Bar confederation and Ottoman Empire in the Russo-Turkish War, 1768–1774 due to the support of the United Kingdom, and Russia colonised the territories of Novorossiya along the coasts of the Black and Azov Seas. In the west, the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, ruled by Catherine's former lover, King Stanisław August Poniatowski, was eventually partitioned, with the Russian Empire gaining the largest share. In the east, Russians became the first Europeans to colonise Alaska, establishing Russian America.

Catherine reformed the administration of Russian guberniyas (governorates), and many new cities and towns were founded on her orders. An admirer of Peter the Great, Catherine continued to modernise Russia along Western European lines. However, military conscription and the economy continued to depend on serfdom, and the increasing demands of the state and of private landowners intensified the exploitation of serf labour. This was one of the chief reasons behind rebellions, including the large-scale Pugachev Rebellion of Cossacks, nomads, peoples of Volga and peasants.

The period of Catherine the Great's rule, the Catherinian Era, [1] is considered a Golden Age of Russia. [2] The Manifesto on Freedom of the Nobility, issued during the short reign of Peter III and confirmed by Catherine, freed Russian nobles from compulsory military or state service. Construction of many mansions of the nobility, in the classical style endorsed by the empress, changed the face of the country. She enthusiastically supported the ideals of the Enlightenment and is often included in the ranks of the enlightened despots. [d] As a patron of the arts, she presided over the age of the Russian Enlightenment, including the establishment of the Smolny Institute of Noble Maidens, the first state-financed higher education institution for women in Europe.

7 Reasons Catherine the Great Was So Great

If persistent tabloid covers and made-for-television miniseries have taught us anything, it's that us commoners simply love a royal scandal. So it's no surprise then that a legendary monarch like Catherine the Great, the longest reigning female leader of Russia, has in many cases been reduced to tales of sordid affairs and unsavory sexual trysts. But those well versed in Russian history will tell you that Catherine, who ruled from 1762 to 1796, was so much more than the gossip and intrigue that surrounded her during her reign and has shrouded her since her death. Here are seven facts you need to know about the controversial, charismatic and game-changing Catherine the Great.

1. She Wasn't Born as a Catherine or as a Russian

Born in 1729 in Prussia (modern day Poland) as Sophie von Anhalt-Zerbst, the woman who would later be known as Catherine the Great was the oldest daughter of a German prince named Christian August von Anhalt-Zerbst. Thanks to her mother's prestigious lineage (which was distantly connected to Empress Elizabeth of Russia), Sophie pretty much had her pick of the litter in terms of marital prospects. At the age of 14, she was paired up with her second cousin, Elizabeth's son, Peter III. The grandson of Peter the Great, Peter III was heir to the Russian throne. In 1744, Catherine relocated to Russia and took on the title Grand Duchess Ekaterina (Catherine) Alekseevna, and a year later, she and Peter were married. But the union wasn't quite a storybook romance. We'll get to that in a bit.

2. Her Progressive Legacy Gets Lost Among Lurid Tales

"More attention should be paid to Catherine II as legislatrix, someone with a very strong work ethic who issued numerous laws to restructure the state (to achieve administrative uniformity across a vast empire), society (by more clearly delineating different societal categories), and the very configuration of Russian towns (she had blueprints made for uniform buildings in town centers)," Victoria Frede, associate professor in the department of history at UC Berkeley, says via email. "It is well known that she aggressively expanded the size of the Russian empire (including Crimea), though few appreciate that she was more successful in increasing the empire's size than Peter the Great. We may disapprove, and her legacy was mixed, especially because of the deepening of social inequality (the oppression of serfs) in her reign. She was a hard-nosed ruler, but that is why she made such a big imprint on the country."

3. Her Reign Was the "Golden Age of the Russian Empire"

Catherine called herself a "glutton for art" and she was obsessed with European paintings and European-inspired architecture. In fact, St. Petersburg's State Hermitage Museum, which now occupies the whole Winter Palace, started out as Catherine's personal collection. She is considered the monarch responsible for changing the face of Russia through the construction of classical mansions, her endorsement of Enlightenment ideals, and the establishment of the Smolny Institute for Noble Maidens, the first state-financed higher education institution for women in Europe, among other achievements.

"She was a true 'intellectual on the throne' who was very much involved in Russia's cultural life (and among other things, brought Russia much more into European consciousness)," Marcus C. Levitt, professor emeritus of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Southern California, says via email. "Hers was a 'golden age' of Russian culture. She both laid the basis for a public sphere in Russia and in reacting against the French Revolution at the end of her reign, also laid the basis for later attempts to shut down the public sphere. Hers was arguably the longest and most successful reign in Russian history."

4. Her Love Life Was Complicated To Say the Least

It's no secret Catherine and Peter had a troubled marriage from the start. The fact that she didn't produce an heir after eight years of marriage led many to believe Peter either was unable to consummate the marriage or was infertile. Regardless of the reason, both Catherine and Peter engaged in extramarital affairs, and by 1752, she was regularly hooking up with Sergei Saltykov, a Russian military officer who many people believe is the actual father of Catherine's first child, Paul, who was born in 1754. Catherine didn't do much to deny these rumors — she even said Empress Elizabeth permitted the affair. Historians can't be sure who the baby daddy really was, but most agree that Peter didn't father a single one of Catherine's three additional children. She had a daughter with Stanislaus Poniatowski, who she later helped to become king of Poland, and in the ultimate crushing blow to their marriage, Catherine overthrew Peter in a coup d'état in July 1762, garnering her the title of Empress of Russia. She never married again, but she did build a reputation for taking lovers and then promoting them to key government positions.

"She was a serial monogamist who constantly desired the physical and spiritual closeness of a lover furthermore, she exploited her lovers' abilities for the good of the country," says Levitt. "There's a lot more I could say here the later tradition often saw her as a consummate hypocrite, but this I think takes things out of historical context. I believe that her heart was in the right place, but that she understood the nature and limitations of political power in Russia."

5. Politically and Socially, She Was Both Liberal and Conservative

While Catherine had a major hand in modernizing Russia in the image of Western Europe, she didn't do much to change the system of serfdom. In the 18th century, Russian serfs weren't bound to land, but to their owners, and while they weren't exactly slaves, the system of forced labor is, through a modern lens, a clearly problematic and punishing practice. Catherine made some moves to change this system, signing legislation to prohibit the practice, and even penning a 1775 manifesto that prohibited former serfs who had been freed from becoming serfs again. But on the other hand, Catherine also limited the freedoms of many peasants and gave away many state-owned peasants to become private serfs. Between 1773 and 1775, rebellion leader Yemelyan Pugachev rallied peasants and Cossacks and promised the serfs land of their own and freedom from their lords in what was known as Pugachev's Rebellion. By late 1774, somewhere between 9,000 to 10,000 rebels were dead, and by September of that year, the rebellion was finished.

6. That Story About Her Cause of Death? Totally False

Perhaps one of the most notorious rumors to follow Catherine have been the ones regarding her cause of death. Let's put this story to rest: Catherine did not die while having sex with a horse. And yes, that's an age-old theory that's an unflattering piece of gossip that's trailed her since her death on Nov. 17, 1796. Apparently, according to History.com, "the use of horse-riding as a sexual metaphor had a long history in libelous attacks on courtly women. Horse-riding was integrally linked with notions of nobility, and this story was also a perfect subversion of Catherine's noted equestrian skills." In reality, Catherine died of a stroke at the age of 67.

7. Her Reputation May Be On the Mend

"I think one could say as a general matter that Catherine's image has greatly improved over the past hundred years or so," Alexander M. Martin, professor of history at the University of Notre Dame, says via email. "In Russia before the 1917 revolution, she mostly had a dubious reputation: politically, as someone who talked a lot about 'enlightened' values but refused to free the serfs and personally, as a woman who was immoral because of her succession of lovers. There has been a lot of scholarship about her since the mid-20th century, and mostly, it has tended to rehabilitate her. While clearly she did nothing to help the serfs, we have gained a greater appreciation of her efforts to modernize Russia in other ways and our own changing attitudes about gender and sexuality have led us to stop seeing her private life as scandalous the way earlier generations did."

Vaccines may still be a touchy topic to some, but Catherine had no qualms endorsing the practice of inoculations. She chose to be inoculated against smallpox even though it was a controversial practice at the time. She said, "my objective was, through my example, to save from death the multitude of my subjects who, not knowing the value of this technique, and frightened of it, were left in danger.' By 1800, about 2 million vaccines were administered throughout the Russian Empire.

2. Catherine the Great's marriage to Peter the III was rocky.

G.A. Kachalov, Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

Catherine and Peter were an ill-matched pair: Catherine was bright and ambitious whereas Peter, according to Britannica, was "mentally feeble." Catherine didn’t like him: “Peter III had no greater enemy than himself all his actions bordered on insanity,” she wrote in 1789. Her memoirs portray the Tsar as a drunk, a simpleton, and somebody who “took pleasure in beating men and animals.” Whether these statements are accurate or not, Catherine and her spouse were clearly unhappy, and they both had extramarital affairs. Catherine had at least three affairs, and hinted that none of her children were her husband's.

That startled the horse, causing it to run off, dragging the defendant with it."

Slander put about by Polish emigres it is believed, although another theory has it simply as a gossip amongst the French upper classes which then spiralled.

No, she didn't. Some of the rumour-mongering was just plain sexism against a immensely powerful woman. She had lovers but compared to the Kings and Princes of Europe she was positively virginal.

The story goes that she died when the halter broke as she was having sex with a horse but in actual fact she died after collapsing, probably from a stroke, in her own bed surrounded by friends and carers:

Basically it originated becase of jealousy - under Catherine (Yekaterina) the Russian Empire had expanded massively.

Catherine never screwed horses and nor did she service any regiments (though it is true she picked lovers from the Horse Guards - AGAIN: NOT THE ACTUAL HORSES).

The Cossacks: Absolutely not after the rebellion under Pugachev. Catherine was not a fan of Cossacks and nor were they fans of hers.

Because her life, and death, is well documented, and the rumours can be traced back to where they originated from: France:

The screwing horses myth, whilst long lived, has been well and truly debunked by historians.

Because her life, and death, is well documented, and the rumours can be traced back to where they originated from: France:

The screwing horses myth, whilst long lived, has been well and truly debunked by historians.

If I was screwing a horse I'd do my utmost to ensure I didn't get caught. Maybe she did too.

I know she didn't die screwing a horse but that doesn't mean she had never screwed one.

I wouldn't have thought it was technically possible really.

I can't imagine the position a female (or the horse for that matter) would need to be in to have their wicked way with a horse.

So that's something of a "Neigh" then.

If I was screwing a horse I'd do my utmost to ensure I didn't get caught. Maybe she did too.

I know she didn't die screwing a horse but that doesn't mean she had never screwed one.

Like that anyone could say you were having sex with goats and as no one can disprove it the rumour would stick ?


Like that anyone could say you were having sex with goats and as no one can disprove it the rumour would stick ?

No, she didn't. Some of the rumour-mongering was just plain sexism against a immensely powerful woman. She had lovers but compared to the Kings and Princes of Europe she was positively virginal.

Basically it originated becase of jealousy - under Catherine (Yekaterina) the Russian Empire had expanded massively.

Catherine never screwed horses and nor did she service any regiments (though it is true she picked lovers from the Horse Guards - AGAIN: NOT THE ACTUAL HORSES).

The Cossacks: Absolutely not after the rebellion under Pugachev. Catherine was not a fan of Cossacks and nor were they fans of hers.

All female rulers get accused of all sorts of deviance. Marie Antoinette was accused of sleeping with her son. Elizabeth 1 stands accused of being a man really. Cleopatra was a femme fatale who corrupted honest Romans. Tsarina Alexandra was te lover of Rasputin - all ninsense.
The root of all these wild stories is fear and resentment - and the surest way in male eyes to bring a woman down is to accuse her of such things.

If I was screwing a horse I'd do my utmost to ensure I didn't get caught. Maybe she did too.

I know she didn't die screwing a horse but that doesn't mean she had never screwed one.

She didn't screw horses. The rumour came out of France, and honestly, considering how there really was no such thing as a private life for royalty, if she screwed horses it would have been known. There is no record of her ever having screwed a horse.

I can't prove definitively that she didn't, but then nor can i prove that Stiffy78 wasn't hatched from an alien egg in a secret laboratory as part of a diabolical plan to take over the world.

Catherine the Great: Brilliant, Inspirational, Ruthless

Perhaps one of the greatest female rulers of all time, Catherine the Great, was one the most cunning, ruthless and efficient leaders in all of Russia. Her reign, while not too long, was exceptionally eventful and she made a name for herself in history as she climbed up the ranks of Russian nobility and eventually made her way to the top, becoming the Empress of Russia.

Her life began as the daughter to a minor German nobility she was born in Stettin, in 1729 to a prince by the name of Christian Augustus. They named their daughter Sophia Augusta and she was raised as a princess, taught all of the formalities and rules that royalty learns. Sophia’s family wasn’t particularly rich and the title of royalty gave them some small ability to gain claim to the throne, but nothing was awaiting them if they didn’t take action.

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Sophia’s mother, Johanna, was an ambitious woman, a gossip and most importantly, an opportunist. She greatly craved power and the spotlight, knowing that it would be possible for her little girl to someday take hold of the throne. Sophia’s feelings on the matter were mutual as well, for her mother imparted a hope that she could someday become the Empress of Russia.

Sophia was invited to spend time with Empress Elizabeth of Russia for some time, where Sophia quickly found a deep desire to become the ruler of Russia by any means necessary. She dedicated herself to learning Russian, focusing on achieving fluency as quickly as possible. She even converted to Russian Orthodoxy, leaving her traditional roots as a Lutheran behind, so that she could identify with the culture of Russia on an authentic basis. This would put a strain on her relationship with her father, who was a devout Lutheran, but she didn’t particularly care. Her eyes were wide with the deep desire to be the true leader of Russia. Upon her conversion to Russian Orthodoxy, she took the new name of Catherine.

At 16 she married a young man by the name of Peter the III, he was a drunkard and a pale man whom she certainly didn’t care for in the least. They had met before when they were younger and she knew that he was weak and not cut out for any kind of leadership capacity, but there was a serious upshot to marrying him: he was a Grand Duke. This meant that he was essentially an heir to the throne and would be Catherine’s ticket to the big leagues. He would hopefully lead her to the success and power that she craved.

Even though she was looking forward to the pleasure of someday being a ruler, her marriage to Peter was a miserable affair. They did not particularly care for each other the relationship was purely one of political benefit. She despised him because he wasn’t a serious man, he was a buffoon and a drunk, who was known to be sleeping around. She spited him greatly and she herself began to take upon some new lovers in the hopes of making him jealous. They didn’t get along well at all.

Despite the frustration, the lies and accusations hurled at one another, they stayed together. After all, the marriage was one of political expediency and not particularly one made out of love. Catherine’s patience paid off in the long run, however as the Empress of Russia, Elizabeth, died in 1762, opening up the throne. Peter was able to make a clean claim to the throne and he succeeded Elizbeth, becoming the new Emperor of Russia. This pleased Catherine because it meant that she was only one heartbeat away from becoming the sole ruler of Russia.

Peter was a weak ruler and he had some odd proclivities. For one, he was an ardent admirer of Prussia and his political views caused alienation and frustration within the local body of nobles. Catherine’s friends and allies were beginning to grow weary of Peter and this was just the opportunity that she needed to seize power to the throne. She put together a plan to stage a coup and force Peter to abdicate the throne, handing power over to herself. She had put up with him long enough and his political weaknesses opened up a great door to his own destruction. Catherine rallied up a big enough force to believe that she would be a worthy owner of the throne, and in 1762, she kicked Peter off of the throne, assembling a small force that arrested him and pressed him into signing control over to her. Catherine had finally achieved her major dream of becoming the Empress of Russia. Interestingly enough, Peter died a few days later in captivity. Some wonder if it was her doing, but there was no evidence to back that up. She certainly did despise the man, however.

Catherine was an exceptionally competent individual. She had spent her whole life preparing for her rule and she wasn’t about to completely waste it by being usurped just like her husband. There had been some level of political pressure to install Catherine’s 7-year-old son, Paul, as the Emperor and she was certainly not about to let that happen. A child could easily be manipulated based on whoever was controlling him, and she was not going to let her reign be threatened by another coup. So, she focused on building up her power as quickly as possible, not sparing a single moment. She increased her strength among her allies, reduced her enemies influence and made sure that the military was on her side.

While Catherine had desired to be a ruler, she certainly had no desire to be a petty or cruel dictator. In her time studying, reading and learning, she had come to understand that there was tremendous value in the concept of the Enlightenment, a political philosophy that at the time embraced knowledge and reason about superstition and faith. Russia at this point in their history, was not particularly well known for being a cultured or educated population. Indeed, the sprawling lands of the Russian world was composed of peasantry who were little more than farmers and a few steps above barbarians. Catherine sought to change the world’s opinion of Russia and set about a plan to become known as a major player on the national stage.

She took on many lovers over her time as the rule of Russia, in fact she was particularly famous for her relationships with these men. Sometimes the relationships were meant to empower her in some capacity, such as her relationship with Grigory Orlov, a man who supported her militarily in her rise to power. Her relationships and liaisons are unfortunately something to speculate, because as is common in history, a great deal of rumors aimed at her sexual promiscuity were unleashed by her rivals. Whether those stories and rumors are true, it is impossible to know, but given the practice at the time to smear that way, it’s possible that most of the tales are simply untrue.

Catherine worked hard to expand Russian territory, working on a military campaign series that would eventually lead her to annexing Crimea. Her original intentions had been to empower and increase the level of freedom of the serfs and ordinary people of Russia, but unfortunately those ideals were thrown by the wayside as it would have caused significant political upheaval amongst the nobility at the time. She had hoped that someday she would be able to help her people in becoming empowered, that every man would be an equal, but unfortunately her desires for the time being were just too far advanced for the culture at the time. Later on, she would end up changing her mind, primarily due to the fact that things like the French Revolution, civil unrest within the country and general fear caused her to realize how dangerous it was to the Aristocracy if everyone were to be made equal. Her policy of freedom was shelved in favor of her longstanding policy of political pragmatism.

6. Her Mother Sabotaged Her

Catherine’s courting of Peter III couldn’t have started out more horribly, and not just because she was less than impressed with her beau-to-be. For one thing, her meddling mother Johanna got herself kicked out of court within a matter of months for offending the courtiers. Catherine only managed to hang on by working her charms overtime.

Catherine the Great (2015– ), Mars Media Entertainment

10 things you may not know about Catherine the Great

Raphael’s “Saint George and the Dragon” was one of the pieces that Catherine the Great intended for the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. It is now held at the National Gallery of Art. (National Gallery of Art/National Gallery of Art)

A minor German princess whose path to Russian empress wasn’t exactly kosher, Catherine the Great (1729-1796) had a dozen lovers — often much younger than her — and collected art shrewdly, ultimately creating St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum. But however diverting and newsworthy the truth about her is, misinformation endures.

“She had a lot of enemies who wrote quite negative things about her after she died and even when she was still alive,” says Susan Jaques, a Los Angeles-based writer whose new book, “The Empress of Art: Catherine the Great and the Transformation of Russia” will launch April 3 at a National Museum of Women in the Arts event.

After Catherine’s death, her estranged son Paul, who became czar, sought to erase his mother’s legacy and memory. A tug-of-war over how great Catherine really continued for some time.

Here are 10 things about the Russian ruler that might surprise you:

“The Empress of Art: Catherine the Great and the Transformation of Russia” by Susan Jaques. (Pegasus Books)

A land-grabby monarch who likely had a hand in her husband’s death and who annexed the Crimean peninsula in 1783, partitioned Poland out of existence, and fought two wars against the Ottomans, Catherine was subject to the regular strain of loneliness. Lovers in their 20s couldn’t fill that void. “She fell very strongly for some of these young men,” Jaques says. “She’s coming off as rather needy. This is not the Catherine that we know. It gets a little bit sad. She’s still trying to have this emotional connection, and yet she’s in her 50s and 60s. It’s not working out for her.”

Despite her extramarital affairs and illegitimate children, Catherine could be a prude. She hated Giulio Romano’s painting “Two Lovers,” which shows a semi-nude couple in a sexual position. “She had it put in the basement at the Winter Palace. It was so racy,” Jaques says. “It’s not mythological nor an allegory. It’s erotic. That was not acceptable, because she saw herself as this enlightened empress.” The Enlightenment prioritized reason and self-control.

3. She was (sort of) a good grandmother.

Catherine wasn’t able to raise her children, so she took over rearing her grandchildren. “She was a very doting grandmother,” Jaques says.

4. She traveled only in her imagination.

After arriving in Russia at age 14 to marry Peter III, Catherine never left Russia. “I think she was afraid to leave,” Jaques says. Others would have tried to usurp her throne. So she became an “armchair traveler” with a fantastic art library. She had parts of the Hermitage decorated to evoke works of art she couldn’t see, like Raphaels.

5. She was strategically humble.

Despite devouring art catalogues, Catherine humbly referred to herself as an art “glutton.” She told artists whom she commissioned that she knew less than a child about art. That was meant to disarm rather than intimidate, as she was a powerful woman who tended to be the smartest person in the room. “She did this for her political survival,” Jaques says.

6. She was a hands-on patron.

Catherine sent art agents throughout Europe to seek the best collections for her to acquire. Soon she told them what she wanted. Letters she sent to her favorite architect, Giacomo Quarenghi, include her own sketches and detailed French instructions. “She was not just, ‘Okay, I need a palace for my grandson Alexander.’ She was actually telling her architect what she wanted,” Jaques says.

Though she wrote opera librettos and made operas, concerts, and ballets a fixture of her cultural life, Catherine described herself as tone deaf. “She reportedly had to be given a sign when to applaud,” Jaques writes.

8. She’d likely be good at social media at least with selfies.

Catherine devoted significant time to having her portrait painted and updated frequently. Among many depictions is one that casts her as the goddess Minerva (Athena). “Because she was German. Because she really bumped off her husband and seized power, she had a real legitimacy problem. She wasn’t even Russian,” Jaques says. “All her reign, throughout 34 years, she was constantly trying to reinforce her legitimacy, and art was a big part of that for her.”

9. Part of her collection became Washington’s National Gallery of Art.

In 1930 and 1931, Andrew Mellon, one of the foremost art collectors in the United States, ignored a trade embargo on the Soviet Union and bought 21 paintings secretly for the equivalent of $90 million today. He hid the works — 15 of which were Catherine purchases — in a Corcoran Gallery cupboard. Amid political scandal, as is wont in the District, the paintings, including a Raphael, a Veronese, and five Rembrandts, became the foundation of the National Gallery of Art, whose construction began in 1937.

10. She was partially ahead of her time.

Catherine, in many ways, anticipated a modern way of looking at the world, but in other ways she was firmly of her era. She chose not to take a progressive stance on serfdom, and when a cabinet maker tried to lecture her on the matter, she threw him out, Jaques says. “She’s full of contradictions. She’s ahead of her time she’s enlightened in terms of art. But politically? Not so.”

Catherine the Great: your guide to the famed Empress of Russia

Was Russia's most renowned female ruler Catherine the Great – played by actress Helen Mirren in TV series The Great – an astute military leader and spearhead of human rights? Or was she a "deceitful harlot" who only served the privileged? And the question everyone wants to know: did she murder her husband, Tsar Peter III?

This competition is now closed

Published: October 21, 2019 at 1:00 pm

When Catherine Alekseyevna, empress consort of all the Russians, awoke on 28 June 1762, it was to startling news. She jumped out of bed, hastily got dressed, and rushed to the carriage that was waiting for her in the grounds of her palace, the Peterhof. Such was Catherine’s haste that morning that she didn’t have time to do her hair before jumping in her carriage. Instead, her expensive French hairdresser attended to it while she swept through the streets of Saint Petersburg.

As the carriage picked up speed, Catherine can hardly have failed to notice that crowds were thronging the roadside to hail her progress. When she reached her destination, it soon became clear why. Her husband, Tsar Peter III of Russia, had been deposed in a coup, led away in tears to a very uncertain future – and Catherine was to replace him.

If Catherine had considered the magnitude of the task that confronted her that morning, she might have headed straight back to bed rather than boldly accept the army’s invitation to become their tsarina. Russia in the mid-18th century was a vast, unruly and, in many ways, backwards country, blighted by poverty and massive inequality. Thanks to her riotous love life, her passion for high art and her fabulously expensive tastes, Catherine would carve out a reputation as one of the most colourful rulers in European history, arguably becoming in the process the most powerful woman in history. But it was her achievement in turning Russia from basket case into a bona fide world superpower that earned her that most prized of epithets, ‘the Great’.

Listen: Janet Hartley explores Catherine the Great’s life and considers whether there is any truth behind the scandals associated with her, on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast

Timeline: Catherine the Great

21 April 1729*

Sophia of Anhalt Zerbst, the future Catherine the Great, is born in Stettin (now Szczecin in Poland) to Princess Johanna Elizabeth of Holstein-Gottorp and Prince Christian August of Anhalt Zerbst.

21 August 1745

Catherine (the name she took in 1744 when she converted to Russian Orthodoxy) marries the future Peter III in St Petersburg during the reign of Elizabeth.

25 December 1761

Peter III becomes tsar of Russia.

28 June 1762

Peter III is deposed by Catherine with the help of elite army officers, including her lover Grigory Orlov. She becomes empress.

30 July 1767

Catherine publishes her Instruction, which proposes liberal, humanitarian political theories.

25 July 1772

Austria, Prussia and Russia agree to partition Poland-Lithuania. Russia gains territory in Lithuania.

10 July 1774

The Treaty of Kuchuk Kainarji (today Kaynardzha in Bulgaria) ends the first Russo-Turkish war (1768–74). Russia acquires significant territory on the northern coast of the Black Sea, including the towns of Kerch and Kinburn and the coast between the rivers Bug and Dnieper.

8 April 1783

Catherine issues a manifesto proclaiming her intention to annex the Crimea from the Ottoman empire. The annexation is confirmed in practice by an agreement with the Turks on 28 December 1783.

21 April 1785

Charters to the nobles and towns are promulgated, clarifying the rights and privileges of nobles and townspeople.

5 October 1791

Grigory Potemkin, Catherine’s favourite and former lover, dies on campaign in Moldavia just before the conclusion of the treaty with the Ottoman empire that ends the second Russo-Turkish War.

13 October 1795

The final partition of Poland-Lithuania is agreed between Austria, Prussia and Russia. Russia acquires 120,000 square km of Lithuania, western Ukraine and Belarus as a result of the three partitions.

6 November 1796

Catherine dies in St Petersburg.

*All dates according to the Julian calendar, used in 18th-century Russia. This timeline first appeared in BBC History Magazine in September 2019

What did Catherine the Great accomplish?

Catherine’s accomplishments are made all the more remarkable by the fact that she didn’t have a single drop of Russian blood in her body. She was born Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg on 2 May 1729 in what was then the city of Stettin (now Szczecin in Poland) to Prussian aristocrats. Her mother, Princess Johanna Elisabeth of Holstein-Gottorp, was a very small fish in Europe’s royal pond but she did have limitless ambition for her daughter and, just as importantly, connections. And it was one of these connections that enabled her to wangle an invitation for the young Catherine to the court of Empress Elizabeth of Russia. Luckily for Johanna, Catherine was a gifted girl. She was pretty, intelligent and, above all, charming, and her magnetic personality had soon enchanted Elizabeth – so much so that the Russian empress engineered Catherine’s engagement to her nephew, Peter.

Catherine’s union with Russia’s heir apparent would catapult her onto the world stage. But as a relationship, it was a car crash. She was worldly and cultured, devouring books on politics and history, and later exchanging letters with the French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire. Peter was self-absorbed and immature, “talking”, as Catherine wrote, “of nothing but soldiers and toys. I listened politely and often yawned but did not interrupt him.”

Their marriage got off to an awful start – on their wedding night Peter left his new wife in bed while he caroused downstairs with his friends – and, with Peter’s elevation to tsar on his aunt’s death in December 1761, things only got worse. Soon he was taking mistresses and openly talking of pushing Catherine aside to allow one of them to rule with him. Not even the birth of a son, Paul, could save the marriage – rumours abounded that Paul’s father was in fact Catherine’s lover, the handsome courtier Sergei Saltykov .

He may have been tsar, but Peter suffered one crucial disadvantage in his confrontation with his wife – he was reviled by swathes of the Russian army. So when Catherine engineered a coup against him – with the help of artillery officer Grigory Orlov – it quickly picked up a devastating momentum. Peter, it was said, “gave up the throne like a child being put to bed”. For the most part, Russia’s church, military and aristocracy welcomed their new female ruler. But the Empress had even bigger fish to fry. She wanted Europe’s superpowers – Britain and France – to accord her nation the respect that she believed it deserved, and that could only be achieved on the military stage.

The great debate: did Catherine the Great kill her husband?

Coups were hardly rare in early-modern Europe, but what makes Tsar Peter III’s downfall in the summer of 1762 so intriguing is the identity of those who masterminded it. That Catherine was complicit in the deposition of her husband is almost beyond doubt – the couple’s relationship had long turned toxic, she had everything to gain from his removal (the Russian throne), and her lover, Grigory Orlov, was the public face of the revolt. But what is less certain is Catherine’s role in what happened next.

The coup caught Peter completely on the hop. After formally abdicating, he was. arrested, taken to the village of Ropsha, and placed in the custody of Alexei Grigoryevich Orlov, Grigory’s brother. A few days later he was dead.

The official explanation was that he had fallen victim to ‘haemorrhoidal colic’. But few doubted that he had been murdered. The big question is, did Catherine order the killing?

The fact is, we just don’t know. Most historians agree that she could, if she’d wished, acted to save Peter – by, for example, allowing him a passage into exile – and that she had lots to gain by ridding herself of him for good. But proving that the new empress had her husband’s blood on her hands has so far proved utterly elusive.

Catherine the Great’s military endeavours

Over the next three decades, Catherine’s armies embarked on a series of military endeavours that would establish Russia as an imperial heavyweight. In the east she partitioned Poland and swallowed up swathes of Lithuania and Belarus. In the south, she took the fight to the Ottoman Empire, with spectacular results.

In their confrontations with the Turks, the Russians were greatly hampered by the lack of a naval presence on the Mediterranean. To overcome this Achilles’ heel, Russia’s generals came up with an audacious plan – to sail a fleet over 4,000 miles from its home port in the Baltic around the west of France and Spain, and up the Mediterranean to take the Turks by surprise. Catherine signed off on the plan, and the payback was game-changing – a famous victory at the battle of Chesma in July 1770 (in which Russia lost at most 600 dead to the Turks’ 9,000″ and a foothold in the Mediterranean. She would later annex the Crimea.

More military victories followed – many of them masterminded by the dashing head of Catherine’s armies, Grigory Potemkin. By the mid-1770s, however, Potemkin was a lot more than just the empress’s chief military adviser – he was her lover. Catherine was smitten, calling him “My colossus… my tiger”, and writing: “Me loves General a lot.” If anyone can be called the love of Catherine’s life, it was he.

But he was far from the last. After her affair with Potemkin fizzled out, Catherine took on a string of new lovers – many of them, curiously, recommended by Potemkin himself. And as the Tsarina grew more elderly, so her new beaus appeared to grow younger – the last, Prince Platon Zubov, was 38 years her junior. Sharing a bed with someone old enough to be your grandmother may not have been to everyone’s taste, but it certainly had its compensations. Catherine routinely bestowed her paramours with titles, land and palaces – and, in one case, more than a thousand serfs.

Eligible young army officers weren’t alone in falling for Catherine’s charms. As her global reputation grew, more and more members of Europe’s intelligentsia developed a fascination with her, some travelling east to report back on the enigmatic woman behind Russia’s renaissance.

“The double doors opened and the Empress appeared,” wrote the French portrait artist Madame Vigée Le Brun after observing Catherine at a gala. “I have said that she was quite small, and yet on the days when she made her public appearances, with her head held high, her eagle-like stare and a countenance accustomed to command, all this gave her such an air of majesty that to me she might have been Queen of the World.”

If Catherine the Great had one overarching goal as empress, it was, in her words, to “drag Russia out of its medieval stupor and into the modern world”. In her eyes, that meant introducing Enlightenment values to the darkest recesses of Russian life, and investing vast sums of energy into promoting the arts. At the latter of these two ambitions, Catherine has few equals. She presided over a golden age of Russian culture, buying the art collection of Britain’s first prime minister, Robert Walpole, snapping up cultural treasures from France and, above all, creating one of the world’s great art collections, the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg. This was no ordinary museum but a shrine to the Enlightenment, and in its galleries Catherine placed 38,000 books, 10,000 drawings and countless engraved gems.

But all this cost money. Eye watering sums of money. Catherine was an inveterate spendthrift, and while she frittered 12 per cent of Russia’s national budget on her court alone, millions of serfs continued to live in grinding poverty.

How many affairs did Catherine the Great have?

The woman who became Catherine the Great was far from the ideal wife. Her marriage to Peter III of Russia lasted from 1745 until his suspicious death in 1762, and she had at least three lovers during this time (Catherine herself hinted that her husband had not fathered her children). As the widowed empress, she showed great favouritism to male courtiers and gained a reputation for rampant promiscuity that has veiled her love-life in myth. Various scholars have credited her with anywhere between 12 and 300 lovers – and even a secret second marriage.

Broken promises

When Catherine assumed the throne, it appeared that she would make some serious strides towards dismantling a system that, for centuries, had condemned Russia’s serfs to work as virtual slaves for their masters. She sponsored the ‘Nakaz’ (or ‘Instruction’), a draft law code heavily influenced by the principles of the French Enlightenment, which proclaimed the equality of all men before the law and disapproved of the death penalty and torture.

But draft stage is as far as the plans got. Catherine never followed through on the Nakaz, and a few years later, thousands of serfs were rising in revolt. They were led by a Cossack called Yemelyan Pugachev, who not only promised their freedom but declared that he was Catherine’s deposed husband, returning to reclaim his throne. This may sound faintly ridiculous, but for Catherine it was deadly serious and, as the rebels hunted down and butchered 1,500 nobles, she struggled to come up with a response to the insurrection.

When she eventually did, she was utterly ruthless. The revolt was crushed, Pugachev was captured, and he was forced to endure a thoroughly unenlightened death – first he was hanged and then his limbs were chopped off. Before long, Catherine enacted a series of laws that greatly increased the nobility’s privileges. For the vast majority of Russians, freedom would have to wait.

By now, Catherine was an old woman increasingly forced to consider what would happen to her adopted nation after her death. She had a frosty relationship with her son Paul, and made it abundantly clear that she’d far prefer her grandson Alexander to succeed her to the throne. It was a battle she would lose – in the short term at least. On 16 November 1796, Catherine had a stroke while on the toilet (not while performing a bizarre sexual act, as a stubborn but completely fabricated rumour has it) and died the following day. Paul was crowned tsar and, in a remarkable show of spite towards his mother, immediately passed a law banning a woman from ever again taking the throne. But his triumph was to be short-lived. Like his father, he was deposed and assassinated in a coup – to be replaced by Catherine’s favourite, Alexander. Most things that Catherine the Great had willed during her extraordinary life came to pass, and it seems that they continued to do so even beyond the grave.

The story of Catherine the Great, but not as you've seen it before

It takes enormous courage in the historical drama genre to declare that your work plays fast and loose with the facts. Most such period epics are obsessed with getting it right, or hiding the cracks where they have parted ways with the history books.

The Great, Australian screenwriter Tony McNamara's hilarious take on the life of Russian sovereign Catherine the Great, does none of that. Instead it wears the badge of "historically inaccurate" with some pride, McNamara says.

Elle Fanning takes centrestage in Tony McNamara's historical drama The Great. Credit: Ollie Upton / Hulu

"I think the title card reads ɺn occasionally true story'," he says, laughing. "And yet it was important to me that there were tent poles of things that were true. How she dealt with smallpox, trying to bring a vaccine to the country, her being a kid who didn't speak the language, marrying the wrong man and responding to that by deciding to change the country."

Those events, McNamara says, "show the essence of her courage, the things she struggled with and the things she wasn't perfect with. There were certain bedrock things I was like, 'We're going to do this, this and this. Within that we can do other stuff that we've made up.' It's not a history lesson but we owe a certain loyalty to our idea of her and what she meant."

The Great stars Elle Fanning as Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia, and Nicholas Hoult as Peter III, her husband and, ultimately, the man she overthrew to claim power for herself. As with McNamara's film The Rage in Placid Lake, which was based on his play The Cafe Latte Kid, The Great is based on another of McNamara's stage works, a play of the same name mounted by the Sydney Theatre Company in 2008.

''When I write theatre, which I do less now, there is a lot of freedom," McNamara says. "You can do anything stylistically. I think that wasn't the case with TV and that's what's changed dramatically. TV's become a wild, try-anything kind of world so I think it gave me an ability to just try this crazy way of writing a period comedy.

Fanning, pretty in pink, as Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia. Credit: Jason Bell / Hulu

"We tried to make The Great as a film and for a long time people didn't want to spend that kind of money on something that seemed, tonally, such a roll of the dice," McNamara adds. "It took a long time for TV to change and then luckily I wrote The Favourite for Yorgos [Lanthimos, the director] and that helped period things that were a bit different get across the line."

Unusually in the realm of stage or book-to-screen adaptations, much of The Great has made the transition intact, McNamara says.

"The show is based on the first 40 minutes of the play, because the second half of the play was a much older Catherine the Great and the first half was young Catherine coming to Russia," he says. "Tonally, it's very, very similar. Probably, lots of the scenes from the play are in the show, more or less complete."

Though the production tackles the life of the young woman born Princess Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg with some mischief, McNamara is a passionate defender of her reputation. History is unkind to her, he says, because it is largely written by men, but also because her enemies put to the page a version of her that served them politically.

"It seemed like her life had been reduced to a salacious headline about having sex with a horse," McNamara says. "Yet, sheɽ done an enormous amount of amazing things, had been a kid whoɽ come to a country that wasn't her own and taken it over.

"One of the things she was completely unapologetic about was her sexual life," McNamara adds. "She saw it as a strength and people used [that] against her. The horse rumour was just a political cartoon. I think it wasn't kind to her and so maybe this redresses the balance a little bit."

Given the success of another of McNamara's projects, The Favourite – a period comedy about the rivalry between two royal cousins vying for the approval of Queen Anne in 18th century England − McNamara has become something of a go-to man for period comedy, even though that is not a space he ever sought to step into as a writer.

"It's a little bit odd because most of the stuff I did was very contemporary," he says. "In TV, Love My Way and Tangle, very dramatic but very contemporary work. I didn't really want to do a period thing, per se, I just wanted to write about Catherine the Great and then The Favourite came along."

McNamara has written a new film for Lanthimos, another period story, he says, but does not divulge details. Now passionate about the genre, McNamara says it gives him a scale that is difficult to capture in contemporary storytelling.

"I think that scale is something that I like as a writer because it gives me a little more leeway, a little more freedom to be extreme," he says. "It accidentally played into my strengths as a writer. So it freed me up in a way that maybe contemporary stuff didn't, to be stylistically bold."

The genre also gives him freedom to lurch between frivolous comedic moments and emotionally devastating moments. Bridging the two tonalities is challenging but achievable, he says, so long as everything on the page is true to the character.

"As long as they're very true to that moment, they're not reaching for the jokes so much, it's just about them responding and that moment happens to be funny, then when something terrible happens and they respond to that, I think for the audience it all feels true," he says.

McNamara cites the examples of writer Larry Gelbart, who developed M*A*S*H, and filmmakers Hal Ashby and Mike Nichols, as masters in that field. "In M*A*S*H, for example, it's out-of-control funny and then they're in an operating theatre and people are dying all around them," McNamara says. "Larry doesn't walk away from either. He takes the moments when the deaths happen. That's what I grew up watching and that's always been my favourite kind of writing."

The Great premieres on Stan on May 16. Stan and this masthead are owned by Nine.