Catherine the Great

One of the slut shamed queens my new book focuses on is Catherine the Great of Russia, whose mythical sex life has gone to extremes. For instance, have you heard the titillating historical trivia about Catherine the Great? You know, the one about how she had a special sling to hold up her horse while she copulated with it, only to be crushed to death by the animal when the sling broke? You probably have. The fact that this myth has been debunked six ways to Sunday has done little to stop its promulgation; it even popped up on the primetime sitcom The Big Bang Theory a couple of years ago.

It drives me crazy.

It’s not just that she didn’t have sex with a horse – it’s the fact she is associated with bestiality means she isn’t remembered for the myriad things that earned her the moniker “Great”.

As just one example, Catherine the Great was profoundly concerned with child health and life expectancy among her subjects. She wrote, “If you go to a village and ask a peasant how many children he has he will say ten, twelve, and sometimes even twenty. If you ask how many of them are alive, he will say, one, two, three, rarely four. This mortality should be fought against” (Massie, 2011). To combat this problem Catherine exponentially increased the number of schools and hospitals in her country, and introduced institutional orphanages in Moscow and St. Petersburg. She founded Russia’s first College of Medicine in 1763 and attempted to lure European doctors to the country by offering them lavish salaries and benefits.

Furthermore, Catherine embraced the new technology of vaccination. The empress made Russia one of the first countries in the world to inoculate its populace. To prove its safety she allowed Dr. Thomas Dimsdale to inoculate her with the smallpox vaccine in 1764. The whole of Russia waited to see what would happen, and after “two weeks of fearful waiting … Catherine did not succumb to the dreadful disease … special prayers of thanksgiving were offered in Russian churches” (Gorbatov, 2006). Catherine’s courageous efforts to popularize inoculations against smallpox saved countless lives.

Is it too much to ask that her name be associated with the eradication of smallpox, rather than fictitious sex with a horse?

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