Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia, died on 17 November 1796, less than 24 hours after suffering a massive stroke. She was not anywhere near a horse.
She was one of the strongest and most capable rulers that Russia, and the world, has ever known. She dragged Russia into its place as a modern European state. She rationalized and reformed Russian law and government. She was profoundly concerned with child health and life expectancy among her subjects. 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.
The empress was the “greatest collector and patron of art in the history of Europe” (Massie, 2011). She built the Hermitage Museum and multiple other public works, founded libraries, started academic journals, and won the respect of Voltaire himself. Among the works she acquired were “approximately 4,000 Old Masters, which included 225 painting offed to Catherine after Frederick the Great [of Prussia] could not afford to buy them and the eight Rembrandts, sic Van Dycks, three Rubens, and one Raphael in the Pierre Crozat collection. Catherine also bout coins and medals, objets de vertu, applied art and porcelain, of which one of the most spectacular examples was the 944-piece Green Frog Service, 1773-1774 by Josiah Wedgwood, featuring British scenes” (Perrie et al., 2006). The empress not only supported the arts, she made them. Catherine found time to write neoclassical comedies and French dramas, all while fulfilling her role as the autocrat of Russia.
Yet what is this remarkable woman most remembered for? Her lovers.
In total, Catherine had a dozen lovers over a 44 year period: Sergie Saltykov (1752-1755), Stanislas Poniatowski (1755-1758), Grigory Orlov (1760-1772), Alexander Vasilchikov (1772-1774), Grigory Potemkin (1774-1776), Peter Zavadovsky (1776-1777), Simon Zorich (1777-78), Ivan Rimsy-Korsakov (1778), Alexander Lanskoi (1779-1784), Alexander Yermolov (1785-1786), Alexander Dmitriev-Mamonov (1786-1789), and Platon Zubov (1789-1796).
Her sexual career caused uproar during her lifetime. The empress not only had lovers, she continued to have lovers even after she wasn’t young anymore! This wasn’t reproductive sex; it was for fun!Catherine was seen by many people an awful woman because she did not adhere to the social convention that only men could have sex for pleasure and with younger people. Worse, Catherine was a bad example to other women, showing them that they could also have sex just for fun.
Critics from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, most of whom were men, were particularly horrified by the way Catherine treated her lovers. They were aghast at the idea that when Catherine took a new lover the “young man never left the Palace except at the side of his illustrious mistress. From the start he was a bird in a gilded cage; the cage was beautiful but strictly guarded, Her Majesty would permit no accidents to happen the new favorite” (T.C.M., 1896). In short, she treated her lovers as if the way mistresses were treated. SHE was the protector and provider. SHE could chose to discard her lover. It was a reversal of the natural order! Catherine embodied unnatural womanhood.
Slut shaming Catherine was also useful politically. Any criticism of Catherine’s rule or foreign policy could use her lack of chastity as a tool to denigrate her abilities. In political cartoons about her Catherine’s “sexuality was frequently part of the visual code of the critique” (Dawson, 2003). As the empress gained power for Russia, the cartoons lampooning her became lewd and even pornographic.
There was no story of sexual excess that could not be laid at Catherine’s feet. In famous works of fiction she has been depicted as “an insatiable nymphomaniac with dominatrix tendencies who regards each side in opposed national armies as a ‘main of cocks’” (Jones, 2014). Stories about her sexual excesses grew cruder, more extreme, more common, and more unlikely to have actually happened.
Hullabaloo about Catherine the Great’s private uses of her privates continues even into these sexually ‘liberated’ times. Catherine, like other powerful women before her, has become “emblematic of the imbrication of sexual voraciousness with women holding power” (Dawson, 2003). Her ravenous desires continue to “invoke anxieties about a woman in power and the power of women, represented by sexuality and female sexual appetite (Dawson, 2003). The fact she took men to bed because she had an emotional attachment to them has been downplayed, fixating instead on the physical allure of these “prodigious cocksmen” (Prioleau, 2004). Catherine the Great narratively became nothing more than a woman who really liked sex with lots and lots of men.
Then there is the never-ceasing baloney about the empress having died while screwing a horse. You never know where or when the obloquy about the horse will pop up in popular culture. The popular television sitcom “The Big Bang Theory” trotted the slander out once more on the first episode of season five, when Amy Farrah Fowler (Mayim Bialik) tells Penny (Kelly Cuoco) that Catherine the Great engaged in “interspecies hanky-panky”. The story revolved around Penny’s feelings as a slut after she had sex with a friend of her ex-boyfriend, and Catherine‘s sex life was used as a comforting comparison; the moral being contrasted to a horse-fucking empress Penny wasn’t slutty at all.
Why does the slur about Catherine and the horse continue to capture attention? Because the story of her death demeans her, and makes her seem ridiculous rather than powerful. Catherine also “deserves” a degrading death because she violated cultural norms, and miscreants must be punished. Being crushed by a horse in a humiliating sex act demonstrates “what happens” to women who break the unwritten social rules. While other sluts — Jezebel, Cleopatra, and Anne Boleyn — all died as a result of their gendered rebellions, Catherine the Great died only after a long full life and while still enjoying a lover who was only 1/3 her age. Catherine’s just desserts had to be spun out of thin air.
It may also have roots in Carl Jung’s analytical psychology. According to Jung, some of the things represented by a horse are power and libido. Catherine was powerful, something more often equated with the masculine gender. To die because sex with a horse was too much for her to handle, if not vaginally then at least in terms of a large mass crashing down on her, would be her “comeuppance” for trying to trying to control sex/power she had no business trying to master.
Catherine the Great has been slut shamed because in too many ways the empress acted too much like an emperor. Catherine co-opted masculine cultural privileges as well as male power when she usurped Peter’s throne, and the lies about her death promulgate because the patriarchy wants to make it seem as though she were punished for her misbehavior.
It is also a reminder that you will come to a bad end if you’re a slut who usurps male powers, so you’d better be good.
Catherine the Great. 2007. The Memoirs of Catherine the Great. Random House Publishing Group.
Dawson, Ruth. 2003. In Women in German Yearbook. U of Nebraska Press.
Gorbatov, Inna. 2006. Catherine the Great and the French Philosophers of the Enlightenment: Montesquieu, Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot and Grim. Academica Press,LLC.
Jones, David J. 2014. Sexuality and the Gothic Magic Lantern: Desire, Eroticism and Literary Visibilities from Byron to Bram Stoker. Palgrave Macmillan.
Massie, Robert K. 2011. Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman. Random House Publishing Group.
Perrie, Maureen, Dominic Lieven, and Ronald Grigor Suny. 2006. The Cambridge History of Russia: Volume 2, Imperial Russia, 1689-1917. Cambridge University Press.
Prioleau, Elizabeth. 2004. Seductress: Women Who Ravished the World and Their Lost Art of Love. Penguin.