The Lovers of Catherine the Great

Announcer: Welcome to "Stuff you Missed in History Class," from How Stuff Works dot com.

Katie Lambert: Hello and welcome to the Podcast. I'm Katie Lambert.

Sarah Dowdy: And I'm Sarah Dowdy.

Katie Lambert: And today's topic is the lovers of Catherine the Great. We already talked about her husband in previous episodes. I don't know if you remember, he's the she deposed and then sort of had killed.

Sarah Dowdy: Rings a bell.

Katie Lambert: And he was pretty awful, and yet her son had him dug up and buried next to her. Spending eternity next to someone you despise has to be it's own kind of hell. So who would she rather be next too.

Sarah Dowdy: We're going to be taking a list of a whole list of fellows in fact. And the fist is Sergei Saltykov. We mentioned him in a previous episode, in this three-part Catherine the Great series. It was possibly by him that she had her son, although possibly also by her husband.

Katie Lambert: And the circumstances of the time - she was in a desperately unhappy marriage. Her sex life with her husband was practically non-existent. And she needed to produce and heir. So this relationship was encouraged. And Saltykov was charming and a bad, bad boy. He was handsome and he was very slick. So in other words, he seemed like a good idea, and these honeyed words were hard to resist for our young, sad Catherine.She's vulnerable, and the people at court wanted her to get pregnant, so they're kind of nudging her into this relationship with Saltykov, but she made the mistake of falling in love with him. And he soon grew tired of her. One night, stood her up for a date, and that was the end of that. A hard lesson to learn!

Sarah Dowdy: Fortunately for Catherine, there is another fellow to follow in his footsteps. That's Stanizway Poniatowski. And Stanizway is a very good dancer, which is lucky for him because that's what catches Catherine's eye.

Katie Lambert: At the time of their affair, she was 26, and he described her as having a mouth, which seemed to invite kisses, and a merry disposition. If you want a little idea of who Catherine was in her youth. And he was a virgin. So he's the exact opposite of the darling Saltykov because in him she could find both sex and emotional fulfillment. So moving on up as far as the quality of her men!

Sarah Dowdy: But it was a very secret affair. And that's until her husband finally found out. At first, he was angry. He didn't want his wife to be having an affair, but then he decides that Poniatowski is fun. He's a pretty nice guy, and maybe hey, they should go on double dates or something. Which doesn't sound fun to anyone else involved, except for the sort of crazy emperor?

Katie Lambert: But I think he was just mad at first about the secrecy. And once he found out it was an affair, it was like, oh, well I'm having an affair. This is fine. Let's all four of us hang out and party all night. And no one wanted to do that. But I mean he is who he is, so you have to.

Sarah Dowdy: He probably invited some puppets too, if we know him well.

Katie Lambert: And a lot of these details, we should mention, come from Virginia Rounding's biography of Catherine the Great, which is pretty fantastic. So by Poniatowski, she had her daughter, Anna Petrovna, who is the one who died. But their love was doomed by circumstance, during his absence - on a diplomatic absence, her coup took place. And when she took the throne, she told him not to return because now was not the time for love in her life. This was the time to rule.

Sarah Dowdy: Time to get down to business.

Katie Lambert: And she wrote to him a quote I very much like. "Good bye, the world is full of strange situations," which is a pretty good break up line as far as break up lines go.

Sarah Dowdy: She looks out for him though. She doesn't just toss him off. And when Augustus the Third of Poland dies, Catherine makes sure that her former lover is elected as the new king. Although it doesn't end up being the best deal for him because she partitions Poland, and he abdicates in 1795. But still, i t's the thought that counts, Catherine.

Katie Lambert: And a little detail on him. He instituted sommels in Poland, like the Parisians had, only his were called Thursday dinners and were full of Polish luminaries and intelligent discussions, very finer things club I think.

Sarah Dowdy: Definitely. So while Catherine is settling in to the role of being the empress, she doesn't have a lover for a little bit. But that doesn't last for that long. She says to herself that she needs a young man in her life, and it keeps her healthy. So in 1761, we have Gregory Orlov, and we also mentioned him in a previous podcast. He was the father of her son Alexsai, and he and his brothers were involved in that mysterious death of her husband too. So we know he's definitely one of Catherine's right hand men.

Katie Lambert: And he helped save Russia from plague. So you can imagine, he was a very busy man. They were together for 11 years. They were practically married. And then rather suddenly, it was over. For one thing, he was very powerful in her court, and there were people who would do anything to take him down. And she was also told that he cheated on her. So she replaced him in her life for a time in 1772 with the completely underwhelming Alexander Vasilchikov. Total rebound, he was not worth it.

Sarah Dowdy: Of course, after 11 years with Orlov, a break up is more like a divorce, and Catherine still loves him. And an observer writes that she finds it hard to do without him. She experiences and emptiness in not having someone to whom she can open her heart on everything. And she also describes him as this. "If you ever see him, you will see without doubt, the most handsome man you have ever seen in your life." So there you go Catherine.

Katie Lambert: The pretty ones are always hard to say good bye too. She tried to part with him on very generous terms as far as lands and money and family status go. But it was quite the dramatic breakup. There was a lot of back and forth. And maybe he's coming back, or he's not. A little bit of a power imbalance. But she kept warm feelings for him for the rest of her life, and a great deal of respect. He remained involved in the government, and he also helped to found the free economic society. And she was inconsolable upon his death in 1783. She didn't eat for days, even though in the years leading up to it, she was prepared for it. He'd become deranged and feeble minded. He'd been ill for a while. That already broke her heart. But even then -

Sarah Dowdy: A side note about Orlov before we move on completely from him. He's the source of the famous Orlov diamond, which he bought to please Catherine. And it has muddled origins, like all of the best jewel stories do. Did it come from an idol in a Brahmin Temple perhaps? Or maybe the possession of the assassinated King of Persia! Nobody knows exactly, but it's one of the Romanov Crown Jewels, so it has a very illustrious history.

Katie Lambert: So let's go back to Vasilchikov, or rather let's go past him, because after that, she needed someone special and someone who would open up her heart, like Orlov did. And that brings us to Grigory Potyomkin, the most famous of Catherine's loves. And that's because although his time as her lover was fairly short, he became the most powerful man in the government. They were basically co-rulers. And after the passion was gone, the respect and the friendship remained.

Sarah Dowdy: So he was born in 1739, and he studied theology at the University of Moscow before spending some time in the guards. So that's mainly what we know about his early life. It's this monkish existence followed by military style service. And he becomes Catherine's lover in 1774. And even though their relationship only goes on for two years, it's this very deeply felt one. It's an up and down relationship.

Katie Lambert: In the early days, Catherine wrote him a letter that said, "In order for me to make sense when you are with me, I have to close my eyes, or else I might really say what I have always found laughable, that my gaze is captivated by you. An expression that I used to think was stupid and probable, and unnatural, but which I now see might be possible." This is something different for Catherine.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, she was infatuated with him from the start. And they write each other constantly. You can imagine how that would be today. Maybe just leaving little notes!

Katie Lambert: Lots of e-mails, I'm thinking.

Sarah Dowdy: Notes for each other. But it's not all smooth sailing because they're both so passionate, and they're both very demanding. He's jealous; she's terrified that he'll get bored with her. And neither one wants to believe that the other one could possibly love them as much as they do.

Katie Lambert: So nothing is ever enough. And in other words, it was a bit of a roller coaster. And those of course, get tiring. Her letters are full of anxiety . She repeatedly refers to herself as ill, mad, weak, and most tellingly wrote, "Oh, how awful it is to love extraordinarily."

Sarah Dowdy: Potyomkin's demands go beyond the bounds of what you expect from someone in a relationship with you. He wants political positions that proclaim his status. And it's not just an ego thing. He's very politically minded.And in fact, that's one of the things that Catherine loved about him. They could have really good conversations. They're an even match with each other. But he ascends the ranks very, very quickly, and very impressively. And of course, a lot of people think this is just because he's Catherine's new boy toy, but - he was of course. But he was also a very talented and political man. He's good at political matters; he's good at military matters. He's suited for his ascension.

Katie Lambert: And we've got a good quote from, of all people, Stalin, who said, "What was the genius of Catherine the Great? Her greatness lay in the choice of Prince Potyomkin and other such talented officials to run the state." So her relationship with Potyomkin has the Stalin seal of approval.

Sarah Dowdy: And here's just a little rundown of some of -

Katie Lambert: Just some of the honors, yeah.

Sarah Dowdy: - the honors he receives. The Order or Saint Alexander Nevsky in Poland, he receives the Order of the White Eagle. Catherine's Council, he's the General and Chief of the College of War. He's the Commander in Chief of the Cosixan Cavalry. He's a count. He's got command of the Petersburg Troops. He's a Prince of the Holy Roman Empire. And he gets a lot of money. And even some peasants too.

Katie Lambert: I think I'm going to get you some peasants for your birthday. Sarah, get ready.

Sarah Dowdy: I'm feeling a little feudal this year, I guess.

Katie Lambert: And a few of his accomplishments, he built a fleet in the Black Sea. He built the Harbor of Sabostipol. He helped in Escremia. He did a lot in his time and government. And when he died in 1791, you can imagine how that shook her world. But we do have a few lingering questions of her relationship that always come up.

Sarah Dowdy: The main one of which is, were they secretly married? And some people say yes. And in their letters they often refer to each other as husband and wife. So it's entirely possible that they had some sort of ceremony. And it probably wasn't a legal one though. If they did have one, it may have been a way of expressing their deep commitment to each other - a commitment that would last and actually one that would last after their physical relationship was over.

Katie Lambert: And another question that always comes up, did she become pregnant by Potyomkin, and Rounding says no. She became very ill during their romance and disappeared for a bit from the public eye. But Catherine blamed it on eating 20 peaches in an afternoon - a fact we put on our Twitter at Missed in History, if you didn't see it. And we're Georgia girls. And even we can't eat 20 peaches in one afternoon.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, that's a terrible idea.

Katie Lambert: And it's just too bizarre of a fact to be made up.

Sarah Dowdy: No, no one would make up something that's so potentially horrifying.

Katie Lambert: I'm going to go with the peach explanation. And we have an excerpt from another letter than Catherine wrote. Again, that gives you a good idea of the state of their relationship. "I need not to see you for about three days, if that is possible, to give my mind time to calm down, and for me to come to my senses. Or you will soon grow bored with me, and how could it be otherwise? I am very, very angry with myself today, and scolded myself and tried in every way to be more sensible." And these of course, are the words of a woman who's losing her head - falling head over heels, scared of her lack of control, and an empress cannot afford to be a fool for love.

Sarah Dowdy: So Catherine obviously needs a different kind of relationship - something that is just a little easier on her.

Katie Lambert: And that brings us to Peter Zavadovsky. And in many of our podcasts, we have talked about infidelity. If you are a longtime listener, you know that. And we've been accused of being too narrow minded about that. We dispute the claim. In some cases, it isn't really infidelity. Both parties are aware of the other's extramarital sexual activities and accept and encourage them. But in others, it is a case of simmering anger and jealousy. And especially of powerlessness because often, in the tales we've told, one of the people involved is a royal, and has carte blanche. And you might lose your head if your husband thinks you slept with someone else, and he himself would like to sleep with someone else. Well, and if you're a guy sleeping with Lola Montez, as we learned, all bets are off.

Sarah Dowdy: Livic the First.

Katie Lambert: This is a dangerous game to play. But in the case of Zavadovsky, this is a fairly welcome introduction of a third party into a relationship.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, because clearly the relationship between Potyomkin and Catherine wasn't sustainable. They couldn't keep this up. He still wants to be top dog though. He's not going to be cast aside. He's going to maintain some sort of position in his government. So a way to diffuse the situation, a way for them to still function as friends and confidants is to bring somebody else in.

Katie Lambert: And Zavadovsky wasn't as high maintenance as Potyomkin, but he also wasn't cut out for this position of male mistress. He was a bit bewildered in his new role, wasn't quite sure how to handle it, and the sort of diplomacy it required. And of course, he's both a subject and a lover, which is a strange power dynamic. He kind of lost it after a while. He wasn't ready for this.

Sarah Dowdy: Catherine doesn't have the patience to deal with that either.

Katie Lambert: No. I really love this note she wrote him. It starts off, "One, stay with me. Two, believe it when I say something. Three, do not quarrel hourly about trifles."

Sarah Dowdy: So showing him. But most important, Potyomkin realizes that this situation works out well for him. Like I was saying, it's a way to diffuse the situation and maintain his power. So he realizes, well, I'm going to keep Catherine stocked.

Katie Lambert: He was the procurer. And first he brings her Sumyung Zurich, who ends up trying to get rid of Potyomkin, which never works. Catherine will always like him better than you, dude in question. Then Ivan Rimsky-Korsakov, who is, "hot, young, and all male," as she describes him.

Sarah Dowdy: Which is the most ridiculous quote I think I've ever read on a podcast. There are plenty.

Katie Lambert: He was also described by an outsider as silly. And he must have been because he cheated on Catherine and then went blabbing about it all over town. So Potyomkin helped put a stop to that one right away.

Sarah Dowdy: But finally we come to Alexander Lanskoy. And this one Catherine picks out herself because it doesn't look like Potyomkin has a really great record.

Katie Lambert: Those last two did not work out.

Sarah Dowdy: He doesn't know her taste at all. So unlike Rimsky-Korsakov, this guy is a good man. He loves her, he respects her, me makes her happy. And they simply enjoy eachother's company. It's sort of taking things down a notch for her. He doesn't disrupt her life and in any way. Instead he adds to it. And he entertains her. He's kind to her. And she hopes that she'll grow old with him.

Katie Lambert: But in June 1784, he fell ill and it progressed very suddenly. Within a week, he was dead. Catherine was devastated and inconsolable for months, and wrote, "I do not know what will become of me." But in 1785, she has another distraction, Yermolov, another boy who's been found by Potyomkin, who also tries to get rid of Potyomkin and does not succeed. None of them will. And in 1786, Potyomkin brings her another man, Mamonov.

Sarah Dowdy: Mamonov is also young and good-looking, like a lot of Catherine's later lovers. And she says that, "He has a most excellent heart with a great store of honesty. He has wit enough for four." And he mainly sounds like a whiny little brat though.

Katie Lambert: Yeah, I don't think she had great judgment on this one.

Sarah Dowdy: No.

Katie Lambert: Apparently he had cheated on her as well, and he wanted to end his affair with Catherine, but it ended badly because instead of manning up and doing it in a gentlemanly sort of way, he blamed her for everything.

Sarah Dowdy: Not all man, perhaps?

Katie Lambert: No. So she is out of the game for a little bit until a 22-year-old catches her eye in 1789. She was 60 at the time, and his name was Platon Zubov.

Sarah Dowdy: And somehow this 22-year-old ends up more powerful than Potyomkin, who comes back and tries to overthrow him, reestablish his own position. He's sneaky and he's greedy, and just in general, he sounds completely awful. Her taste really goes downhill here.

Katie Lambert: She thinks he's wonderful, and everyone around her is just shaking their heads, and going no, no, no. And we mentioned his wandering eye, but somehow, he ends up with the title of Prince of the Holy Roman Empire. So apparently, they're just handing those out at the time. But at least, Catherine's son Paul did one good thing after her death. He told Zubov to get out of Russia, although later Zubov came back and helped assassinate him. So I guess we're even.

Sarah Dowdy: Repaid the favor. Yeah. So Catherine has this incredibly promiscuous reputation, but history kind of shows she has just a series of monogamous relationships, one after each other. They're a lot, but hey.

Katie Lambert: And her personality and her life just haven't been represented accurately in history. She's been besmirched. She was a woman of great depth, a complicated ruler, and a woman who loved fiercely. I rather like her. But as for her most famous lover, Sarah, take it away.

Sarah Dowdy: Brings us to the horse of course. And if you haven't heard the horse story, it goes like this. Catherine has this special hoist devised to help her have sex with a horse, and it breaks. And the horse falls on her in the middle of things, and she dies. So we've talked about some pretty weird people in this podcast, right?

Katie Lambert: In our past podcast episodes, seriously, there are unusual sexual proclivities. I'm thinking Caligula, this is you. But this is not that kind of episode. As we've learned, Catherine was in love with love, and also with sex. And this quality in a woman never goes remarked upon, even today. You can listen to Stuff Mom Never Told You for a lot more on that sort of thing. But long before Catherine died, she was frequently the subject of lewd jokes because of her personal life. It's the easiest way to attack someone who is politically powerful, by zeroing in on their personal life, instead of their policies.

Sarah Dowdy: Well especially when it is a 60-year-old empress with the 22-year-old boyfriend.

Katie Lambert: A very young boyfriend.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah.

Katie Lambert: And this reputation as a woman of lustful inclinations happened to coincide with a courtier's tale in 1647, of Russian's being particularly preoccupied with sodomy, especially of the equine variety. There is absolutely no basis for this, but a story like that just takes off on its own.

Sarah Dowdy: Catherine was a horse woman, after all. And there are also some rumors about her lover Lanskoy, who is the nice lover. He's the one we kind of liked.

Katie Lambert: We liked him, yes.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah.

Katie Lambert: In the lineup, he's the one we think you should pick.

Sarah Dowdy: But there was a story that he OD'd on aphrodesiacs and he kept on talking about horses and weird stories about horses, and people started thinking, uh-huh, this is Catherine's lover. Maybe there's something strange with her going on too.

Katie Lambert: Exactly, it all gets tangled up together. And there you have it. The birth of a piece of gossip that would endure for hundreds of years. So watch your mouth.

Sarah Dowdy: I will, but not before I make a few recommendations first. If you want to learn more about Catherine and all of our musings about her, you should try following us on Twitter at Missed in History, or checking out our Facebook fan page. If you have something to add to this discussion yourself, maybe your own opinion about the horse, you could e-mail us at And if you want to learn a little more about gossip, we have a really good article on it, "How Gossip Works." And you can find it by searching on our homepage at

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