Catherine wasn't called “The Great” for nothing. Though she was one of the most enlightened women in the world, behind closed doors was a very different story. In the end, Catherine earned her title through blood, lust, and ultimate betrayal—and her scandalous rise and legendary fall is one for the ages. Learn more about one of history’s most ruthless empresses.
The future Catherine the Great of Russia had surprising beginnings. For one, her name wasn’t really Catherine—and she wasn’t really Russian. She was born the German Princess Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst on May 2, 1729 to Prince Christian and Princess Johanna. But great women aren’t born, they’re made…and Catherine quickly showed how far she'd go for power.
Catherine’s mother Johanna was notorious around Europe as gossip-monger and glory hound, and the matron was bent on turning her daughter into a royal thirst trap. Over the years, Johanna schooled Catherine in fashionable French and rigorous etiquette, hoping to snag her an advantageous marriage. Yet even Johanna couldn’t have predicted just how “successful” she’d be.
Johanna had big dreams for her little girl, but even she must have been surprised when Catherine caught the eye of Peter III, AKA the heir to the Russian Empire. When Catherine was just 10, mommy dearest carted her off to meet the 11-year-old boy. Close in age, they could have been a great match—but it turned into an absolute nightmare.
Even at the tender age of 10, Catherine knew she despised Peter. They say that girls mature faster than boys, but in Peter’s case…this was true tenfold. Pale and sickly, the almost-teenaged Peter still played obsessively with toy soldiers—all while somehow nursing a burgeoning drink problem. Great combo there, bud. And that was just the beginning…
Though Catherine never had a classically beautiful face, she was still mega attractive, and men flocked to her for more than just the favors she could grant them. She had a high, wide forehead—considered the height of hot at the time—a greek nose, and large, intelligent eyes. She also had dark, thick hair that she often wore up in a perfectly coiffed do.
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.
As a young girl, the whip-smart Catherine was rambunctious and easily bored. Left to her own devices, she got into as much trouble as she possibly could around her estate, and soon earned a reputation for being an incorrigible tomboy. Those closest to her even gave the young princess the sprightly, boyish nickname “Fike".
As we’ll find out, Catherine would do anything—and I do mean anything—for that sweet, sweet Russian crown, including sticking it out with her idiot of a suitor, Peter. Catherine had a mean follow-through, and she soon applied herself to learning Russian with an obsessive focus, practicing at all hours of the night. This strain soon had devastating consequences.
Like most other European nobility at the time, Catherine and Peter III were related; they were second cousins. Just because it was common doesn’t make it any less gross, guys.
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Though she never quite lost her accent, the German-born Catherine worked tirelessly to improve her Russian, and even took to walking around her bedroom barefoot in the middle of the night, practicing her pronunciation. Soon enough, she developed a raging case of pneumonia in 1744 that nearly felled her. Catherine’s response? Work harder.
Despite her long, scandalous life, Catherine was a sickly girl. Not only did she contract pneumonia in 1744, she also fell ill from a near-fatal case of pleuritis. But the cure was even worse than the sickness. To recover, she participated in the gruesome 18th-century practice of bloodletting, even suffering through four procedures in a single day. Ew.
Catherine the Great wasn't turns out, so "great" when it came to her height. She was much shorter than many of her subjects imagined, particularly since she had such an outsized reputation. One of her correspondents remembered meeting her for the first time and being so surprised at how short Catherine was that she “could only stare at her".
If Catherine could seem single-minded in her pursuit of power, well, buckle up—It goes deeper. On August 21, 1745, she actually married her pale little fiancé Peter, officially becoming Catherine Alekseyevna. Though she was barely 16 years old, her father didn’t even attend the dynastic nuptials. The worst, however, was yet to come.
Quick-witted, gorgeous, and curious, Catherine soon found she hated her dull new husband Peter even more than she thought she would, which says something. At first, she turned to books to stave off boredom, devouring Voltaire and learning Machiavellian power moves from Tacitus. For a while, Catherine was satisfied…until she began to feel a darker urge.
Catherine and Peter had set up their “young court” at the lavish Russian royal palace Oranienbaum, filling it with vibrant, good-looking nobles from all across the empire. This was a fatal mistake. Soon enough, Catherine’s bored eyes wandered over to the handsome Sergei Saltykov, and the pair began a lurid affair. Oh, but it gets even juicier.
According to Catherine herself, Sergei had one naughty claim to fame: He was the man who “took” her virginity, not her husband. That’s right, Catherine may have had the steel ovaries to go through with her miserable marriage to Peter, but the girl still had standards, and she refused to warm up his marriage bed. Which soon led to a lot of awkwardness.
Peter III gave as good as he got in his awful marriage. While Catherine soon took up with a series of lovers, Peter was off on his own extra-marital adventures, most famously courting the beautiful Elizaveta Vorontsova. There were even rumors that Peter wanted to divorce Catherine and live happily ever after with Elizaveta. That’s, uh, not what happened.
To this day, Catherine is Russia’s longest-reigning female ruler, with a reign of almost 35 years.
In early 1754, Catherine found herself pregnant, giving birth to a bouncing baby boy named Paul on October 1st of that year. But the child hid a dark secret. Catherine later claimed that little Paul wasn’t exactly his royal father's son. According to her, the babe was Sergei Saltykov’s through and through…meaning the heir to all Russia was illegitimate.
Although it’s entirely possible the future Emperor of Russia was an illicit love child, historians actually disagree with Catherine—for one hilarious reason. Paul grew up stout and ugly, just like Peter III, whereas Catherine and her lover Sergei were reportedly 18th-century smokeshows. That’s right, experts debunked this saucy theory with a dignified game of hot or not.
Before you feel too bad for Peter III, you should know that he made Catherine’s life a living nightmare. While most the information we have is through the biased Catherine, Peter would reportedly drill all the male servants early in the morning with exhausting routines, waking everyone else up in the process. The Great needs her beauty sleep, Pete.
Interestingly, most historians don’t lay the “blame” on Catherine for her bedroom troubles (or lack thereof) with Emperor Peter III. Many experts believe that it was Peter who was somehow unable to consummate the marriage, or else they think he could have been infertile. So take that: It’s not all Catherine's fault.
In the late 1750s, Catherine was pregnant again, this time giving birth to a little girl, Anna. Peter’s response to the birth was disturbing. Apparently he’d finally cottoned on to this whole cheating thing, and he refused to believe he was the girl’s father, saying, “God knows where my wife gets her pregnancies". When Catherine protested, he only spat out, “Go to the Devil!”
Sadly, Anna’s life began in scandal and ended in sorrow. Catherine’s second child and likely only daughter lived to be just 14 months old before the frail girl passed on March 8, 1759. We all have different coping mechanisms, but Catherine's mourning was pretty chilling. Whether out of cruel flippancy or the depths of grief, she almost never mentioned the girl again.
According to several historical records, in order to become a lover of Catherine the Great, there was an intimate test. Before being welcomed into Catherine's bed, prospective suitors had to first satisfy Catherine's lady-in-waiting, the beautiful Countess Praskovya Bruce. But as Bruce soon found out, this was far from a cushy position…
Catherine and Countess Bruce's relationship didn't exactly end well, at least according to reports. In 1779, an advisor happened to lead Catherine into a room—and she saw an utterly disturbing sight. One of her lovers was re-sampling Countess Bruce’s goods without Catherine’s permission. The Empress’s response was swift and brutal.
Without batting an eye, Catherine sent her now ex-lover into exile, shoving Countess Bruce along with him. Needless to say, the empress also relieved Bruce of her lady-in-waiting duties shortly after. For what it's worth, when it comes to Catherine the Great, this was actually the merciful option. As we'll see, she'd do much worse to better people.
Few people knew it at the time and even fewer people know it now, but Catherine was completely tone deaf. For all her refined tastes, she was so disabled in this respect that she had to receive a signal from her servants to tell her to applaud during operas, ballets, and other performances. She called music “infernal noise".
On January 5, 1762, Catherine’s biggest ambition (so far) came true. Peter ascended to the Russian throne as Peter III, taking Catherine along with him as his "mere" consort. The upgrade in title also came with an upgrade in digs, and Peter and Catherine moved into the now famous Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. Which is right about when Peter started messing it all up…
While some generously called Peter an “eccentric,” Catherine had no qualms calling him an “idiot” and “the drunkard". When Peter became emperor, he really rose to those occasions, and for some reason bizarrely backed Russia’s old enemies, alienating himself even further from his wife in the process. Don't worry, Catherine soon got even.
By July 1762, less than half a year after they’d become emperor and empress, Catherine and Peter were living in separate palaces. Bad for their crumbling marriage—but great for Catherine’s revenge. You see, for years she had been cultivating allies among her court for a coup d’etat, and she was now using all her “alone time” to ramp up a brutal taste of karma for her idiot husband.
Catherine was incredibly fond of horses and horse-riding, and spent much of the early part of her restless marriage riding. But since this is Catherine we’re talking about, she had to do it with a twist. She refused to ride side-saddle, and wrote, “The more violent the exercise, the more I enjoyed it." This passion would crop up again in a horrifying way...
On July 9, 1762, Catherine finally put her chilling plan in motion. After hearing that Peter had detained one of her allies, she knew her attack had to come now—and what an attack it was. She marched down to the Russian regiment and, playing the poor, helpless woman, begged the men to save her from her "unhinged husband." They did that and more.
Right after addressing the men, this “poor, helpless” woman went over to another barracks, where a host of clergymen were already waiting to make her the sole ruler of the Russian Empire. But Catherine wasn’t done yet. She had Peter detained and forced him to officially abdicate, just in case. And then she dealt her husband the cruellest blow of all.
Needless to say, Catherine’s effective and brutal takeover of her own husband had the entire world in a tizzy. After all, Peter had only been in power for a measly six months and, I repeat, Catherine had just DEPOSED HER OWN HUSBAND in a legendary baller move. But then eight days later, some say she took it one step further...
Catherine was holding Peter captive at the palace of Ropsha when he suddenly fell ill and passed on July 17, 1762 at the suspiciously tender age of 34. Although his autopsy stated that a severe attack of colic and a stroke were the culprits in his passing, much darker rumors swirled around his death—and clung right to Catherine.
Some historians believe that, given the convenient timing of Peter’s ignominious end, Catherine had a hand in offing the emperor for good and making sure he never came back to claim her throne. According to them, a courtier named Alexey Orlov, the brother of one of Catherine’s lovers, performed the dirty deed on her behalf. But this is only part of the story.
Though Catherine the Great was definitely an ice cold femme fatale, she may not be able to entirely take credit for Peter III’s tragic end. There’s no real evidence that she knew about the dark plot against her estranged husband, and Orlov may have been acting out of turn. But by the time Catherine found out, it was too late. Then again, her reign of terror was just beginning...
Truth be told, Catherine was a pretty terrible mom. Sure, things get busy when you’re trying to turn Russia into a modern superpower, but Catherine’s eldest son Paul wasn’t just neglected, he was downright mistreated. One day when he was still a baby, he fell out of his crib and, with exactly zero people checking up on him, he “slept the night away unnoticed on the floor". Yikes.
You gotta respect it: Just months before she plotted her husband’s downfall, Catherine was heavily pregnant with her third child. On April 11, 1762, Catherine gave birth to another boy she named Alexei Grigoievich Brobrinsky. And if at this point you’re thinking, “How could she plot against her newborn's father?” I have news for you…
There might have been some confusion around Catherine's first two children, but her third son Alexei was definitely not Peter III's son. In fact, Catherine boldly went and named him after his true father, her macho lover Grigori Orlov. The intrigue, it’s endless.
Getting rid of Peter III wasn’t even the worst thing Catherine did in her coup. Another claimant to the throne was Ivan VI, an insane 23-year-old who had been locked up since he was a baby because his royal blood threatened the crown. So what did Catherine do? Had the poor guy offed too, of course. Oh, those Russians.
Catherine took such an astounding amount of lovers that she even developed her own scandalous system to cycle through them. She would seduce them, promote them to high ranks, and then when she grew bored of them, she “graciously” pensioned them off with a nice plot of land and some servants. But her lover Girgoi Potemkin really went above and beyond.
Potemkin was one of Catherine’s favorite advisors, both in matters of state and matters of mattress. When their romance petered out, Potemkin happily vetted his replacements, hand-picking lovers for their good looks and intelligence. Now that’s full service. However, as we'll see, Potemkin might have had a very good reason for his grace…
Catherine loved to dote on her many lovers and court favorites, but the same couldn’t be said for her own children. One year, she gave her "friend" a 500,000-ruble present—but her gift to her son was utterly disturbing. On his own birthday that year, Paul got…a cheap watch. Mmkay Catherine, methinks you can afford the Rolex.
Although servicing Catherine the Great in the bedroom was a booming cottage industry, the empress (probably) never married again after she removed Peter from the throne. This, like most everything else Catherine did, was a calculated power move. I mean, why give away the crown to some dude when she was already Empress of all Russia?
To say Catherine had a difficult relationship with her eldest son Paul is an understatement. Whether because he looked so much like his royal father or because Catherine was threatened by his power, she never bothered to offer him a chance to co-rule, which wasn’t uncommon in Russia at the time. But when Paul had a son of his own, things got even worse.
In 1777, Catherine became a grandmother when Paul had his own heir, Alexander. The empress’ reaction was chilling. Unwilling to show Paul any kindness, Catherine eventually planned to make the child her official heir, rather than choosing her grown son. Gee, thanks mom. However, fate had other plans in store...
Maybe Catherine was a little insecure about how she came to the throne, because she set out hard and fast to prove that she could turn “little” backwater Russia into one of the most enlightened powerhouses of its day. She waged conflicts left, right, and center to expand the empire and also modernized its cities, changing the architecture to a classical style.
Throughout her reign, Catherine gained a reputation for ruthlessly expanding the empire, but her territorial ambitions went right into the bedroom. See, Catherine had a type: cunning military hunks. She often took commander-in-chief advice from her battle-hardened lovers, most famous among them Prince Platon Zubov. Imperialism begins at home, people.
According to some persistent rumors from the time, Catherine and her lover Girgori Potemkin married in a secret ceremony. But just in case you’re worried about Catherine holding onto her power, rest assured: The woman knew what she was doing. Because Potemkin was way lower in rank than her, it would have been a so-called “morganatic” marriage, and thus illegitimate. See? You can have it all.
Catherine took some big swings in her life, but this also meant she suffered some big misses. One of her hugest embarrassments happened when she pushed to get her granddaughter Alexandra to marry King Gustav IV of Sweden, even throwing a lavish engagement ball in their honor. But then the king dealt Catherine a cruel humiliation.
Catherine poured her heart, soul, and rubles into the engagement ball—only for the guest of honor to never show up. Worried that Alexandra wouldn't convert religions, Gustav got major case of cold feet and fled back to Sweden, leaving Catherine with egg on her face. Some say the embarrassment even brought about her downfall…
Always hard working, Catherine had her days mapped out in five-minute increments, which she maintained until her passing. The only part of the schedule that was subject to change were her waking hours, which moved from 5:00 AM to 6:00 AM as she grew older.
In 1773, one of Catherine’s darkest ghosts came back to haunt her. A group of peasants started to rebel, and when Catherine found out about their leader Emelyan Pugachev, her blood must have run cold. Pugachev claimed to be Catherine’s late husband Peter III, resurrected and looking for vengeance. Is it any wonder Catherine’s retaliation was so brutal?
After a year of “Pugachev’s Rebellion,” Catherine gathered an enormous force of men and crushed the rebels under her thumb. Then she came for Pugachev himself. She imprisoned him in a metal cage for all to see and ridicule, then decapitated him in a Moscow square, then had him drawn and quartered. Ok Catherine, you can stop now.
Whatever her faults, Catherine the Great had impeccable taste. The world-renowned Hermitage Museum at the Winter Palace in started out as Catherine’s own personal collection.
Maybe no one learned about Catherine's exhilarating heights and frightening lows like her Polish sidepiece Stanislaw Poniatowski. When Poniatowski was in her favor, Catherine gifted him with no less than the kingdom of Poland, installing him as ruler. But what Catherine giveth, she could taketh—and Russia hath no fury like empress scorned...
Shortly after becoming King Stanislaw, Poniatowski did a supremely stupid thing and decided to start rallying for Polish independence away from Catherine. This did not sit well with his former sweetums, and Catherine forced him to abdicate as punishment for his disloyalty. Stanislaw was lucky to escape with his life.
Catherine had some sense of decorum, and she didn’t always want to showcase her endless parade of lovers to all and sundry. Instead, she did something more scandalous and made an illicit hideaway. At her “Petit Hermitage” near the Winter Palace, Catherine held intimate parties for those nearest and dearest to her…need I say the getaway spot came with a bedroom included?
With her new-fangled, Enlightenment ideals, Catherine was a modernizing force in Russia. Yet in 1762, even her most loyal courtiers said “Slow your roll, girl". With smallpox raging through her country, Catherine decided to promote the then-radical method of inoculation against the disease…and she did it in an unforgettable way.
Not content to merely patronize inoculation as a scientific method, Catherine put her money where her mouth was and actually got herself vaccinated against smallpox with the help of English doctor Thomas Dimsdale. Oh, and she threw her son Paul in the ring too, inoculating him as well. To everyone’s shock and surprise, it worked.
All of Catherine's boy toys knew exactly where they stood with their empress, no matter how infatuated she seemed with them and no matter how regularly she invited them into her bed. Catherine may have been generous, but she also expected total loyalty. One of her lovers even described himself and his cohort as “kept girls".
In her spare time, Catherine somehow managed to cultivate hobbies that weren’t just bedding men and performing acts of barbarism. She was a big fan of English and Chinese gardening, and took a great interest in building foliage in these styles. She also penned a range of written works, from comedies to her own memoirs.
Catherine was infamous throughout Russia for her life-long bedroom appetite, but her last lover still managed to raise more than a few eyebrows. Prince Platon Zubrov was a whopping 40 years the empress’s junior, and the pair hopped into bed together when Catherine was 60 and Zubov was just 22 years old. Go get it, girl.
Catherine was an ardent admirer of the philosophers of the French Enlightenment, and they loved her right back. She corresponded intimately with the philosopher Voltaire, and even extended her protection to Jacques Diderot when he got into a bind in France. See? She could be nice as long as your name wasn’t “Peter".
November 16, 1796 was supposed to be any other day in the life of Catherine the Great. She got up early, as was her habit, and sipped her morning coffee. She even told her lady’s maid that she’d gotten some of the best sleep she’d experienced in a long time, and then got to work on signing papers. But just hours later, everything changed.
Catherine knew that a strong monarchy starts with swag, and her lavish coronation on September 22, 1762 put “crown jewels” on the map. As a celebration of her special day, Catherine created the now-iconic Imperial Crown of Russia, a Byzantine-inspired, diamond-encrusted marvel that even the last Romanovs used.
Say what you will about Catherine, she got the job done. By the end of her reign, Russia had risen to such heights that the “Catherinian Era” is still known as the Golden Age of Russia.
It was under Catherine the Great’s supervision that the legendary and magnificent “Amber Room” was installed in the Catherine Palace near St. Petersburg. Though lost to history after the ravages of WWII, the room was recreated in all its blinding, opulent glory in 2003, and is currently on display at the Catherine Palace.
Once Catherine arrived in Russia to marry Peter, she never left the country again. Some historians believe that she was afraid people would attempt to usurp her throne if she left, and she spent the rest of her life looking over her shoulder.
Catherine’s private life is full of dark mystique, and a number of tenuous, unprovable, and very juicy claims about her exist. Some say she kept her hairdresser in a cage to keep her wig a secret, while others insist that she advocated for having intimate relations at least six times a day; apparently her busting bedroom life helped cure her insomnia.
Catherine might have been a proponent of progress and the Enlightenment, but don’t get it twisted—any revolutions in Russia would just have to wait until 1917. The serfs of the country were still very much serfs at the end of her reign, and she once even wrote, “I am an aristocrat, it is my profession". In other words: Back off my absolute power, plebes.
Though Catherine may have a brutal reputation as a maneater today, her real story is a lot different than that. She remained in devoted relationships for years at a time, and even once wrote, “The trouble is that my heart is loathe to remain even one hour without love". It just so happened that she ended up looking for that love in a lot of places.
Just after 9 o’clock in the morning that November, Catherine’s servants found their imperial majesty lying on the floor, her face a lurid shade of purple. By all accounts, it was horrific: Her pulse was fluttering, her breathing was ragged, and she was at heaven’s door. She quickly fell into a coma and passed soon after. But what really happened?
Just a few short years before her passing, one of Catherine’s aides found an undated will in her belongings. Its contents give intimate insight into the empress. In it, she asks for her body to be “dressed in white, with a golden crown on my head, and on it inscribe my Christian name. Mourning dress is to be worn for six months, and no longer: the shorter the better." That’s our Catherine: Gaudy, glorious, and to the point. As for how her funeral actually went? Well...
In the end, Catherine’s funeral was even more lavish than she requested. Though she got her golden crown, mourners placed her in a silver brocade dress instead of a simple white one, and they decorated her coffin in gold fabric. Sorry to say, though, that this ends the “regal” portion of the funeral, because things were about to get a whole lot grosser.
When Catherine passed, instead of just burying her, as you do, the Russians displayed her body for six whole weeks in one of the most impressive rooms in her palace. While her body lay there, presumably getting riper by the second in the lavish chamber, people would come by and kiss the rotting flesh of her hand. This is not the way I’d want to go.
Sadly, although Catherine’s son Paul survived his horrific childhood to become Emperor after his mother, he met the same tragic end as his father. Just a few short years into a very unpopular reign, Paul was offed, making way for the heir Catherine had intended all along: Her grandson Alexander. Whatever Catherine wants, Catherine gets…even from beyond the grave.
It’s safe to say that Catherine was addicted to collecting art. She started out by buying King Frederick II of Prussia’s reject collection that he was trying to get off his hands—only to find there were 13 priceless Rembrandts in there. High off her beginner’s luck, Catherine’s classic collection soon totalled the thousands…and she indulged in some kinkier tastes, too.
Catherine’s public and private images were two very different things. So while she played up her role as a chaste “Enlightened Empress” to her people, she went about collecting some hair-raising art in private, putting works such as Giulio Romano’s sensual painting Two Lovers in her basement. But the most scandalous parts of her art collection weren’t paintings at all…
During WWII, German forces raided the Winter Palace—and came across a discovery that shocked them to the core. According to the men, they stumbled across an old boudoir of Catherine’s full of “sensual” furniture. These chairs and other items were decorated with objects mother would not approve of. They took photographs, but the furniture is now lost.
Catherine’s many lovers weren’t the only naughty thing in the Muscovite palaces. Catherine also employed full-time foot ticklers. In this respect, Catherine was actually a traditionalist. Russian royalty long employed sensual foot ticklers, who would sing bawdy ballads while feathering their master's feet to provide relaxation and arousal.
The manner of Catherine’s passing has been the subject of myth and legend for hundreds of years now. Almost immediately after her passing, people started talking. Incredibly, they infamously claimed that Catherine passed after having, er, “intimate” relations with a beloved horse. Except nothing could be further from the truth.
Catherine the Great's autopsy revealed the truth amidst all the lies. The mighty Empress had actually succumbed to a brutal stroke, which was ironically the same ailment that was supposed to have felled her late husband Peter III. A sad end, but not a bestial one. Even so, the unsavory rumors about the insatiable empress live on.
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