Catherine the Great was never the nymphomaniac that her enemies claimed, but she could not do without the presence of a male lover. Altogether, she had probably a dozen liasons during her sixty-seven years of life. Of all of these, the one she loved the most was Grigory Potemkin.
Catherine was imported from Germany by Czarina Elizaveta to wed her nephew, Peter. The couple were still in their teens when they married and, apparently, Peter never consummated the relationship. Elizaveta wanted Peter to produce an heir and, when he didn’t, arranged for a court favorite to seduce Catherine. She became pregnant and bore a son, Paul.
When Elizaveta died and Peter became Czar, Catherine found herself ignored. One of the striking things about this woman, though, is her unwillingness to be idle and useless. Catherine cultivated the Imperial Guard. She wore their uniform, rode astride, and took a Guards officer as lover. Two years after Peter took the throne, in 1762, Catherine and the Guards ousted him in a coup, then had him murdered. Catherine said later that, if fate had blessed her with a loving husband, she would have been faithful to him her entire life. Perhaps. If he also met her standards as a ruler.
Now Catherine was Empress of Russia. Her Guards lover, Orloff, was an unintelligent but likeable fellow who had many mistresses. Catherine stayed with him for ten years but, when he proved unequal to the task of handling the army in wartime, cast about for a replacement. She found one in an officer, more than ten years her junior.
Grigory Potemkin is remembered today as the maker of Potemkin Villages — fakes put on show to fool the onlooker. It was said that he constructed whole towns out of cardboard to impress visitors to the grand settlements he was making around the Black Sea. This, like Catherine’s nymphomania, is a malicious myth, manufactured to destroy the reputation of a man who was envied by his rivals and feared by his enemies. Potemkin was intelligent, inventive, and good in bed. He and Catherine were a match. More, they were soul mates.
Letters between Catherine and Potemkin, suppressed for more than a century, became available around the time of the First World War (though not published in an unexpurgated form until 1997). There exists Catherine’s first note to Potemkin, admiring his military prowess, wishing that he not put himself in danger, and suggesting her affection for him. Potemkin could read between the lines; he dropped everything and raced near to Catherine, then pretended that he was thinking of becoming a monk. She went to dissuade him and the rest is history, or, if you will, History, because this was the most powerful of power couples.
“General, do you love me? Me love you very much.” So Catherine wrote to Potemkin. The intimacies of lovers, especially when they spout baby talk, are amusing to outsiders. The intimate conversation of Catherine and Potemkin is preserved in their letters. We read her apology on missing a tryst: she was coming to his room as they had planned, but one of his servants was outside the door, drinking, and she had to retreat. And there are the wonderful double letters. Potemkin (or Catherine) would write a note that was carried down the corridors of the palace by servants. The recipient would write an answer directly on the note, inserting replies to specific statements and appending a message of their own. The servant would run back down the corridor and wait for a reply. So this 1776 message, written by Potemkin, apologizing for his jealousy, is annotated and returned by Catherine:
Potemkin: Allow me, my precious dear, to say these final words that, I think, will end our row.
Catherine: I permit you. The sooner the better.
Potemkin: Don’t be so surprised that I am so uneasy about our love.
Catherine: Be calm.
Potemkin: Beyond the inumerable gifts you bestowed on me,
Catherine: One hand washes the other.
Potemkin: you’ve placed me in your heart.
Catherine: Firmly and solidly.
Potemkin: I want to be there alone, preferred to all former ones,
Catherine: You are and will be.
Potemkin: since no one has so loved you as I.
Catherine: I see and believe it.
Potemkin: And since I am the work of your hands, so I desire that you should secure my peace,
Catherine: I’m happy with all my soul.
Potemkin: that you should find joy in doing me good,
Catherine: My foremost pleasure.
Potemkin: that you should devise everything for my comfort
Catherine: It’ll come by itself.
Potemkin: and find therein repose from the great labors that occupy your lofty station. Amen.
Catherine: Let your thoughts be calm, so that your feelings can freely act; they are tender and will find the best way themselves. End of quarrel. Amen.
The spat is ended by imperial decree. “End of quarrel. Amen.” Try that on your Significant Other some time.
Potemkin stayed with Catherine for three years but became restless at being a houseboy and she recognized that a man of his capability needed some great task to occupy him. So Potemkin was dispatched to rule territory in the south that had been taken from the Turks. In essence he became a co-emperor, ruling a great portion of the country and conferring with Catherine on diplomatic and military matters concerning Russia.
At some point, before leaving the palace, Potemkin may possibly have secretly married Catherine. Be that as it may, he now steered young men her way. “My heart is loath to be without love even a single hour,” she said, and Potemkin ensured that she would not be in want. Inevitably, these young men were unfaithful to the aging empress and Potemkin would return to her bed to comfort her. Meanwhile, he took up with a number of women, including his five nieces, who Catherine installed as her ladies-in-waiting. Catherine reprimanded Potemkin when he mistreated them or caused them distress.
Those behavioral biologists who claim that human sexual activities revolve around a quest for genetic dominance have quite the puzzle in the 18th Century Russian royalty — first Elizaveta, who recruited a man to cuckold her nephew and provide an heir to the throne, and then Catherine who created a kind of non-genetic family around her own personal needs. The aim of both was to preserve their influence into the future — genes be damned!
If power is a great aphrodisiac, as the unattractive Kissinger responded when asked how he got to date such beautiful women, then Catherine and Grigory must have burned up the sheets. But age conquers all. Potemkin began having health problems in his late forties. In 1787 Catherine and foreign observers admired Potemkin’s development of the Crimea — this was the tour that was supposed to have been faked, but there was nothing phony about the fleet that Potemkin had installed in the Black Sea. Potemkin beat the Turks and expanded Russia once more, but Catherine told him, “My greatest and chief concern and worry now are for your health.”
In 1791, Potemkin returned to St.Petersburg. Catherine was in the midst of a doomed affair with an officer forty years younger. Both Grigory and Catherine were obese and physically ruined. Potemkin knelt before the empress, she kissed him and then had to help him to his feet. Two months later, at the age of fifty-two, Grigory Potemkin was dead. Catherine was desolated, “Nothing will ever be the same…” She herself lived only another four years.
Love and Conquest: Personal Correspondence of Catherine the Great and Prince Grigory Potemkin, translated by Douglas Smith. All the letters; all the good parts.
Potemkin: Catherine the Great’s Imperial Partner by Simon Montefiore
Catherine the Great and Potemkin: The Imperial Love Affair by Simon Montefiore