During her three decades as Russia’s longest-reigning female ruler, Catherine II, better known as Catherine the Great, made significant strides for the country, including building new towns, expanding the borders, improving the educational system by calling for free schools and supporting cultural projects and the arts.
Yet what she’s most remembered for today is her numerous love affairs — which experts put in the range of 12 to 22 men.
Despite her love of love, the timeline behind her affairs actually shows a picture of a woman who was never in more than one relationship at a time — and treated her lovers well.
She married into the Russian royal family at 16
Forced into an arranged marriage in 1745 at the age of 16 to her second cousin, Karl Peter Ulrich or Peter III of the Russian royal family, Catherine was miserable from the start, having to deal with his immature and alcoholic ways. One mark of his childlike state: his obsession with playing with toy soldiers.
This left Catherine lonely — even after giving birth to their son Paul in 1754 (some have questioned the child’s paternity) — since Peter III’s aunt Elizabeth, the ruler at the time, took the child away to raise him.
Extramarital affairs became a part of their arrangement — with Catherine having relations with a Russian military officer Sergei Saltykov. She gave birth to three more children, none believed to be fathered by Peter III. Saltykov is thought to be the father of at least one or more of her children. And another lover, Stanislaus Poniatowski, fathered one of her daughters and Russian lieutenant Grigory Orlov is believed to be the father of one of the sons.
Orlov helped overthrow her husband — and plotted his death
When Elizabeth died on Christmas Day in 1761, Peter III took over the throne and immediately ended Russia’s war with Prussia, which angered nobles and the military, and also took away land from the Orthodox church.
At this time, Catherine was involved with Orlov. Her choice of romantic partners in high places helped her work with Orlov to stage her husband’s removal. While Peter III was away on vacation in Saint Petersburg, she got to work, meeting with the military and pleading with them to help protect her.
With Orlov’s pull, it worked. Upon Peter III’s return, he was arrested and forced to abdicate after six months on the throne — and Catherine took the reign.
But that wasn’t the end of it. Just eight days later, Peter III was strangled to death, coincidentally at the hands of Orlov’s younger brother Alexei. Most scholars are in agreement that Catherine, despite her sleeping arrangement with Orlov, was unaware of the plans to kill her husband.
Catherine was 'broken' when partner Grigory Potemkin died
Ironically, it was the day that Orlov helped overthrow her husband that Catherine ended up meeting the man who would become her greatest lover. Grigory Potemkin was part of the guard that overthrew Peter III. The nobleman had made a name for himself during the Russo-Turkish War.
Though she also dated Alexander Vasilchikov from about 1772 to 1774, the love letters that started around 1774 and lasted until Potemkin’s death in 1791, tell of a loving open relationship. Catherine the Great author Virginia Rounding, explained, according to Time: “Potemkin was sent off, with her blessing, to do the conquering for her in the south of Russia and expand the empire, and he helped choose other favorites for her so she could be satisfied until he came back… [since] she needs to be loved, and is not happy on her own, despite ruling on her own.”
It was her relationship with Potemkin that felt like a true partnership, as they also worked together to annex Crimea and build the naval force of the Russian Black Sea Fleet.
Even though their relationship ended around 1776, her feelings and connection to him never waned and their letters continued until his death. While mourning his passing, one letter she wrote to a friend stated: “A terrible deathblow has just fallen on my head…my pupil, my friend, almost my idol, Prince Potemkin of Taurida, has died…you cannot imagine how broken I am.”
After that, her relationships seemed to be more fleeting, often with younger, less powerful men.
In reality, Catherine 'loved to be in love'
Even during her lifetime, Catherine couldn’t escape the talk about her love life. There are stories out there about her associated with nymphomania, bestiality, voyeurism — and even a love of erotic furniture. And perhaps the most notorious myth is that she died making love to a horse. In actuality, she passed away after she suffered a stroke at 67 in 1796.
But the truth is: While she did have many lovers, she was never in a relationship with more than one at a time. And most of those relationships lasted at least a couple of years.
“She was a serial monogamist,” Helen Mirren, who plays Catherine in a new mini-series told Vanity Fair. “She loved to be in love. She loved the excitement of the eyes across the room as they enter and the dates. She went on dates, if you like. The difference was that when she was tired of someone, she either gave them a country, or she gave them a huge palace and enough money for them and their family to live comfortably for the rest of their lives. She had that financial power over people.”
Since she didn’t want to marry again (or else she’d have to split her power), her grandiose parting gifts after a breakup became legendary. One ex is said to have received 1,000 indentured servants while Poniatowski was made the king of Poland.
“Of course that made it very attractive for [potential lovers], including when she got into her 50s and 60s, because they knew they were made for life if they did [date her],” Mirren continued. “She didn’t do what Henry VIII did with his mistresses, which was imprison and chop their heads off. She paid them off very handsomely and sent them into a golden future.”