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History’s greatest love affair: Catherine the Great and Grigory Potemkin

She is one of history’s greatest female rulers, an intelligent, ruthless and ambitious Empress who reigned over Russia for some 34 years, establishing herself as the most powerful woman of her time. Catherine the Great dragged Russia into the modern world, expanded its borders, championed the arts and restructured its laws, revitalising Russia in the process and enabling it to become a powerhouse in global politics. Catherine’s reign is often portrayed as the ‘Golden Age of Russia’.

Almost as famous as her achievements, however, is the list of her many lovers. She was famed for her sexual independence, which gave rise to several false rumours, often created and spread by her many jealous and misogynistic male rivals. The targeted smear campaign was so successful that even to this day Catherine the Great is surrounded by urban legends regarding her sex life - none more famous than the story of bestiality that supposedly ended her life. Although Catherine died from a stroke aged 67, her enemies believed a far more fitting story should go down in history - that the horse she was having sex with crushed her.

While many of the accusations of sexual deviance against Catherine have no basis in fact, it is true that she had multiple lovers during her time as Empress and used sex as a tool to garner and broaden her political power. After her successful coup against her ill-matched husband Peter III in 1762, Catherine realised that to marry again would be to relinquish her power. Instead, she aligned herself with successful military generals and admirals and heavily relied upon her noble favourites. Her favourites became lovers, men she could trust to help consolidate her power. In return, she showered them with gifts, titles and wealth.

The first of her lovers was Russian officer Sergei Saltykov, one of three men she would invite into her bed whilst still being married to Peter. Her marriage was loveless, it was a partnership orchestrated for political reasons only. Catherine later claimed Peter was impotent and their child and heir apparent, Paul I, was actually the offspring of Saltykov.

Her next lover was plucked straight from the imperial court, Polish nobleman Stanisław Poniatowski. Again it is widely believed that Catherine’s next child, Anna, was the daughter of Poniatowski, although Anna did not live to see her second birthday. Despite the fact her affair with Poniatowski came to an end after he was forced from the Russia court, Catherine later helped to place him on the Polish throne. She was incredibly generous to all her lovers.

‘Why do you reproach me because I dismiss a well-meaning but extremely boring bourgeois in favour of one of the greatest, the most comical and amusing, characters of this iron century?’

As Peter III was ascending to the throne in 1762, Catherine was pregnant with her third child, Alexis, who was again the offspring of another lover, Grigory Orlov. Orlov played a pivotal role in the conspiracy to dethrone Catherine's husband later that same year. In return, Catherine bestowed upon him the title of Count and gifted him a palace in St. Petersburg. Although Orlov’s relationship with Catherine came to end in 1772, partly due to the fact she discovered his affairs with other women, the two remained close for many years. When he died in 1783, Catherine was said to be beside herself with grief.

Catherine’s next lover was Russian aristocrat Alexander Vasilchikov, a man who paled in comparison to her previous love. Their relationship was shortlived and he was replaced as her favourite and consort by Grigory Potemkin in 1774, perhaps the most famous of all her lovers. When she faced backlash from a friend for making the switch Catherine replied, ‘Why do you reproach me because I dismiss a well-meaning but extremely boring bourgeois in favour of one of the greatest, the most comical and amusing, characters of this iron century?’

(Potemkin) allegedly possessed ‘elephantine sexual equipment’

Potemkin was born into minor nobility but would elevate his standing to become the most powerful man in Russia. Educated at the University of Moscow, Potemkin first garnered Catherine’s attention when he was a member of the elite Horse Guards regiment. They grew closer after he helped her during her coup of 1762. Between 1968-1774 he distinguished himself as a great military leader during the Russo-Turkish war and in 1774 Catherine and he finally consummated their love.

Potemkin was ten years Catherine’s junior and although he was missing one eye (apparently lost in a brawl although no one is entirely sure) he oozed sex appeal. Rumour had it he was also very well endowed, as British historian Sebag Montefiore writes in his 2001 biography The Prince of Princes: The Life of Potemkin, Grigory allegedly possessed ‘elephantine sexual equipment’. Catherine supposedly had his ‘glorious weapon’ cast in porcelain to console herself during his long absences from court, although this claim cannot be verified since the rumoured artefact no longer seems to exist. 

Many of their romantic trysts are said to have taken place in the private banya (steam bath) in the basement of the Winter Palace in St Petersburg. Montefiore writes, ‘Catherine and Potemkin were suddenly inseparable. When they were not together, even when they were just in their own apartments, a few yards apart, they wrote to each other manically.’ Catherine called him her ‘Golden Pheasant’ or ‘Twin Soul’ and she became as devoted to him as he was to her declaring, ‘I love you all the time with all my soul.’ 

The relentlessly ambitious Potemkin became ‘Tsar in all but name’

Although Catherine and Potemkin engaged in frequent sexual activity their relationship was also one of intellect, a meeting of two minds who shared a common interest in politics. Whilst lust played a role in their love it was only one part.

Within the imperial court Potemkin divided opinion, he was either loved or hated. Some marvelled at his impressive list of achievements and scholarly intelligence whilst others were repulsed by his uncouth manners, egotistical nature and reputation for debauchery. Catherine so admired and relied upon his political and military abilities that Potemkin enjoyed unrivalled political influence amongst her many lovers. She was prepared to share her power with him and although historians cannot confirm for sure, it is widely believed they married. Although his official position was impossible to define, the relentlessly ambitious Potemkin became ‘Tsar in all but name’. The political alliance and shared ambition of this empress and her subject are unparalleled in history.

The climate in which their love existed is also quite extraordinary, embarking on their affair whilst Russia’s vast empire was at war abroad and at home, living daily under the spotlight and scrutiny of a highly competitive imperial court.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing for the passionate couple, their love burnt so strong that Potemkin became jealous and Catherine terrified that he’d become bored of her. The intensity of their relationship was not sustainable and in the end their romantic liaison lasted just two years.

However, they remained close for the rest of their lives enabling Potemkin’s political influence to remain unchanged, even after Catherine took other lovers. In this regard he also remained involved, selecting and vetting her new lovers ensuring they had both the physical and mental talents to hold Catherine’s interest. Even up until his death Catherine and Potemkin occasionally engaged in romantic trysts said to sometimes involve Catherine’s most recent lover as well.

Of all their achievements together perhaps the most notable was the successful large-scale colonisation of the south. Potemkin masterminded the peaceful annexation of the Crimea from the Turks before overseeing the founding and construction of many new towns and ports including Odessa, Kherson, Sevastopol and Nikolayev. He founded the Russian Black Sea Fleet, a humungous undertaking for its time, which elevated Russia’s naval power to that of Spain and just behind France. Russia was now primed and ready to play a role in European power politics. 

Catherine showered Potemkin with titles including Prince of the Holy Roman Empire, Prince of Taurida (Crimea), Field Marshall, Grand Admiral and Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Army. He was made the absolute ruler of New Russia (the imperial province north of the Black Sea). Orders were bestowed upon him and he revelled in his wealth, living lavishly and splurging on jewellery. 

After Catherine, Potemkin had other lovers, including long-lasting affairs with his five nieces. Catherine's final favourite was Prince Zubov, a man nearly 40 years her junior who enjoyed short-lived wealth and elevated status for the remaining years of Catherine’s life. Zubov may have been her last favourite, but Potemkin was always in her thoughts and she wrote to him often.

When Potemkin died of a fever in 1791 at just 52 years old, his last words were said to be of Catherine, ‘Forgive me, merciful Mother-Sovereign.’ The Empress was distraught, writing to a friend, ‘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.’

‘In many ways, the Empress never recovered,’ writes Montefiore, ’the golden age of her reign died with him.’