How did Catherine the Great really die?

Catherine the Great
Catherine the Great painted by Vigilius Eriksen in 1778-9. Th

Born without a drop of Russian blood inside her veins, the German-born Sophie Friederike Auguste died as Catherine the Great of Russia, whose successful 34-year reign became known as the ‘Golden Age of Russia’. She is one of history’s greatest female rulers who modernised her adopted homeland, expanded its borders and transformed it into a global superpower.

For all her achievements, Catherine is often remembered for the multitude of salacious and slanderous rumours attached to her name, none more famous than the one surrounding her death. Legend has it Catherine was intimately involved with one of her prized stallions, with who she often spent a great deal of unsupervised time with. One evening, while attempting to have sexual intercourse with the stallion, the harness holding the horse broke, sending the beast crashing down on top of her. Is there any truth to this infamous story of bestiality?

None whatsoever.

If we are to believe another popular myth that surrounds her death, it wasn’t the horse that killed her but a collapsing toilet seat. Whilst this one is also just an absurd rumour, it lies ever so slightly nearer the truth. In reality, Catherine the Great died of a stroke and she was discovered collapsed on the floor in her washroom. She fell into a coma and died the next day whilst lying in her bed. The cause of death was confirmed by autopsy.

So why then has the legacy of Russia's longest-ruling woman been stained with these rumours for over two centuries? The answer is misogyny.

The male-dominated world in which Catherine lived and ruled made her an exception to the norm. Those who opposed her were men. Those in a position to smear her reputation were men. Her male enemies created the legends that still reverberate around today’s World Wide Web. The rumours tell us more about the time in which Catherine lived than they do about the cause of her death.

Catherine did indeed like horses, so much so that a portrait was painted of her on horseback. It was also well documented that Catherine was sexually independent and took many male lovers during her reign, some of them a great deal younger than her. Whilst she used sex as a tool to broaden and cement her political power, she was far from the nymphomaniac that she was made out to be.

One urban legend even claimed that Catherine had an erotic cabinet created for one of her palaces. The cabinet was said to have enormous penises for legs, whilst other erotic imagery adorned its sides. Although German soldiers allegedly saw the cabinet during WWII, no visible proof of the furniture exists leading many historians to believe it's just another salacious fabrication.

The truth of the matter was Catherine couldn’t trust the systematic bureaucracy in Russia nor the many noblemen installed by her husband before her. And so she used her lovers as a means to cement her power. They often became trusted advisors who she then promoted into positions of authority. By cleverly surrounding herself with those allied to her cause she strengthened her hold on the throne.

Her enemies, however, saw things differently. They saw a woman who slept her way to the top, a woman who was not meant to rule but stole the throne from her husband. Society stated that her role should just have been to provide Peter III with a male heir, instead she overthrew her clueless husband and claimed the throne for herself. In doing so, she ruffled the feathers of men around the world.

Catherine’s success as a ruler was also a driving factor behind the rumours. Cartoons drawn by foreign press perpetuated them, consistently degrading Catherine and exaggerating her apparent promiscuity. In reality, those in power were beginning to fear the power that Russia was now wielding. It was fighting and winning wars, modernising and revitalising. All of this meant that the target on Catherine’s back was even greater. She was clearly doing something right if newspapers around Europe were giving up so much column space to denouncing her.

Closer to home, her success, coupled with how she came to power, led to jealously and fear among her male objectors in the Russian court. They disliked the power she wielded over them as few other women in the world at that time could claim to have such authority. Rumour and degrading slander became the weapon by which they would take jabs at her legacy.

Historians have argued that the horse myth represents how her enemies wished to paint her rule and her ascension to the throne as unnatural. The belief at the time was that women were inferior to men, whose role was to be subordinate to their husbands. It was unthinkable they could rule a nation, especially one successfully. In their eyes, Catherine was the very definition of unnatural and so stories of outlandish sexual behaviour became a way of insinuating how her position in the world was not natural to her gender.

The horse myth also allowed her enemies to tarnish her legacy and claims to greatness. How can history remember her for anything else if she died whilst trying to have sexual intercourse with a horse? In the end, it seems the misogynists somewhat got their wish since the rumour still doggedly persists to this day.