There is a well-known legend surrounding Empress Catherine the Great of Russia, and it involves a horse. The myth is that Catherine was crushed to death by a horse while attempting to have sex with it. Usually, the collapse of a harness or lifting mechanism is blamed. This would be bad enough, but there’s a second myth that’s often added when debunking the first. The second myth is that Catherine died on the toilet.
But, what’s the truth? The truth appears to be that Catherine died in bed of illness. There were no equines involved, and a Catherine with horse nexus was never attempted. Catherine has been slandered for several centuries.
Catherine the Great was Tsarina of Russia, one of the most powerful women in European history. So, how did the idea that she died while attempting an unusual practice with a horse become one of the most virulent myths in modern history, transmitted by whispers in school playgrounds across the western world?
It’s unfortunate that one of history’s most interesting women is known to most people as a beast, but the combination of perverse rudeness and the relative foreignness of its subject makes this a perfect slander. People love hearing about sexual deviance, and they can believe it of a foreign person they don’t know much about.
So if Catherine didn’t die while attempting sex with a horse (and just to reiterate, she absolutely, 100% didn’t), how did the myth arise? Where did the fireless smoke come from? During past centuries the easiest way for people to offend and verbally attack their female enemies was sex.
Marie Antoinette, the hated queen of France, was subjected to printed myths so deviant and obscene they would make spam emailers blush and certainly can’t be reproduced here.
Catherine the Great was always going to attract rumors about her sex life, but her sexual appetite, while modest by modern standards, meant that the rumors had to be even wilder to make up the ground.
Historians believe the horse myth originated in France, among the French upper classes, soon after Catherine’s death, as a way to mar her legend. France and Russia were rivals, and they would continue to be on and off for a long time (particularly thanks to Napoleon), so both slated the citizens of the other.
Catherine II was the Empress of Russia from 1762-1796. In 1745, she converted to Russian Orthodoxy and married Grand Duke Peter of Russia. As Empress, she became known as Catherine the Great, and in the role she expanded and modernized the Russian Empire. Catherine the Great was born Sophie von Anhalt-Zerbst to an insolvent Prussian Prince.
She changed her name to Ekaterina (Catherine) when she converted to Russian Orthodoxy immediately prior to her marriage. Catherine’s mother had strong bloodlines, and that gave her good prospects for marriage. When she was 15, her mother got her an invitation to meet the Empress Elizabeth, who was searching for a bride for her nephew and heir Peter.
Growing up, Catherine was educated by tutors in subjects of religion, history, and languages. She learned German, French and later Russian, which came in handy when she met the Russian Grand Duke Peter. Catherine spent much of her early married life riding her horse. She refused to ride side-saddle, and wrote “The more violent the exercise, the more I enjoyed it.”
During her reign, Catherine faced more than a dozen uprisings. The most dangerous uprising was in 1773, when a group of armed Cossacks and peasants led by Emelyan Pugachev rebelled. Pugachev claimed that he was in fact a returned (and still alive) Peter III, and therefore the heir to the rightful throne. Catherine responded with massive force, and he was publicly executed in 1775.
Catherine considered herself to be one of Europe’s most enlightened rulers. She wrote several books, pamphlets, and educational materials aimed at improving Russia’s education system, and she was a great champion of the arts. She created one of the world’s foremost art collections, housed at the Winter Palace (now the Hermitage Museum) in St. Petersburg.
After declaring herself the Sovereign ruler of the Russian Empire, Catherine successfully led Russia against the Ottoman Empire, securing Russia’s status as one of the most dominant countries in Europe. She also defeated the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, leading to the partitioning of Poland and the division of its territory between Russia, Prussia, and Austria. By the end of her reign, the Russian Empire had expanded by both conquest and diplomacy, adding about 200,000 square miles to its territory.
Catherine’s relationship with her eldest son Paul was a difficult one. He was taken away from her as a child and raised by Empress Elizabeth, and then, as an adult, he was kept away from matters of state. Catherine raised Paul’s son Alexander, and considered him to be a more suitable heir than his father.
She died before she could make it official, and Paul succeeded Catherine to the throne. Paul’s policies were unpopular, and he was assassinated five years into his reign. Alexander succeeded him and ruled until his death in 1825.
In 1785, Catherine issued an edict known as the Charter to the Nobility or Charter to the Gentry, which greatly increased the power of the nobility and the upper-classes, and forced much of the population into serfdom (servitude).
In doing so, she inadvertently fostered ill-will between the old aristocracy (titles received through family lines), and new gentry (those given their status as reward for service to the state). Catherine was extremely generous towards her lovers. She would gift them with titles, lands, palaces, and even people, once giving a lover 1,000 serfs. But becoming a lover of Catherine the Great was no easy task.
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 (personal assistant), Countess Praskovya Aleksandrovna Bruce. It’s unclear how much truth there is to this story because Catherine’s enemies spread many rumors about her postmortem. However, this claim is documented in several historical manuscripts.
It is widely reported that Catherine and Countess Praskovya Aleksandrovna Bruce’s relationship didn’t end well. In 1779, an advisor led Catherine into a room where Catherine’s latest lover, Ivan Rimsky-Korsakov, was having intercourse with Bruce. The lover was sent into exile, and Bruce followed him. Bruce was relieved of her duties as lady-in-waiting shortly after.
There is just as much misinformation (or unprovable claims) as information on Catherine II. Some juicy wish-they-were-true examples: that she kept her hairdresser in a cage to keep her wig a secret and that she advocated for having sex at least six times a day, claiming that it helped her relieve her insomnia. Neither of these claims have been verified by historic record.