Ursula's History Web

1. How did Catherine the Great die?

2. What became of Catherine's third son, Alexsei?

3. How many lovers did Catherine the Great have?


1. How did Catherine the Great Die?

I have received a few inquiries about the so-called "horse story". I have been studying every aspect of the life of Catherine the Great. One eminent historian explained how such a preposterous story could have started: apparently the anti-monarchy forces in France circulated such rubbish soon after Catherine's death throughout Europe with the intention of discrediting her many achievements.

Catherine had become the enemy of France after she had voiced sharply her outrage when word had reached St. Petersburg that the king and queen had been executed. She ordered the court to declare 6 weeks of mourning on Oct. 27, 1793. This proclamation was in memory of Marie Antoinette, who had been killed a few months after her husband, King Louis XVI. She denounced these evil forces very vocally. She also welcomed many French refugees to St. Petersburg. Each of them had to swear allegiance to the Imperial Crown of Russia. She was very anxious not to transport the seeds of revolution to her own country.

Catherine had relationships with several guardsmen younger than herself, but she was neither vulgar nor licentious. She was a lady of high intellect, a tireless worker for the good of Russia, and above all, she was human and she was kind. She was a legend in her own time. I have been familiar with her story for many years. Her behavior throughout her exceptional life was at all times understandable. No other ruler had her many fine qualities.

It is regrettable that some people seem to take pleasure in vulgarity, but thankfully they are small in number. They do not belong in the category of the many who have a sincere desire to learn the true facts of history. Once only, but for all times, I would like to make it clear that Catherine suffered a stroke at the age of 67, inside her water closet. She was discovered by her maid, lying on the carpet against her commode. The door had prevented her from stretching out her legs. Her eyes were closed, her face congested. There was foam on her lips and a rattle in her throat. Others rushed in when they heard the cries of her maid. They combined their many efforts to lift her heavy body, but staggered. They pulled a leather mattress from a sofa to the floor. There she stayed while doctors tried to bleed her. But they knew it was the end. She died several hours later without regaining consciousness, stretched out by now in her canopied bed.


2. What became of Catherine's third son, Alexsei?

When the Empress Elizabeth died at Christmas, 1761, Catherine was in her sixth month with Gregory Orlov's child. He was born in secrecy on April 11, 1762 in a part of the Palace away from the mainstream of the activities. Her marriage to Peter had of course completely broken down by then and he was flaunting his mistress for all to see.

Her chamberlain Vasilii Shkurin and his wife took the child away to their home in a beaver skin ( a bobyor ) He was two months old when Catherine came to the throne. He was returned to the Palace and enjoyed a normal childhood with both Catherine and Gregory in parental roles. She bestowed noble rank on the foster parents. Orlov used the child in a way, trying to push Catherine towards marriage. She thought long and hard about it and took Panin's advice who told her that a Madame Orlov would never be allowed to rule. She did not dare to marry Gregory because Gregory's brother Alexis was implicated in the demise of Peter.

When Alexsei Gregorevich was a teenager he traveled for ten years abroad. In 1787/88 she appointed Zavadovkii to take over the guardianship of her son and square away the huge amounts of debts the boy had accumulated when he was abroad. After his return to St. Petersburg he was given the surname of Bobrinskoi and Catherine purchased an estate for him. She also enrolled him in the Noble Cadet Corps under the watchful eye of Ivan Betskoi. When he graduated in 1782 she sent him on a tour of Russia and he traveled to Poland and Italy. Then he settled in Paris.

After her death in November, 1796, Paul had his half-brother recalled and gave him the rank of Count. He was well received at court. He must have married because one author says "the Bobrinskys were very proud of their origin". I have not been able to find any information on when he died.


3. How many lovers did Catherine the Great have?

The Men in Catherine's Life

1752: Serge Saltuikov

A chamberlain at the young court of the Grand Duke and Duchess, he belonged to one of the noblest and oldest families in Russia. When assigned to this post he had been married for two years to one of the Empress Elizabeth’s ladies-in-waiting. He was a charming and women found him attractive. Seeing that Catherine was abandoned by her husband, he dared to approach her. After eight years of a virgin marriage, at age twenty-three, she gave herself to Saltuikov. He is most likely the father of Catherine’s first child, Grand Duke Paul, although around the same time Catherine’s husband Peter had for the first time marital relations with her after a surgical intervention. Catherine had fallen hard for this charming rogue, who soon tried to distance himself from her because of fear and also because he grew tired of this clandestine affair. The Empress sent Saltuikov to the Swedish court at the end of September 1754. Catherine was very distressed and consoled herself with reading.

1755: Stanislav Poniatowski

England sent a new Ambassador, Sir Charles Hanbury-Williams to St. Petersburg. In his entourage was a charming and cultured young man, Count Stanislav Augustus Poniatowski, a member of Poland’s grand families, the Czartoryskis. Three years younger than Catherine, he fell in love with the young Grand Duchess and would love her all his life. Catherine was more levelheaded after the affair with her first love, but succumbed to his persistent charm. The affair lasted five years and produced Catherine’s second child, a girl, whom the Empress called Anna in honor of her late sister, the mother of Catherine’s husband. Anna died at age 2 in 1759.

1760: Gregory Orlov

Orlov, a hero of the battle of Zorndorf, was one of two Russian officers assigned to accompany an important prisoner of war, the Prussian Count Schwerin to St. Petersburg. In all there were five Orlov brothers in the Imperial Guards, but Gregory was certainly the most charming. He came from a modest background and had little education. Count Schwerin was treated most respectfully and one evening Grand Duke Peter gave a reception for him. Orlov had accompanied Schwerin to the reception and was on guard duty at the palace. Catherine, who just had a painful scene with her husband, rushed in tears to the window and saw Orlov glancing up in admiration. From this moment on she was determined to make his acquaintance. He was not high up enough to move in Imperial circles, so Catherine had to find another way to meet him. On May 16th, 1760 she started her affair with Gregory Orlov which was to last for 13 years. Her second son was born on April 11, 1762. He was called Alexis Bobrinski and was carried out in a beaver skin from a remote part of the palace by trusted friends. (Peter had succeeded his aunt and flaunted his mistress, whom he intended to marry after Catherine had been disposed of.) Orlov was instrumental in helping Catherine seize the throne on June 28, 1762. Catherine would not marry him and by 1773 their relationship was ending.

1773: Alexander Vasilchikov

In September 1773 Catherine took Vasilchikov as the new favorite. He was a twenty-eight year old officer, considerably younger than Catherine, even-tempered and shy. Orlov had been sent to peace talks with Sultan Mustapha’s envoys to Foscani, in what is now Romania. Although he told Catherine he wanted to marry his young cousin Catherine Zinovieva before he left, when he heard of the new favorite, he came rushing back to St. Petersburg. Catherine had made Gregory Orlov a Prince of the Empire, now she severed her attachments to Vasilchikov and restored Orlov to his former status. She gave him many gifts, but their sexual relationship had ended. Orlov had given Catherine a 199-carat diamond, which she had mounted on the Imperial sceptre. In 1776 Catherine helped Orlov to marry his first cousin, a marriage not normally permitted by the church.

1774: Gregory Potemkin

Potemkin was born in 1739. He chose a military career, and as quartermaster of the Horse Guards had helped Catherine to the throne in 1762. She had made him a groom-in-waiting and sometime in 1774 she entered into a personal relationship with him. Although lazy, Potemkin had a brilliant mind, which appealed to Catherine. He was cocky, jealous and wrapped up in himself, yet Catherine adored this man. She turned to him with her problems and he certainly loved her. Some historians think they may have married at the end of 1774 in St. Sampson’s church, in a secret ceremony. There is, however, no solid proof. Potemkin began to press his political views on Catherine. She listened, but would not let love interfere in ruling the country. They soon quarreled a lot and Catherine began to feel that she and Potemkin were slowly destroying each other. She finally made the decision to send him away, first to the Polish provinces and then to the Black Sea. Potemkin, fully aware that in his absence he was sure to lose his status and authority at court, decided that he would from now on choose Catherine’s favorites. With his agreement she took her next lover.

1776 : Peter Zavadovsky

Potemkin left for an inspection tour and in February 1776 Catherine entered into a relationship with Peter Zavadovsky, which lasted only until April. He was dismissed with many gifts. Potemkin had returned to St. Petersburg and lived in a mansion connected to the Imperial Palace. Some time during these years Catherine had made Potemkin a Prince of the Empire. He remained the most important man in her life, although their intimacy had become aloof. At any moment he would have to leave again on business for Catherine. By appointing her favorites in his absence, he had unwittingly done great harm to Catherine’s reputation.

1777: Simon Zorich

Zorich, handsome, a major in the Hussars, had been made lieutenant colonel and inspector of all light troops, was of Serbian descent. He remained the favorite for eleven months. He began to resent Potemkin’s hold over Catherine and challenged him to a duel. Neither was seriously wounded, but it was the end of Simon Zorich as favorite.

1778: Ivan Rimsky-Korsakov

This man belonged to the family that was to produce the famous composer. He too was a talented musician, playing the violin and had a good singing voice. About fifteen months or so later, Catherine found him in the arms of Countess Bruce. She dismissed both of them with generous provisions. Once again, Potemkin chose as a favorite a man he knew he could trust.

1779: Alexander Lanskoy

Lanskoy was the youngest of Catherine’s favorites. Catherine almost had a maternal feeling for this young man, as her letters to Grimm show. She was proud of him, praised his love for art and she seemed to be genuinely fond of him. She had at last found someone who loved her. She had experienced many disappointments, but here was a young man who seemed happy and content in her company. Four years went by. Lanskoy went out riding and fell, developed first chest pains from the fall, then contracted diphtheria. He died on June 14, 1784. Catherine was devastated. She buried him in Sophia and built a church over his grave. In Tsarskoe Selo Park she had a funeral urn placed in his memory, inscribed with the words "To my dearest friend." Potemkin waited eight months for Catherine to get over her grief and in February 1785 he suggested a new favorite.

1785: Alexander Ermolov

He was thirty years old, tall, blonde and little is known about him. After some disagreement, he was dismissed eighteen months later.

1786: Alexander Dmitriev-Mamanov

He was one of Potemkin’s own aides-de-camp, had a good education, spoke French and Italian. He accompanied Catherine on her tour of the Crimea. After four years he admitted to Catherine that he wanted to marry Darya Scherbatova, one of her ladies-in-waiting. Catherine hastily arranged the marriage, as the bride was expecting a child. The young couple was given an estate with peasants, to which they departed to await the birth of the child.

1789: Plato Zubov

In the spring of 1789 a young guard’s officer took up duty at Tsarskoe Selo. Later that summer he was appointed personal aide-de-camp to the Empress. Catherine seemed happy with Zubov. She wrote to Grimm that he took good care of her and was good company. He remained with Catherine until the day she died in November 1796.

A Short Summary

Much has been written about Catherine and some very intelligent people have quoted as many as 300 lovers to me. For this reason alone I have listed the men in her life, as researched by the esteemed authors under "Works cited." In all she had 2 husbands and 11 favorites. The Empress Elizabeth chose the first, Catherine chose five herself and the rest were chosen by Potemkin.

Any reasonable person would question these "hundreds of lovers." How could she have found time to look after the business of the nation? I would like to mention here that a man would have been praised and admired for his virility! There is no doubt that Potemkin harmed her reputation with his actions. But she went along with him, did as he wanted, and it was after all her very own business. Her achievements as Empress had very little to do with her personal life. But I find it sad that even today some people take pleasure in belittling such a great lady.

Ursula Grosser Dixon