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From Russia with
Lots of Love
Catherine the Great loved horses. She also loved sex. Contrary to popular legend, however, she never managed to unite the two passions. Still, the autocratic empress of Russia brought all the enthusiasm of a vigorous ride to her extremely busy bedroom.
After ridding herself of her imbecile husband Peter III in 1762, Catherine grabbed the Russian crown and came to dominate her kingdom for the next thirty-four years. Boldly indulging herself as she grew more secure in her position, the empress consumed handsome young lovers with an appetite that sometimes shocked her contemporaries. "She's no woman," exclaimed one, "she's a siren!"
The empress relished her weakness for men, abandoning herself to a giddy romanticism that belied her cold and pragmatic rule. She loved being entertained, even into old age, by a succession of well-formed young studs eager to please her. "It is my misfortune that my heart cannot be content, even for one hour, without love," she wrote.
Sharing the empress's bed brought ample rewards, not the least of which was an intimate proximity to power, but getting there wasn't easy. A good body and a pleasant face, combined whenever possible with wit and intelligence, were merely starters. Potential lovers also had to have the right pedigree and pass a crucial test. Catherine had several ladies-in-waiting--test drivers of sorts--whose job it was to ensure that all candidates for their mistress's bed were up to the highly demanding task of satisfying her.
The applicants were most often supplied by the empress's one-eyed ex-lover--the man many assumed to be her secret husband--Gregory Potemkin. She had fallen in love with this rough, hulking officer relatively early in her industrious sexual career, overcome by his brash courage, quick wit, and almost primitive sexuality. Wasting little time disposing of Alexander Vassilzhikov, her boyfriend at the time, Catherine was delighted the first night Potemkin came to her bedroom, naked under his nightshirt and ready for action. "I have parted from a certain excellent but very boring citizen," the empress wrote to a confidante, "who has been replaced, I know not how, by one of the greatest, oddest, most amusing and original personalities of this Iron Age."
Because of his long greasy hair, and brutish unwashed body, many women found Potemkin repulsive. Catherine, however, reveled in his strength, charm, and sexual domination. She couldn't get enough of this strange man who made her forget her royal dignity. Whenever they were parted, even for a few hours, she regaled him with an avalanche of feverish love notes, each peppered with at least one of her special pet names: "My marble beauty," "my darling pet," "my dearest doll," "golden cock," "lion of the jungle," "my professional bon-bon."
In one letter, she pretended to be shocked at the intensity of her passion and tried to get hold of herself: "I have issued strict orders to my whole body, down to the smallest hair on my head, not to show you the least sign of love. I have locked my love inside my heart and bolted it ten times, it is suffocating there, it is constrained, and I fear it may explode." In other letters she gloried in his good company: "Darling, what comical stories you told me yesterday! I can't stop laughing when I think of them ... we spend four hours together without a shadow of boredom, and it is always with reluctance that I leave you. My dearest pigeon, I love you very much. You are handsome, intelligent, amusing."
Of course Catherine loved the sex, and in her exultation could sound much more like a bad romance novelist than the authoritarian empress of all the Russias:
--"There is not a cell in my whole body that does not yearn for you, oh infidel! ..."
--"I thank you for yesterday's feast. My little Grisha fed me and quenched my thirst, but not with wine...."
--"My head is like that of a cat in heat...."
Moody and temperamental, subject to bouts of black depression and fits of jealousy, Potemkin was sometimes lovingly scolded by his royal mistress: "There is a woman in the world who loves you and who has a right to a tender word from you, Imbecile, Tatar, Cossack, infidel, Muscovite, morbleu !" The relationship was so physically intimate that Catherine did not hesitate to share even the most unflattering of ailments with him: "I have some diarrhea today, but apart from that, I am well, my adored one.... Do not be distressed because of my diarrhea, it cleans out the intestines."
There is no surviving evidence to support the rumor that Catherine secretly married Potemkin, although she often referred to him in her letters as "my beloved spouse," or "my dearest husband." Married or not, the relationship certainly transcended the bedroom as it evolved into a close political partnership. Catherine shared her vast kingdom with Potemkin as if he were her king. She consulted with him on all affairs of state, working closely with him on her ambitious plans to expand Russia's borders and crush the Muslim Turks.
The empress's powerful lover is perhaps best remembered for the legendary "Potemkin Villages" he is said to have created for her benefit as she embarked on a grand tour of all the newly Russianized lands he had conquered for her. These "villages," it was said, were little more than elaborate stage sets of prosperous towns, populated by cheerful serfs, all of which were quickly collapsed and set up again at the next stop on Catherine's carefully plotted itinerary. The artificiality of the Potemkin Villages came to represent in the minds of many, Catherine's superficial and halfhearted attempts to reform and liberalize her kingdom.
Though the relationship with Potemkin endured until his death in 1791, the sexual intensity between them dimmed after only a few years. No longer champion of the empress's boudoir, Potemkin resolved to retain her favor by pimping his replacements. He handpicked a steady succession of new lovers for his erstwhile mistress--all of whom paid him a handsome brokerage fee for the privilege of servicing her. There was Zavadovsky, followed by Zorich, followed by Rimsky-Korsakov, followed by Lanskoy, followed by Ermolov, followed by Mamonov and so on and on, and on.
After being installed in the official apartment set aside for Catherine's lovers, each new favorite was feted and adored by the passionate monarch with almost girlish enthusiasm. But each, in turn, was eventually dismissed, either for boring Catherine or breaking her heart. Few, however, left her service without a handsome settlement. When Zavadovsky was dismissed in 1776, for example, Chevalier de Corberon, the French chargé d'affaires in Russia, wrote that "He has received from Her Majesty 50,000 rubles, a pension of 5,000, and 4,000 peasants in the Ukraine, where they are worth a great deal [serfs at the time were tradeable commodities, like cattle].... You must agree, my friend, that it's not a bad line of work to be in here."
One ex-lover, Count Stanislas Augustus Poniatowski, was even given the crown of Poland, although Catherine did eventually hack away huge chunks of his kingdom and absorb them into her own. All told, the generous payments to fallen lovers amounted to billions of dollars in today's currency. When her friend, the French philosopher Voltaire, gently chided Catherine for inconsistency in her love affairs, she responded that she was, on the contrary, "absolutely faithful."
"To whom? To beauty, of course. Beauty alone attracts me!"
—"I will be a `woman of fire' for you, as you so often say. But I shall try to hide my flames."