After organizing a successful coup to depose her husband Peter III, she took over the country, expanded the reach of her empire, attempted to introduce a smattering of social justice reforms, and became an influential patron of the arts. (She also conformed to regal stereotype and displayed her share of autocratic tendencies.)
The empress also had the audacity to be both a woman and a powerful head of state, a circumstance that has historically resulted in plenty of gossip about her private life (see the reputations of Cleopatra and Anne Boleyn).
Like her sisters in power, she was plagued by rumors of her risqué antics both during her life and throughout the two centuries following her death. She had 22 lovers, they said! (It was more like 12.) She perished while getting it on with a horse! (Which is accurate only if the bestiality referred to was code for suffering a stroke alone in her room.) And, gasp, she kept an erotic room filled with sexually explicit curiosities! Well… that one may actually be true.
No concrete proof has survived that confirms the existence of what is known as Catherine the Great’s erotic cabinet, but there is some pretty compelling speculation. It is said that two German soldiers stumbled across the secret room during a WWII invasion of Russia.
While the official report they allegedly filed has never been found, several pictures purported to be of the room’s contents have survived, and they have been the basis for modern reproductions of a few pieces of Catherine’s titillating furnishings.
But whatever the soldiers might have seen that day as they stole through either the Gatchina Palace or the Tsarskoye Selo, the two rumored locations of the erotic suite, nothing remains today. Both palaces were bombed during the war and whatever erotic secrets Catherine may have kept are believed to have been destroyed with them.
From the clues that have been cobbled together, the website MessyNessyChic reports that Catherine the Great’s erotic cabinet is thought to have been a room that took sex as its obsessive theme from the walls to the furniture down to even the doorknobs.
“According to witnesses, one of the walls was entirely hung with wooden phalluses of various shapes, a range of chairs, desks, and screens all decorated with pornographic images supplementing the whole appearance,” writes Ivgheny Kosthin in Sang Bleu Magazine.
Two of the pieces of furniture that were believed to have been in the room show just how pornographic Catherine’s secret chamber got. (They come from the few surviving photographs purported to have been taken by the German soldiers and have also been reproduced by modern furniture designers. Warning, they are definitely NSFW.)
Take, for instance, one chair that appears to be a classic Louis XIV on first glance—it has a straight back, is covered in brocade fabric, and features arms that link the back of the chair to the seat. But on closer inspection, the classical decorative flourishes are explicit depictions of various sex acts.
A pair of disembodied legs sits spread-eagled on the edge of the seat, while the angelic head of a woman graces the top of the chair back ready to perform a not so angelic act. And any brave sitters best beware of where they rest their arms.
There is also a round table that appears classic in shape, but its legs have been replaced with identical groupings of not-so-dainty penises sitting atop a pair of breasts, while the edge of the tabletop is decorated with alternating sexual organs.
Like all good infamous reputations, Catherine the Great’s actual behavior didn’t quite live up to the wild tales that have been told. But while she may have been more tame than historical memory would have us believe, it is also true that she openly enjoyed a healthy sexual life.
Her parade of lovers began, as all good royal affairs do, with a very unhappy marriage. The young princess moved from Prussia to Russia at the age of 15 to wed the ornery Peter III. It’s unclear what exactly went wrong in the relationship, but whatever the cause, the result was the same: Peter III did not want to have sex with Catherine.
After suffering several years of public snubs and clear disinterest from her new husband, Catherine decided to take matters into her own hands. She began to take lovers.
For the rest of her life, Catherine would freely indulge in the sex and companionship that she so craved, but she had learned her lesson from her early romantic heartbreak.
“I would have been ready to like my new husband had he been capable of affection or willing to show any,” she wrote in her later years. But, instead, she had to confront the truth that “the man scarcely looks at you, talks of nothing but dolls, and pays more attention to any other woman than yourself.”
“This first scar made upon my impressionable heart remained with me forever; never did this firm resolution leave my head; but I took good care not to tell anybody that I had resolved never to love without restraint a man who would not return this love in full,” she wrote.
But while she would never find another partner for life, even after her not-so-dear Peter was dethroned and assassinated in 1762, she found plenty of men to be her partner for the moment.
There was no shortage of willing suitors interested in the position of consort to the empress. She required that her temporary intendeds offer companionship and respect in exchange for the money and prestige that came with the station. They also had to survive an intense selection process.
According to historian John R. Gregg in Sex, the Illustrated History: Through Time, Religion, and Culture, “[Catherine] appointed her friend, Countess Praskofya Bruce, as her ‘éprouveuse,’ (tester) to sleep with the prospect and judge him as to organ size and love-making skills. Then he would be examined by a physician to be sure of health. If he passed both tests, he would be installed as her lover until she tired of him.”
But it wasn’t a full-on bacchanalia in the royal quarters. Catherine may have taken a slew of lovers, but she only entertained one at a time, keeping each until they began to bore her, which could take anywhere from a few months to a few years.
When she parted ways with her latest paramour, it was usually on good terms, which also proved politically advantageous. She often promoted her former consorts to powerful positions, including installing one as the king of Poland. The only aspect of Catherine’s affairs that threatened scandal seems to have been that while she got older, the men who warmed her bed got increasingly younger.
Rumors may have swirled around Catherine the Great, just as they did about the erotic cabinet, but none of her partners ever revealed details of their private romps. But Catherine the Great didn't forget these men. She kept a gallery wall of portraits of her past lovers.