How Catherine The Great Shook Up Europe’s Male Power Structure — And Was Punished For It
By All That's Interesting | Edited By John Kuroski
Published January 2, 2017
Updated May 25, 2022
It was sexism, not a horse -- as one infamous rumor goes -- that brought down the powerful Russian empress known as Catherine the Great.
Hermitage MuseumCatherine II of Russia (Catherine the Great), circa 1770.
For more than three decades in the late 18th century, one woman ruled with an iron fist over all of Russia. That woman was Catherine the Great, and the power she held as a woman led the press as well as world leaders to crucify her for it.
Thus while Catherine may have claimed victory in several wars, expanded Russia’s borders, and helped usher her country into a new age of art and culture, most of what we remember about her today are the misogynist rumors that her rivals used to slander her, especially one infamous story involving the empress and her horse. Below we provide a handful of those rumors — and debunk them:
Catherine The Great’s Infamous Death
Vigilius Eriksen/Grand Peterhof PalaceEquestrian portrait of Catherine the Great in uniform of the Preobrazhensky Regiment, one of the oldest Imperial Russian guard units, circa 1762.
The most widely known story of Catherine the Great involves her death at age 67 in 1796.
The rumor goes that Catherine — at that point already internationally “known” for a supposedly outsized sexual appetite (outsized compared to how men thought women should act) — perished when a harness holding a stallion positioned above her broke, causing the horse to fall and crush her. The innuendo was that she had been having sex with the horse.
The story, whose actual source is unclear, supposedly gained traction after Catherine’s servants reported that the empress would hide away in the stables with her Arabian stallions for long hours, without supervision. On a deeper level, the story likely took its cues from foreign fears about Russia’s growing power in Europe (more on that later).
Other nonsensical rumors suggested that Catherine had died when her toilet seat broke underneath her, or even that she’d died because assassins had hidden spring-loaded blades in her toilet seat that activated when she sat down.
In reality, however, Catherine was writing a letter the last time she was seen alive. Sometime later, she suffered a stroke (reportedly while actually on the toilet). Servants eventually found her collapsed in the washroom, but it was too late by this point. She passed away while doctors cared for her in bed.
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A woman wearing a liberty cap -- representing the genius of France -- holds a cat-o'-nine-tails with one hand and the reins of a donkey in the other.
This donkey and the other bucking in the background are holding the monarchs from Russia, Prussia, Germany, Russia, Sweden, Brunswick, Turkey, Spain and China (falling to the ground).
Louis XVI lays on the ground beneath the donkey. On the left, Marie I of Portugal sits on the ground tearing her hair out.British Cartoon Prints Collection/Library of Congress
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Potemkin, with a sword raised overhead and wearing a hussar's uniform, rides Catherine The Great, who is depicted as a black bear.
They're approached by George III and his ministers -- Pitt, Salisbury, and Thurlow -- carrying spears, three of which have broken points. Behind them stand two bishops.British Cartoon Prints Collection/Library of Congress
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A satire on Catherine's morals and on the Russo-Turkish war. The joke derives from a paragraph in The Bon Ton Magazine, March 1791:
"The Empress of Russia is said to intend placing one foot upon Petersburgh, and the other upon Constantinople. What a delight must the Imperial stride afford to the curious inhabitants of the intermediate countries."The British Museum.
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A more lude, French version of the previous cartoon.
Catherine II is shown bare-breasted, holding a scepter and sphere, taking a large step from a piece of land on the right labeled "Russie" to a crescent moon atop a steeple or minaret labeled "Constantinople" on the left.
Below her are the rulers of France, Prussia, Sweden, Austria, Poland, Great Britain and Spain, and Pope Pius VI, who are all looking up her dress while making rude comments.French Political Cartoon Collection/Library of Congress
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Catherine II receives decapitated Polish heads from the military officer in charge of the Russian forces who defeated Poland in 1794.
Other men bring in baskets overflowing with heads. A bust of Charles Fox, in the lower right corner, observes the scene from over his right shoulder.British Cartoon Prints Collection/Library of Congress
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Catherine II sits on the shoulders of Leopold II, who is seated on the back of a stumbling bull. Next to him are George III, Frederick William II and a man representing Holland.
In the background, William Pitt is about to strike a British citizen with a rod while chastising him for complaining about shouldering the cost of Pitt's Russian armament policy.British Cartoon Prints Collection/Library of Congress
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Catherine II, Joseph II and Frederick II sit at a map of Poland. Standing behind them and looking over their shoulders are Charles III and Louis XV. Still further back, asleep on a throne is George III. On the left, with his broken crown bowed and his hands bound, sits the King of Poland.
To the left is a man in chains, possibly Mustafa III, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, or Muhsinzade Mehmet Paşa, the Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire.
A scale titled "The Ballance of Power" hangs above the table. The lighter side is labeled "Great Britain" reflecting George III's lack of influence on, or concern for, the affairs of Europe.British Cartoon Prints Collection/Library of Congress
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Potemkin addresses a man identified as "Sweden" while Catherine II suggestively mounts St. George, who is dressed as a knight representing George III.British Cartoon Prints Collection/Library of Congress
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Catherine II faints and shies away from William Pitt, who appears as Petruchio and Don Quixote on horseback (a lean and scarred George III whose authority has been usurped by Pitt).
Seated behind Pitt are the King of Prussia and a figure representing Holland as Sancho Panza. Selim III kneels to kiss the horse's tail. A gaunt figure representing the old order in France and Leopold II render assistance to Catherine by preventing her from falling to the ground.British Cartoon Prints Collection/Library of Congress
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Members of the French National Assembly expose their posteriors, from which streams labeled "Liberté ca ira" pour down on the heads of rulers of Europe.
Meanwhile, Liberty ignites a cannon labeled "Violent emetique" aimed up Louis XIV's posterior cause him to vomit vetos over the monarchs, among them Catherine II, George III, William Pitt, and Pope Pius VI.
An eagle with a large crown labeled "Protection de l'empire", arrives to late to shield the group.French Political Cartoon Collection/Library of Congress
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Catherine II and Frederick William II as pugilists, stripped to the waist with fists raised. On either side stand other European heads of state.
Behind Prussia are George III standing with Holland, Selim III and Leopold II represent Turkey and Germany. Behind Russia are Christian VII and Gustavus III representing Denmark and Sweden. Other figures, smaller in size as their stature is reduced, appear in close proximity to the boxers.
The king of Poland is between the wide-spread legs of Prussia (fearing partition), Louis XVI and Charles IV representing France and Spain are positioned in the background between Catherine and Frederick, and the Marquis of Lansdowne stands to the right of Catherine behind a cask labeled "Nants."British Cartoon Prints Collection/Library of Congress
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Catherine II raises her sword as an Amazon and bears a shield emblazoned with the double-headed eagle. She is battling the Sultan, Selim III, who is attacking with a rifle fixed with bayonet.
Joseph II, an ally, hides behind Catherine. An apeish Louis XVI and the King of Spain stand to the side of the Sultan. In the background the Turkish army fires cannon and lobs hand-grenades, which Catherine's shield rebuffs.British Cartoon Prints Collection/Library of Congress
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Interior view of a portrait gallery with busts of Demosthenes and Cicero -- both frowning -- and between them a bust of Charles J. Fox.
Hanging on the wall above are two prints showing Catherine II of Russia. In one, titled Justice, she is about to stab a sultan. In the other, Moderation, she is facing a map of Moldavia, Bessarabia, and Wallachia, which she embraces with outspread arms.
Hanging above the bust of Fox is a crowned circle inscribed "Conjugal love -- A cure for the Haemerroidical Cholic," within which is a rope noose.British Cartoon Prints Collection/Library of Congress
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Catherine II holding a cleaver, Joseph II and Frederick II with swords drawn, and Louis XV with a knife, sit around a table on which rests a partitioned cake, representing Poland.
Each monarch is getting a separate, but not equal share. In the background on the left stands Stanisław II, King of Poland, weeping, and on the right, with sword raised, is the Sultan. At the time of the partition of Poland in 1772, Mustafa III was Sultan of the Ottoman Empire.British Cartoon Prints Collection/Library of Congress
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Catherine II is horrified at the visions that beset her at the moment of death. A cloud enters at the left depicting the many victims of her wrath, while a skeleton, Death, stands behind her ready to plunge his spear and send her cloven-hoofed spirit into the hands of two grinning demons waiting in the flames of hell.
A frightened Charles Fox witnesses the visions from a portrait on the wall behind her.British Cartoon Prints Collection/Library of Congress
How Catherine The Great Shook Up Europe’s Male Power Structure — And Was Punished For It
England and France, especially via their political cartoons (some of which you can view above), drove much of the Catherine the Great rumor-mongering.
French cartoonists and broadsheet writers in particular consistently denigrated Catherine, in ways that often involved her supposed promiscuity, after she came out against the French Revolution.
In fact, the story of Catherine and the horse directly stems from her position against the revolution. At the time, European monarchs used equestrian portraits as a way to emphasize their royal power and prestige.
France, however, was in the midst of a revolution that fought against both that kind of power and all aristocratic and monarchistic pretensions. Thus, the idea of describing Catherine as having sex with a horse was the French way of satirizing her royal power -- and dredging up her alleged sexual voracity.
The English, on the other hand, largely attacked Catherine for her political power grabs.
In the decades before her death, Catherine had led Russia to war several times against the Ottoman Empire, and had come away successful, allowing her to colonize new territory in Europe. This expansion made the English -- then the world's great colonial superpower -- nervous.
In fact, the Triple Alliance of 1788 between England and what is now Germany and the Netherlands formed specifically to counter Catherine's efforts to expand Russia's sphere of influence in Europe.
However, Catherine fired back by sowing dissent within Great Britain. With a clever use of back channels and propaganda, she turned the English parliament against their own and politically destroyed the country's main proponent of anti-Russian sentiment, Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger.
Thus the Triple Alliance fell apart before it could ever go to war against Russia, sparing Catherine's army from the combined might of English and German military action.
Catherine The Great And Entrenched Misogyny
Fyodor Rokotov/Tretyakov GalleryEmpress Catherine The Great, circa 1763.
Frederick the Great -- ruler of Russia's neighbor and geopolitical rival, Prussia -- had some strongly misogynistic feelings toward Catherine the Great.
As he wrote to his brother 12 years after Catherine took the throne from Peter III:
A woman is always a woman and, in feminine government, the cunt has more influence than a firm policy guided by straight reason.
Sexism aside, Frederick disliked Catherine because of her governing style in which she would send trusted advisers to remote parts of the country to handle things in her stead, rather than relying on official bureaucratic channels.
This represented a return to the old way of Russian governing. And as far as Frederick was concerned, this move kept power centralized, and made Russia more impregnable to outside influence, thus making the country a bigger threat.
It also didn't help that one of Catherine's trusted advisers, Grigory Potemkin, was her lover, who she allowed to handle matters of state, such as making a peace deal with the Ottomans.
The fact that Catherine and Potemkin were lovers allowed Frederick and his court to create and spread rumors about Catherine's inappropriate sexual habits as a way of attacking and mocking her position as a ruler simply because she was a woman.
And in this case, Frederick's dislike of women happened to align with Prussian state interests against Russia, and he thus fueled the fires of misogyny and allowed them to burn within his country unchecked, and unfairly damaging Catherine's reputation in the process.
Sex And Power
Wikimedia CommonsCatherine The Great on a balcony at the Winter Palace on June 28, 1762, the day of the coup where she wrestled power away from Peter III, the husband who despised her.
While men like Frederick the Great certainly invented misogynistic rumors involving Catherine's sexual habits in order to damage her reputation, a few small truths do tether those rumors to reality. It is true that Catherine used sex as a tool to secure and broaden her political power.
First and foremost, she elevated her main lovers into powerful positions because she could trust them. She did this because she couldn't trust the country's systemic bureaucracy, filled with noblemen who had no love for her and who had been installed by her predecessor, late husband, and ultimately political enemy, Peter III, in order to bring European-style government to Russia.
Instead, Catherine went back to the old Russian way of governing an empire with borders on opposite ends of the world: trusted advisers acting in her stead. For example, she placed Stanisław August Poniatowski, an ex-lover, on Poland's throne simply in order to know that she fully controlled Russia's eastern neighbor.
Moreover, Catherine trusted two of her lovers, Grigory Orlov and Grigory Potemkin, with the most influence. Orlov -- with the aid of his brothers -- helped Catherine usurp the Russian throne from Peter III, killing him in the process, in 1762, while Potemkin would later become her secret husband.
Potemkin was by far Catherine's most longstanding and favored lover. She showered him with more titles, responsibilities, and money than anyone else, and even built the Tauride Palace, one of the largest palaces in Saint Petersburg, specifically for him. She crowned him Prince of the Russian Empire, had him create entire cities from scratch, and made him commander of all Russian forces during the 1787 war with Turkey.
It's safe to say that, in Catherine's day, few other women in the world exercised that much power over men -- and few other women were slandered so greatly for it.