Horsing Around With Catherine the Great

Why women in 18th century Russia should have stuck to riding sidesaddle.


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The list of misogynist rumors about strong women leaders is long and fertile, but none lodge in the memory quite so vividly as the notorious “horse story” involving the Empress of Russia, Catherine II. Upon her death in 1796, word swept around Europe that she had been involved in a tryst with a stallion; the horse was supposedly being lowered onto her by servants using pulleys when the ropes snapped, crushing her to death. In reality, the 67-year-old Catherine suffered a stroke on the privy in the Winter Palace of Saint Petersburg and died in bed. But the scurrilous equine rumor has proven unshakeable for more than two centuries. Where did it come from? According to biographer Virginia Rounding, its elements had been brewing amongst her enemies for decades.

Wide-eyed stories about Catherine’s appetites had been circulating since she was in her 20s, when she took a parade of lovers rather than sleep with her husband, the hapless tsar Grand Duke Peter. The German-born Empress was strong-willed, intelligent, witty, and a correspondent with Voltaire. She was also strikingly beautiful — Russian courtiers forgave her thin face and pointy chin, remarking instead on her blond hair; her prominent, expressive blue eyes; and (as one admirer put it) “a mouth which seemed to invite kisses.” She made no secret of her love life, telling one of her beaux, Prince Grigory Potemkin, that she needed a virile young man in the Imperial bed for the sake of her health, and was unable to rule Russia properly when sleeping alone. Eligible young noblemen would be “tested” by her ladies-in-waiting before making appearances in the Empress’ night chamber: “She selected a new favorite, or agreed to the selection recommended by her ‘experts,’ much as she selected a new painting for her collection,” writes Rounding. Catherine would become infatuated with one or another of these vremenshchiki, “men of the moment” who could linger in her bed from a few months to several years, and she remained a connoisseur of Russian manhood even into her dotage, when she was formidably overweight, dripping with diamonds, and wearing a bright dollop of rouge on each cheek. There was no shortage of volunteers: Ambitious young men gladly accepted the honor of sharing the Empress’ bed for their families and careers.

All this was perfect grist for the boys’ club of European rulers, threatened by an unmarried woman who had ousted her husband in a coup and confidently expanded the Russian Empire. Ribald jokes circulated that the busiest thoroughfare in Saint Petersburg, the Venice of the North, was the Catherine Canal, and pornographic pictures of the Empress appeared in France and Great Britain when war seemed near. But how did the equine element come into play? Some English travel writers had once reported in the West that, along with their beer and bread, Russian peasants habitually enjoyed sodomy with horses. More probably, Catherine had enjoyed a reputation as a fine horsewoman when young; upon her arrival in Saint Petersburg, she had shocked the Imperial court by straddling her horse like a man instead of sidesaddle. When news reached the outside world of the Empress’ death, the “equine fable” was simply a leap of the imagination. • 25 February 2008

SOURCE/ADDITIONAL READING: Rounding, Virginia, Catherine the Great: Love, Sex and Power, (London, 2006).


Tony Perrottet's book, Napoleon's Privates: 2,500 Years of History Unzipped, is a literary version of a cabinet of curiosities (HarperCollins, 2008; napoleonsprivates.com). He is also the author of Pagan Holiday: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists and The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Games.