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The 10 Key Lovers Who Shaped Catherine the Great‘s Reign

Empress Catherine II of Russia, better known as Catherine the Great, is one of history‘s most fascinating female rulers. She came to power in a coup against her own husband in 1762 and went on to become the country‘s longest-reigning female leader. Catherine ushered in what many consider a golden age for Russia, strengthening its military, expanding its territory, and promoting Enlightenment ideals.

But Catherine‘s personal life was just as intriguing as her political career. Over the course of her reign, she took on many lovers – at least 22 by some counts. These relationships were important not only to Catherine emotionally, but also in shaping the course of her rule and Russian history. Here‘s a look at the 10 most significant men who shared her bed and influenced her life:

1. Peter III – The Husband She Overthrew

Portrait of Peter III

Catherine‘s story begins with an arranged marriage at age 16 to her second cousin, the Duke Karl Peter Ulrich of Holstein-Gottorp, who later took the name Peter III upon inheriting the Russian throne. The relationship was troubled from the start. The marriage went unconsummated for years due to Peter‘s emotional immaturity and rumored impotence.

Both Catherine and Peter took lovers early on. When Catherine gave birth to an heir, Paul, in 1754, gossip swirled that he was actually fathered by her lover at the time, Sergei Saltykov. Peter also had a child with his mistress, Elizabeth Vorontsova.

Just six months into Peter‘s disastrous reign as emperor, Catherine seized power in a coup with the help of her then-lover Grigory Orlov and other allies. Peter III was forced to abdicate and died shortly after, possibly murdered, making Catherine the sole ruler of Russia. This unhappy marriage set the stage for Catherine to seek out companionship and political alliances through her later lovers.

2. Stanisław Poniatowski – The Polish Prince

Portrait of Poniatowski

One of Catherine‘s earliest significant lovers was Stanisław August Poniatowski, a Polish aristocrat she met in 1755 before becoming empress. Poniatowski was a charming diplomat and an intellectual who shared Catherine‘s interest in Enlightenment philosophy.

Their affair lasted from about 1755 to 1758. Poniatowski had ambitions to marry Catherine and become the tsar himself, but this idea was resolutely rejected by the Russian court. As a consolation prize, in 1764 Catherine used her influence to have Poniatowski elected as the new King of Poland, with the aim of making the country a compliant vassal state to Russia.

As king, Poniatowski tried to strengthen and reform Poland, sometimes putting him at odds with Catherine‘s agenda. Though no longer lovers, they continued an affectionate correspondence. But in the end, Catherine prioritized Russia‘s interests. She supported the partitioning of Polish territory, and Poniatowski was eventually forced to abdicate in 1795 as Poland disappeared from the map, divided between Russia, Prussia and Austria.

3. Grigory Orlov – The Kingmaker

Portrait of Grigory Orlov

Grigory Orlov, a handsome military officer, was the great love of Catherine‘s life. They met around 1760 when Catherine was still Grand Duchess and Orlov was serving in the imperial guards. He became her lover in 1761 and was instrumental in planning the coup that brought her to power in 1762.

After Catherine became empress, Orlov wielded immense influence as her favorite and was promoted to high military and political positions. Catherine rewarded the entire Orlov family, who became fixtures of her court. Some historians believe Catherine may have secretly married Grigory.

However, Orlov was described as having a mercurial, difficult personality. He took other lovers and fathered an illegitimate child with a serf. Over time, Catherine grew disillusioned with him. A final break came in 1772 when Orlov left court for a long period to negotiate peace with the Ottoman Empire in the Russo-Turkish War.

In his absence, Catherine took a new lover, Alexander Vasilchikov. Upon returning, Orlov found his status diminished. He withdrew to Moscow and descended into drunkenness and mental instability before his death from pneumonia in 1783. Though their romance soured, Orlov played a pivotal role in Catherine‘s rise to power and the early successes of her reign.

4. Alexander Vasilchikov – The Younger Man

Alexander Vasilchikov was a young guards officer and aristocrat who became Catherine‘s lover in 1772 at age 25, while she was 42. Vasilchikov was maneuvered into Catherine‘s orbit by allies who wanted to displace Grigory Orlov as favorite.

While showered with titles, lands and wealth like other favorites, Vasilchikov later recalled being a virtual captive during his 2-year relationship with Catherine. He was not allowed to leave the palace without her permission and had to be at her beck and call. "I was nothing more to her than a kind of male cocotte," he wrote.

The affair ended in 1774 when Catherine grew bored with Vasilchikov, calling him an "extremely boring bourgeois" in a letter. Though not politically significant, the relationship with Vasilchikov reflects the complete control Catherine exerted over her favorites, who could be dismissed the moment they no longer amused her.

5. Grigory Potemkin – The Probable Husband

Portrait of Grigory Potemkin

Of all of Catherine‘s lovers, Grigory Potemkin was the most important and longest lasting. A minor nobleman and soldier, Potemkin caught Catherine‘s eye in her early years as empress. He played a key role in the annexation of Crimea in 1783, after which Catherine made him governor of the new provinces in southern Russia.

Potemkin became Catherine‘s lover in 1774 and remained her favorite until around 1776. Though she took other lovers after this, Potemkin continued to be her closest confidant and advisor until his death in 1791. He came to be considered the second most powerful person in Russia after Catherine herself.

Many historians believe Catherine and Potemkin contracted a secret marriage in 1775, though there is no definitive proof. The idea has been much mythologized in Russian culture. Whether married or not, they behaved like a married couple and were intensely emotionally involved until the end of Potemkin‘s life, forming Russia‘s most effective political partnership.

Potemkin was a controversial figure, with a reputation for wild behavior, corruption, and unscrupulous ambition. But he was also a brilliant military leader and statesman who pushed for the expansion and reform of the Russian Empire. Together, he and Catherine greatly strengthened Russia‘s power and prestige on the world stage.

6. Platon Zubov – The Last Love

Platon Zubov, Catherine‘s final lover, was a young military officer and minor prince. He was just 22 when they met in 1789, while Catherine was 60. Despite the age difference, Catherine was besotted with the handsome Zubov and he became enormously powerful as her favorite.

Zubov was made a count, then later a prince of the Holy Roman Empire, and acquired vast lands and wealth through Catherine‘s patronage. Though seen by many as an unworthy upstart, Zubov became an important political figure in the last years of Catherine‘s reign from 1789 to 1796.

He was involved in the planning of Russia‘s wars against Persia, the Ottoman Empire, and Poland during this period. Catherine relied heavily on his counsel and he influenced her domestic policies as well. Zubov helped lead a conservative reaction against the liberalizing reforms of Catherine‘s earlier years.

After Catherine‘s death, her son and successor Paul I deprived Zubov of his positions and property and banished him from court. He later returned to some favor and served Russia in various roles until his own death in 1822. Catherine‘s relationship with Zubov in her final years marked a shift toward more conservatism and favoritism in her rule.

7-10. The Other Lovers

While these 6 men had the most significant impact on Catherine‘s life and reign, she had many other lovers over the years:

  • Sergei Saltykov (1752-1754) – Rumored father of Catherine‘s son Paul
  • Stanisław Poniatowski (1755-1758) – Later King of Poland
  • Grigory Grigoryevich Orlov (1760-1772) – Instrumental in coup, possible secret marriage
  • Alexander Vasilchikov (1772-1774) – Brief affair, resented his "captivity"
  • Grigory Potemkin (1774-1791) – Longest relationship, extremely powerful
  • Alexander Yermolov (1785-1786) – Guards officer
  • Alexander Dmitriev-Mamonov (1786-1789) – Guards officer
  • Platon Zubov (1789-1796) – Final favorite, very influential

There were others as well, plus many rumored lovers. Catherine showed great political savvy in using these men‘s devotion to consolidate her own power. She was always careful to keep them from gaining too much influence, often pitting favorites against each other.

At the same time, Catherine seemed to have genuine affection and emotional needs that she sought to fill through these relationships in the absence of a stable marriage. Her lovers were a source of intimate companionship, intellectual stimulation, and political support throughout her reign.

Love, Power, and Legacy in Catherine‘s Court

Portrait of Catherine the Great

The stories of Catherine the Great‘s lovers are as much about power, ambition, and politics as they are romance and sex. These relationships were essential to her reign and the course of Russian history.

Through her lovers, Catherine gained allies to overthrow her husband, seize the throne, and implement her vision for a stronger Russian state. Men like Orlov and Potemkin were not merely lovers, but crucial political and military partners who enhanced Catherine‘s power. Other favorites like Vasilchikov and Zubov show how Catherine could elevate and control the men in her life to serve her needs.

At the same time, Catherine‘s active love life reflects her personal character – a woman who unapologetically pursued relationships on her own terms in an era when female sexuality was tightly controlled. She was clearly drawn to intelligent, cultured men who could be real companions.

While later subjected to much salacious gossip and myth-making (much of it misogynistic), there‘s no doubt Catherine herself and Russia as a whole benefited from the capable men she chose to share her bed and rule. These key lovers supported her reign and added to her historical legacy as one of Russia‘s greatest rulers. Understanding their influence is essential to the enduring story of Catherine the Great.