Catherine the Great: Empress’ enemies used ‘pornographic propaganda’ to disgrace her rule

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The Russian Empress’ mighty rule over the country led it to become one of the world’s great powers. She organised a coup d’état to overthrow her husband Peter III, and took control of the Empire in 1762. The country’s longest-ruling female leader, Catherine continued to operate full control until 1796.

Her time in the position has been marred with great controversy, mostly surrounding her alleged infidelities and exotic sexual escapades.

From nymphomania to bestiality to voyeurism, there were few themes of sexual deviance that didn’t feature in discussions about the Empress.

Many of these themes are explored in Hulu and Channel 4’s new drama ‘The Great’, which details Catherine’s personal and professional life.

Yet, as the publication History explained, many of these were, in fact, fabricated – lies made up by her enemies in a bid to delegitimise her power.

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Historians describe Catherine as “taking many lovers”.

But when looked at more closely, Catherine was involved in 12 romantic relationships in a period of 44 years, with most lasting more than two years each.

Historian Dr Una Mcllvenna told the publication: “These are hardly the sort of numbers one might expect from a raging sex maniac.”

Catherine was instead aware that marrying a man would translate to her relinquishing her powers, and so instead chose partners she could work with but was not attached to.

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She often installed her lovers as Kings, rulers, or high-ranking officials in nearby lands so as to secure influence and power, and to expand Russia’s borders.

After having a daughter with one of her many lovers, Stanislaus Poniatowski, she slotted him into the role of King of Poland, strengthening Russia’s position in Eastern Europe.

She would carry out similar acts throughout her reign, a point which led many opposition European leaders to rouse up sexual myths about her.

In France, where she had become a villain for not supporting the revolution, Dr Mcllvenna said: “The same kind of pornographic libels that had been used against Marie Antoinette were ready to be deployed against her.”


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The radical press began to publish scores of fake reports telling of Catherine’s “voracious” sexual appetite.

A similar line of defamation was carried out in Britain, with political cartoons depicting Catherine in obscene situations.

These skewed representations eventually led to the most infamous myth: that she died as a result of bestiality.

The polemical described how, during an “orgy of bestiality”, Catherine died when the harness that was suspending a stallion above her broke, causing her to be crushed by the horse.

She actually died from a stroke, but this didn’t stop the spread of the horse story.

It was only made worse since Catherine was known to be a keen equestrian.

Frederick the Great, ruler of Prussia and Catherine’s life-long rival, hinted at how foreign powers utilised her being a woman, when he said of her: “A woman is always a woman and, in feminine government, the c**t has more influence than a firm policy guided by straight reason.”

So powerful was her rule that even her own son, Emperor Paul I, whom she had tried to prevent inheriting the crown, later passed an edict “forbidding any woman from ascending to the Russian throne” in the future.

Despite Catherine’s striding expansion policy, implementation of the process of Westernisation, and pushing Russia well into Central Europe, she died a woman known for her sex life, rather than her political and military prowess.

The Great airs on Sunday 10 January at 9pm on Channel 4.

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