Friday, June 8, 2012

Catherine the Great of Russia

Photo credit Wikipedia

Most people know three things about Catherine the Great:

1. She was Russian.

2. Her name was Catherine

3. How she died involved sex and a horse and possibly a toilet.

That seems pretty simple, right?

1. She was Russian.

Catherine was born in Stettin, Pomerania.

Thank you, AKC.

Pomerania, for the record, is split today between Germany and Poland.

Her father was a member of the ruling family of the kingdom of Anhalt, which is kind of in the middle of what is now Germany.  So if you ever hear that she was German, that’s not quite true. At least it’s not the Germany people think of today. Even though her father was Anhalt royalty, his day job was as a General for the Kingdom of Prussia, serving as the governor of a town called Stettin (now Szczecin) in Poland. So she was from a lot of places, but Russia wasn’t any of them.

Catherine came to Russia when she was 16, when she married the prospective tsar Peter of Holstein-Gottorp (think of it as kinda like the crown prince. Only the crown tsar). For the record, she hated him. She hated him so much that after he became the tsar she had him arrested and took over his throne. Political marriages could be like that.

2. Her name was Catherine

When Catherine was born, her parents christened her Sophia Augusta Fredericka. She took the name Catherine with the new patronymic of Alekseyevna when she converted from Lutheranism to Greek Orthodoxy when she was 16.

For the record, this was a completely made up patronymic. Alekseyevna means “the daughter of Aleksey,” and Catherine’s father was named Christian August. Aleksey isn’t the Russianized version of either Christian or August. Maybe she was mad that her father didn’t show up to her wedding. He was mad at her from converting to Greek Orthodoxy.

3. How she died involved sex and a horse, while on a toilet.

Let’s get one thing straight, Catherine had a lot of sex. I’ve seen lists of between 7 and 12 known long-term lovers. None of whom, for the record, were horses or involved riding horses in anything but the most usual manner. Nor did she die from sitting on a toilet and having it collapse under her, or impale her, or a secret stash of toilet ninjas killing her.

Instead, she died of a stroke. And she didn’t have the stroke while having sex -- she had her stroke during her morning coffee (though I suppose it’s possible it was an orgasmically fantastic cup of coffee), and then died that night, in her bed. She was 67 years old.

Where did the rumors come from? The horse one seems to have started in France, where like much of Western Europe the traditional way to trash-talk any woman was to make them a sexual deviant. But since lots of women at the time had sex with lots of men, her number of lovers wasn’t exactly shocking, so the horse rumor came into being. Catherine was an easy target, since this was the time of the French revolution, and Catherine was highly unpopular since she was an empress and to the French of the Revolution, all royalty by default was evil (don't give them spoilers about Napoleon. It would just break their hearts). 

The toilet one comes from the fact that Catherine was found curled up in a closet after having her stroke. An old term for a bathroom was “water closet.” But that term didn’t come into use until the 1880s and Catherine died in 1796. The “Catherine died in a toilet” myth is actually quite recent and is completely made up. 

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