Who was Catherine the Great? You definitely know the name but probably not the life of the fascinating woman behind it. In reality, the Russian empress truly earned her "The Great" epithet, though her achievements weren't necessarily "good."
Born a minor German princess, Catherine married the heir to the Russian throne, tossed him out of power, and became a powerful ruler in her own right. Many Catherine the Great biographies mention her vigorous foreign and domestic policies as well as her tyrannical tendencies.
But when she wasn't ruling, what did Catherine the Great do? She studied philosophy, took many lovers, and collected art. When she wasn't indulging her passions, she also toured her kingdom, wrote letters to the most famous folks of the day, and turned her court into a place of culture. Like many rulers, the Empress's life is haunted by rumors. In this case, though, the truth about Catherine the Great is perhaps even more dramatic than the hearsay that follows her even today.
Catherine might not have been born Russian, but she didn’t let that stop her from taking power. Her husband, Tsar Peter III, isn't remembered as a great Russian ruler; in fact, it's just the opposite. He preferred all things German (his dad had territories in northern Germany) and tried to make the Orthodox Church conform to Lutheran traditions. He even made peace with Russia’s archenemy, Prussia.
Needless to say, he was extremely unpopular, but he wasn't in charge of Russia for very long. Six months after he assumed the throne, Catherine made Peter abdicate; he was then detained and perished, allegedly after a drunken fight.
After Catherine the Great died, a rumor circulated that the Empress's known sexual appetite didn't stop at men. According to the infamous rumor, Catherine died while attempting to have sex with a horse. However, experts agree this was nothing more than an attempt to damage her legacy as Empress of Russia. In reality, she died after having a stroke in bed.
However, historians do agree that Catherine the Great took many (human) lovers throughout her life. One of those lovers was Grigory Orlov, who helped Catherine overthrow her husband. Another famous consort of Catherine the Great was Sergei Saltykov, who she claimed was the real father of her first son in her own memoirs.
By the time Catherine the Great became Russia's ruler, the former Byzantine Empire had been under Ottoman Turk control for centuries. But Catherine wanted to restore the Greek monarchy regardless, and developed the "Greek Project" to do so.
The project included plans to put her grandson, aptly named Constantine, on the newly restored Greek throne. A second iteration of the project outlined plans for the kingdom of Dacia, which many assumed was designed for Catherine's lover Grigory Potemkin. Though Catherine remained dedicated to the grand plans of the Greek Project, ultimately her efforts failed.
However, the treaty ending the conflict between Russia and the Ottoman Turks gave Russia control of the Black Sea - a politically important prize, if not the glamorous one envisioned by the Greek Project.
It's well-known that Catherine took a number of lovers after her husband passed, but she might have enjoyed an affair or two before it too. In fact, one of her consorts might have actually been the true father of her son, the future Paul I. Catherine and Peter's marriage remained unconsummated for years, as Peter suffered from phimosis, a condition which can make intercourse uncomfortable.
Eventually, Peter underwent surgery to correct the condition and Catherine the Great became pregnant. But was Paul the true born heir? By that point, Catherine had taken her first lover, Sergei Saltykov. In her own memoirs, the empress hints that Paul wasn’t Peter's son.