EMPRESS OF LOVE; She's the Most Formidable Woman Leader in History, Creator of Modern Russia. but as Her Secret Love Letters Reveal, Catherine the Great Also Had a Truly Astonishing Love Life . . . Including a One-Eyed Husband Who Seduced Three of His Own Nieces
Byline: SIMON SEBAG MONTEFIORE
HER words leave little to the imagination.
'My darling friend, I feared you might be angry with me. If not, all the better. Come quickly to my bedroom and prove it,' she wrote in a note dispatched to her lover.
'I love you very much and when you caress me, my caress always hurries to answer you,' she says in another.
Compliments flowed, along with passionate innuendos about her lover's manliness: 'No wonder so many women are linked to you, for you're not an ordinary person at all - but differ from everyone in everything.' These are not the outpourings of a foolish young woman in the first flush of passion, but the billets doux of Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia, the most powerful woman of her age, whose achievements in all fields - military, political and cultural - were arguably greater than those of any other woman ruler in history.
She was the ruthless 18th-century Tsarina who stole the throne from her husband before he was 'accidentally' murdered. She was a self-made woman in a man's world, outwitting kings and prime ministers across the globe.
She was also a libidinous lover whose reputation between the sheets became the stuff of legend.
This week a TV documentary examines the story of Catherine and pores over her extraordinarily intimate correspondence with the great love of her life, her wild and eccentric political partner, victorious marshal and effective co-Tsar Grigory Potemkin.
Did she really have other lovers at every turn, as has been suggested?
Was he the pimp to her scarlet woman while they ruled the Russian empire together? And what about the sniggering schoolboy story that, as a result of her excesses, she eventually died in congress with a horse?
As the biographer of Potemkin and Catherine, I was the first Westerner to study many of these letters, letters so scandalous that they were locked away deep in Moscow's state archives for centuries, suppressed by the Romanovs.
The story of the horse, inevitably, is nothing more than a grotesque libel.
But what the archives reveal is one of the greatest, most passionate, scandalous and politically successful love affairs of all time, one in which both parties were shockingly candid about sex and took separate lovers - yet remained obsessively, devotedly in love with each other.
Catherine's marriage to the Emperor Peter III had been a disaster from the beginning.
She was a minor German princess brought aged 14 to St Petersburg in 1745 to marry the heir to the Russian throne. Her husband was a martinet, weak, stupid, tyrannical, ugly, spotty and sexually inadequate.
When he proved unable to impregnate Catherine, her husband's aunt, the Empress Elizveta of Russia, encouraged her to have her first love affair with a young aristocrat named Saltykov.
She gave birth to an heir, Paul, from whom the entire Romanov dynasty was descended, even though her husband's inadequacies meant it was never clear he was a Romanov at all.
Peter disdained Russia and its people and quickly became despised by his court. She, on the other hand, sought popularity and loved the country, so when he succeeded as Emperor Peter III in 1761, a plot developed to remove him and place her on the throne.
On 28 June 1762, curvaceous, auburn-haired Catherine, aged 33, was awoken by co-conspirators at dawn in an Imperial residence outside St Petersburg.
She dressed fast and moments later was galloping into St Petersburg in a carriage to overthrow her husband and steal the throne.
There was no time to waste - the plot had been discovered.
On the way, she was met by her lover, a bluff, handsome Guards officer, Grigory Orlov, whose brothers were to help provide the muscle to seize power.
Her French hairdresser did her hair in the carriage on the way to the coup. …