Surrounded by nobles whom she could not trust, and harassed by intrigues that disordered administration, Catherine invented a new form of rule by making her successive lovers the executives of the government. Each of her lovers was, during his ascendancy, her prime minister; she added her person to the emoluments of the office, but she exacted competent service in return. “Of all places in the government,” wrote Masson (one of Catherine’s many French enemies), “there was not one of which the duties were so scrupulously fulfilled. … Nor, perhaps, was there any post in which the Empress displayed more choice and discernment. I believe no instance occurred of its having been filled by a person incapable of it.”17 It would be a mistake to think of Catherine as a debauchee; she observed all the external amenities, never indulged in risqué conversation, never allowed it in her presence.18 To most of her lovers she gave a faithful—to some a tender—attachment; her letters to Potemkin are almost girlishly devoted, and the death of Lanskoi afflicted her with a desolating grief.
She approached with both art and science the task of choosing a new favorite. She watched for men who combined political with physical capacity; she invited a prospect to dinner, sampled his manners and mind; if he passed this scrutiny she had him examined by the court physician; if he survived this test she appointed him her aide-de-camp, gave him a succulent salary, and admitted him to her bed. Being quite devoid of religious belief, she allowed no Christian ethic to interfere with her unique manner of choosing ministers. She explained to Nikolai Saltykov: “I am serving the Empire in educating competent youths.”19 The treasury paid heavily for these favorites—though probably much less than France paid for the mistresses and concubines of Louis XV. Castéra reckoned that the five Orlovs received seventeen million rubles, Potemkin fifty million, Lanskoi 7,260,000. Some of this outlay came back to Russia in effective service; Potemkin, the most pampered of her lovers, added lucrative territory to the empire.
But why did she change her paramours so often, taking twenty-one in forty years? Because some failed in one or the other of their double duties; some died; some proved unfaithful; some were needed in distant posts. One, Rimsky-Korsakov, she surprised in her own apartments in the arms of her maid of honor; Catherine merely dismissed him; another, Mamonov, left her for a younger mate; the Empress resigned him without revenge.20 “It is a very remarkable feature in the character of Catherine,” said Masson, “that none of her favorites incurred her hatred or her vengeance, though several of them offended her, and their quitting their office did not depend upon herself. No one [of them] was ever seen to be punished.... In this respect Catherine appears superior to all other women.”21
After the accession Grigori Orlov retained his ascendancy for ten years. Catherine amorously extolled him:
Count Grigori has the mind of an eagle. I have never met a man who has a finer grasp of any matter that he undertakes or even that is suggested to him. … His honesty is proof against any assault.... It is a pity that education has had no chance to improve his qualities and talents, which are indeed supreme, but which his haphazard life has allowed to lie fallow.22
“This one,” she wrote elsewhere, “would have remained [her lover and favorite] forever had he not been the first to tire.”23 Grigori labored for the emancipation of the serfs, proposed the liberation of Christians from the Ottoman yoke, served capably during the wars, offended the court by pride and insolence, and played truant from Catherine’s arms. He was banished in 1772 to wealth and comfort on his estates. His brother Alexei became grand admiral, led the Russian fleet to victory over the Turks, remained in favor throughout the reign, and lived to lead his regiments against Napoleon.
Grigori was succeeded as favorite by an obscure Adonis, Alexis Vassilchik, whom a court faction foisted upon Catherine to divert her mind from the banished Orlov, but she found him politically and otherwise inept and replaced him (1774) with Grigori Alexandrovich Potemkin. He was an officer in the Horse Guards, whose uniform she had donned (1762) to lead them against Peter. Noticing that her sword lacked the tassel proudly worn by the Guards, Potemkin tore his from the hilt, rode boldly out of the ranks, and presented the decoration to her; she accepted it, forgave his audacity, admired his handsome face and muscular frame. His father, a retired colonel in the lesser nobility, had destined him for the priesthood; Potemkin received considerable education in history, classics, and theology, and distinguished himself at the University of Moscow. But he found army life more suitable than a seminary to his wild and imaginative temperament. Of course he was hypnotized by Catherine’s union of beauty and power; “when she enters an unlit room,” he said, “she lights it up.”24 In the war of 1768 he led his cavalry regiment with such reckless courage that Catherine sent him a personal commendation. Back in St. Petersburg, he fretted with jealousy of the Orlovs and Vassilchik. He quarreled with the Orlovs, and in a brawl with them he lost an eye.25 To get the Empress out of his mind—or to get himself into hers—he left the court, isolated himself in a suburb, studied theology, let his hair and beard grow, and declared that he would become a monk. Catherine took pity on him, sent him word that she had a high regard for him, and invited him to return. He cut his beard, trimmed his hair, donned his military uniform, appeared at court, and thrilled to imperial smiles. When Catherine found Vassilchik inadequate she opened her arms to Potemkin, then twenty-four, at the peak of his masculine vigor and dashing charm. Soon she was as infatuated with him as he with her. She showered favors, rubles, land, serfs, upon him, and when he was absent she sent him billets-doux quite innocent of majesty.
How odd it is! Everything I used to laugh at has now happened to me, for my love for you has made me blind. Sentiments that I thought idiotic, exaggerated, and scarcely natural I am now experiencing myself. I can’t keep my silly eyes off you. . . .
We can meet only during the next three days, for then comes the first week of Lent, which is reserved for prayers and fasting, and … it would be a great sin to meet. The mere thought of this separation makes me cry.26
He proposed marriage to her; some historians believe they were secretly wed; in several letters she calls him “my beloved husband,” and speaks of herself as “your wife”27—though we must never conclude to reality from words. He seems to have tired of her, perhaps because of her unchecked fondness; the call of adventure proved stronger than the invitation to assault a citadel already won. His influence over her remained so great that most of the favorites who succeeded him did so only after his approval had been secured.
It was so with Piotr Zavadovsky, who basked in her boudoir from 1776 to 1777; with Simon Zorich (1777-78), and Ivan Rimsky-Korsakov (1778-80). Not until she took Alexis Lanskoi (1780) did she have again an affair of the heart. He was not only handsome and accomplished, he was a man of poetic sensibility and humane beneficence, an intelligent friend to letters and arts. “Everybody seemed to share the Sovereign’s predilection for him.”28 Suddenly he was seized with unbearable pain in the bowels; the court suspected Potemkin of having poisoned him; despite all medical aid and Catherine’s devoted care, he died, breathing his last breath in her arms. She passed three days in seclusion and grief. We hear the woman behind the ruler—the heart behind history—in her letter of July 2, 1784:
I thought I should die of irreparable loss.... I had hoped that he would be the support of my old age. He was attentive, he learned much, he had acquired all my tastes. He was a young man whom I was bringing up, and who was grateful, kind, and good. … Lanskoi is no more, … and my room, so pleasant before, has become an empty den, in which I can just drag myself about like a shadow.... I cannot look upon a human face without my voice choking.... I cannot sleep or eat.... I know not what will become of me.29
For a year she denied herself a lover; then she yielded to Alexis Ermolov (1785-86), who so displeased Potemkin that he was quickly replaced by Alexis Mamonov. Alexis soon tired of his fifty-seven-year-old mistress; he asked permission to marry Princess Sherbatov; Catherine gave the couple a court marriage, and sent them off loaded with presents (1789).30 The last on the list was Platon Zubov (1789-96), a lieutenant in the Horse Guards, muscular and mannerly. Catherine was grateful for his services; she took upon herself the care of his education, and ended by treating him as a son. He stayed with her till her death.