What was sex education like before the Age of Internet? Catherine the Great (Massie):
Catherine’s premarital nervousness did not come from fear of the nocturnal intimacies that marriage would demand. She knew nothing about these things. Indeed, on the eve of her marriage, she was so innocent that she did not know how the two sexes physically differed. Nor had she any idea what mysterious acts were performed when a woman lay down with a man. Who did what? How? She questioned her young ladies, but they were as innocent as she. One June night, she staged an impromptu slumber party in her bedroom, covering the floor with mattresses, including her own. Before going to sleep, the eight flustered and excited young women discussed what men were like and how their bodies were formed. No one had any specific information; indeed, their talk was so ill-informed, incoherent, and unhelpful that Catherine said that in the morning she would ask her mother. She did so, but Johanna—herself married at fifteen—refused to answer. Instead, she “severely scolded” her daughter for indecent curiosity.
How did the arranged marriage work out?
The next day, Madame Krause questioned Catherine about her wedding night. Catherine did not answer. She knew that something was wrong, but she did not know what. In the nights that followed, she continued to lie untouched at the side of her sleeping husband, and Madame Krause’s morning questions continued to go unanswered. “And,” she writes in her Memoirs, “matters remained in this state without the slightest change during the following nine years.”
two weeks after their wedding, Peter finally had something to say to Catherine: with a broad smile, he announced that he had fallen in love with Catherine Karr, one of the empress’s ladies-in-waiting.
The woman carefully selected by Bestuzhev to oversee and administer these tasks was twenty-four-year-old Maria Semenovna Choglokova, Elizabeth’s first cousin on her mother’s side. Madame Choglokova had a remarkable reputation for virtue and fertility. She idolized her husband and produced a child with almost annual regularity, a domestic accomplishment meant to set an example for Catherine.
According to the author, Catherine never did have a baby with her husband. Her first-born son Paul was the child of a lover, Sergei Saltykov and the subsequent children were fathered by different lovers.
Catherine the Great valued sexual variety and youth. Regardless of her own age, her boyfriends were generally in their 20s and the sexual relationship lasted for about two years:
WHEN CATHERINE, then Sophia, arrived in Russia at the age of fourteen, she learned that “favorite” was the term used to describe an established and formally recognized lover of the woman on the throne, Empress Elizabeth.
Most of Catherine’s favorites were young officers originally selected for their handsome faces …
When Catherine dismissed lovers, it was not because they lacked virility but because they bored her. One need not be an empress to find it impossible to talk in the morning to a person with whom one has spent the night.
Catherine had twelve lovers. What shocked her contemporaries was not this number, but the age difference between Catherine and her later favorites. She crafted an explanation: she categorized these young men as students whom she hoped to develop into intellectual companions. If they did not completely measure up—and she did not pretend that one would become another Voltaire or Diderot, or even another Potemkin—then she could at least say that she was helping to train them for future roles in administering the empire.
Most of the favorites were young men whose youth and social inexperience offered a striking contrast to the dignified demeanor of their imperial patroness. The differences in age and station confused the court and created a whirlwind of gossip in Europe. But the specific manner and intimate practices by which these favorites pleased Catherine are unknown. Only in the cases of Potemkin and Zavadovsky is private correspondence available, and, in this regard, it is unspecific. Those seeking physical details of Catherine’s romantic liaisons will learn nothing; neither in her own words nor in the words of others are there any references to sexual preferences and behavior. Her bedroom door remains closed.
[Note that Catherine’s 18th-century behavior is similar to what lawyers interviewed for Real World Divorce told us about choices made by their female clients. Catherine got her position and wealth from a husband and then discarded him (not through divorce court, but by having him murdered). As there was no marital partner who could add substantially to her wealth going forward, she settled into a long cougarhood where she used the cash she’d gotten from her marriage to fund a series of sexual relationships with attractive young men.
The husband’s death occasioned little more interest than a present-day divorce lawsuit:
At Catherine’s request, [French Ambassador] Pictet sent a long account to Voltaire, explaining the intolerable situation in which she had found herself after her coup, and her innocence in the murder itself. Voltaire accepted this account, and brushed it aside by saying, “I know that … [Catherine] is reproached with some bagatelle about her husband, but these are family matters in which I do not mix.”
More: Read Catherine the Great.