Sexual Mores in the time of Catherine the Great

The sexual revolution happened in the 1960s, right?  Catherine the Great (Massie) suggests that things weren’t so simple 200 years earlier:

Zorich was replaced by a twenty-four-year-old Guards officer, Ivan Rimsky-Korsakov, whose term [as Catherine’s lover or “favorite”] lasted two years. … Despite Catherine’s praise, most in the Russian court expected Rimsky-Korsakov to last only briefly, because everyone except the empress saw that his heart was not in his work. He was expected to be in constant attendance, was forbidden to leave the palace, and became bored and restless. He escaped into the arms of Countess Bruce, Catherine’s principal lady-in-waiting and for years one of her closest friends. Foolishly, the couple believed that they could carry on their affair inside the palace. They managed for almost a year, but it ended abruptly one day when the empress opened a door and discovered them making love. Catherine sent a message to Rimsky-Korsakov informing him that she would be generous provided he left St. Petersburg immediately. Countess Bruce was commanded to return to her husband. … There was more to this tangled plot. Catherine, the court, and Countess Bruce soon learned that Rimsky-Korsakov had been using Bruce as a decoy with whom to pass the time and alleviate his boredom. His real object was a beautiful young countess, Catherine Stroganova, married to one of the wealthiest men in Russia. The Stroganovs had just returned from six years of living in Paris, and, on first seeing the handsome “king of Epirus,” the young countess fell in love. Only when the disgraced Rimsky-Korsakov left for Moscow and Countess Stroganova immediately followed him, was the extent of this operatic, labyrinthine double betrayal fully revealed. Count Stroganov behaved with patrician dignity. Worried that his young son would be affected by public scandal, he installed his wife in a Moscow palace, where she and her lover lived happily for thirty years. There, they brought up the three children they had together.

[The Empress Catherine] summoned [her apparently unfaithful young lover] Mamonov and Scherbatova and saw immediately that the young woman was pregnant. She pardoned Mamonov and granted the couple permission to marry, even insisting that the ceremony be performed in the palace chapel. She did not attend, but gave them a hundred thousand rubles and a country estate. “God grant them happiness,” she said, stipulating only that they leave St. Petersburg.

At four on Sunday morning, April 10, [eldest son and heir to the throne] Paul awakened his mother [Catherine] to tell her that his wife had been in labor since midnight. … Toward six in the evening on Friday, April 15, after five days of agony, Natalia died. … Beyond Natalia’s death and Paul’s uncontrolled grief, Catherine now faced the fact that three years of marriage and a pregnancy had produced no heir. To subdue this emotional storm, Catherine chose a cruel remedy. She broke into Natalia’s desk. There, as she expected, she found the love letters exchanged by the dead woman and Andrei Razumovsky. Furious at seeing her son weep over a wife who had betrayed him with his best friend, Catherine decided to use the letters to wrench him back to reality. She thrust the pages under Paul’s eyes. He read the proof that the two people he had loved most had deceived him; he did not even know whether the dead child had been his.

More: read Catherine the Great.


One thought on “Sexual Mores in the time of Catherine the Great

  1. I read The Last Lion, William Manchester’s biography of Winston Churchill earlier this year. One advantage of writing a 3000 page opus is that you have lots of space for digressions. In the first volume, Manchester has a long section about the sexual mores of the Victorian upper class, including Churchill’s parents. Baby boomers who think their generation invented sex will be enlightened.

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