Catherine II (1729-1796) loved Russia with her heart and soul and yet, she had not one drop of Russian blood in her veins. Born a German princess, she was destined to be one of Russia's greatest rulers. Her administrative skills and political acumen made Russia a super power in her day. The economy of her adopted country boomed under her rule and she was a patron of the arts, literature and education.

The path from being merely a Queen Consort to absolute monarch was not easy. Along the way, she had to swallow her revulsion and marry the future Peter III when she was 14. He was small, immature and mentally unstable - a giggling idiot really - and horribly disfigured by smallpox. Worse she had to produce an heir, her only legitimate son, Paul. Once they finally got that unpleasant duty out of the way, Catherine and Peter went their separate ways and took other lovers.

When Peter (pictured at left with Catherine about the time when they were married) became Tsar in 1762, Catherine's life was in peril because her husband hated her so much he would have had her killed. Fortunately for Catherine, Peter managed to alienate every one in Russia right away and ruled only six months. His worst mistake was to end the Seven Years' War with Prussia by giving the losing side everything Russian soldiers had won in bloody combat. He also insisted his soldiers wore new uniforms styled after their enemy's because he was Prussia's biggest fan. The Russian army rebelled led by the Orlov brothers, deposed Peter and put a 33 year old Catherine on the throne - not as regent for her son but as Empress in her own right. One of them also killed Peter in prison making sure her claim to the throne was without challenge. Nobody missed him.

The Russian royal family was so rich they were practically dripping in gemstones. The pearls in this Cartier necklace were thought to have belonged to Catherine. The original Cartier necklace comprising of a 5 strands of 389 natural pearls came with an enamel clasp representing Catherine, Empress of Russia and two diamond alternate clasps. It was bought by Horace Elgin Dodge, the American automotive magnate in 1920 for his wife, Anna Thomson Dodge. He paid $825,000 - about $8 million in today's dollars! It now consists of 3 strands and was sold at auction last month for $600,000. This is a lot less than what Dodge paid for it which probably reflects its inconclusive provenance and the fact this gemstone is no longer rare due to the culturing of pearls. But someone who values natural pearls and the probable history of this necklace got a bargain.

What stood out in this Tsarina's life was her long string of lovers and her incredible libido which did not abate with age. Long after she grew obese and toothless she still had young lovers - men in their twenties who were handsome, charming and usually not very bright. Arm candy indeed for a powerful Empress but it wasn't easy for them. One of her young lovers died of diphtheria, unable to fight the infection because his constitution was supposedly weakened by heavy aphrodisiac use. Her last lover, a very handsome Platon Zubov was forty years her junior and earned every last ruble of his pay. Catherine was so corpulent by that time she needed two chairs to sit on.

But she was no nymphomaniac. She truly loved each and every one of her serial lovers, declaring "I cannot live one day without love." Catherine was phenomenally generous with all her departing lovers giving them titles even a crown in one case. Over 34 years, she spent 2 billion dollars in jewels, cash, palaces, works of art, pensions, fine furnishing and serfs . No wonder many a Russian family, if they had good looking sons, would try and get them within range of Catherine's roving eyes after a lover was dismissed.

Catherine had her doctor check candidates over for venereal disease and then they went through a night with her "eprouveuse" ("tester of male capacity"), which happened to be her friend and lady-in-waiting, Countess Prascovya Bruce. Those who passed were then sent to Catherine for further "testing" before she chose a new favourite. If he passed that stage, an initial gift of 100,000 rubles would turn up in a drawer.

Gregory Orlov, one of the brothers who led the coup d'etat was Catherine's lover. She was wise enough to refuse to marry him. For a long time, Catherine had to be careful with him for as king-, or rather queen-maker, he could just as easily depose her. After he was dismissed, he tried to win back her favours by buying and giving her a legendary diamond, now called the Orlov or Orloff diamond. She accepted the gift and had it mounted in her imperial sceptre (above) but not Orlov back in her bed.

Her greatest love was Gregory Potemkin who proved to be her equal both physically and intellectually. A brilliant general and administrator, he helped her rule Russia until his death. Some historians believe they were secretly married but there is no proof. But in letters, she certainly addressed him as "my dearest husband" and signed herself as"your devoted wife". He remained in power even after extricating himself from her bed - he preferred nubile young women - and chose a number of her lovers himself amongst young men he knew he could count on not to usurp his exalted position.

Catherine's son Paul was taken away from her soon after his birth. She didn't have anything to do with his upbringing. He became a twitchy, paranoid man who was terrified his mother would kill him just as his father was done away with. They grew to detest each other. Catherine thought him unfit to rule and preferred her grandson, the future Alexander I as her heir. But she died of a stroke before she did anything to change the succession.

When Paul ascended the throne, he carried out his ultimate revenge. He had Potemkin's remains exhumed and dumped in a sewage canal. He held a joint funeral for his mother and the bones of his long dead father, uniting them in death. He also changed the succession law to bar women from ever ruling Russia again. It remained in place until the Russian revolution in 1917 which ended the Romanov dynasty.

References : Catherine II
Wikipedia : Legends of Catherine II
Eleanor Herman (2006) : Sex with the Queen: 900 Years of Vile Kings, Virile Lovers, and Passionate Politics (P.S.)
J.J. Mangan (1991)The King's Favour.

You may also like these mini-biographies :
The Duchess of Windsor's Jewelry
The Last Empress of China and her 3000 jewelry boxes
Josephine de Beauharnais (Bonaparte)'s jewelry obsession

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