A Horse of Course

I have a pretty clear memory of when I first heard the story.  It was about 40 years ago, and I was sitting in the college dining hall.  Since it was the beginning of my freshman year, I was joined by a group of classmates whom I did not know well.  One of the guys said, “Hey did you hear about Catherine the Great?”  I had a vague awareness of the Russian Empress but knew nothing specific about her.  “Did you know that she used to have sex with a….”  Now I don’t want to go for cheap shock value here, and would like to be somewhat discreet, so all I will say is that apparently Catherine slept with, hmm, let’s see, well let’s say that she slept with Mr. Ed.  And then another guy chipped in, “Yes, and I also heard that’s how she died, Mr. Ed fell on top of her and crushed her.”

So there I was, a naïve and sheltered 19 year old, and I remember thinking to myself, “What am I supposed to do with this peculiar nugget of information?  Where, aside from rapidly downhill, can this conversation possibly go?”  Thankfully, it turned out that Catherine the Great and her companion were a conversation killer.  Perhaps we all took a few seconds to privately contemplate the provocative logistics of the scenario, but then the conversation promptly moved on to something as mundane as the poor quality of cafeteria food.  I never spoke of this again to anyone, and did not participate in propagating what was hopefully a rumor, but I did tuck it away in the back of my mind.  And then, out of the blue, just last week I was reading a book titled Paris in Love, a collection of diary entries by Eloisa James, who spent a sabbatical year in Paris in 2009.   In the midst of these very homey entries about her family, she notices that her husband is reading a biography of Catherine the Great, and comments, “His book also didn’t seem like much fun, especially after I inquired about the one thing that I knew about Catherine – to wit, her purported erotic encounters with equines.”

I was stunned.  What I had heard at the cafeteria was not a local rumor, not concocted by a bored student in a Russian history class, but a rumor that had probably been circulating internationally for a good 250 years.  I then casually asked Nick what was the one thing that he knew about Catherine the Great, and Boom! there it was again, and I when I questioned my peers, very discreetly of course, a good 50% knew all about Mr. Ed.  And just as it was 40 years ago, it was a conversation killer, once you dropped the horse bomb, you just had to move on quickly to something else.  At the same time, I was reading the Malcolm Gladwell book, “The Tipping Point,” which discusses how social epidemics, like rumors, get started and propagate.  I thought it would be an interesting exercise to apply his principles to the story of Catherine the Great.

The first issue to ponder is who started the rumor and why.  Rumors address a number of social needs, including confronting our fears or trying to make sense out of a confusing situation.  Workplace rumors about rightsizing, downsizing or total collapse fall into this category.  These types of rumor may be based on a misinterpretation or embellishment of facts.  And then there are rumors that are based on deliberate misinformation, perhaps from a disgruntled employee, a romantic or political rival or jealous competitor.  In the case of Catherine the Great, let’s hope that we are dealing with deliberate misinformation, but then from who?  Certainly there must have been scads of political rivals – Polish nobility is one example, many of whom were disenchanted as Catherine slowly divvied up their country during her reign.  However, I think that a romantic rival is the best bet.  Catherine was a minor German princess who was plucked from obscurity to marry Grand Duke
Peter, who was also a minor German prince, largely forgotten until his childless aunt, the Empress Elizabeth, the daughter of Peter the Great, anointed him the heir to his grandfather’s throne.  At age 14, Catherine was engaged to Peter.  She traveled all the way to Russia, took one look and was immediately repulsed by her fiance, whose genetic ugliness was further accentuated by a recent bout of small pox.  According to Catherine’s sympathetic biographer, Robert Massie, the wedding was at the very least loveless, and possibly never consummated.  Grand Duke Peter then took a mistress, Elizaveta Vorontsova, promising her that she would become empress after he divorced Catherine.  However, Peter’s drunken, abusive and childish behavior – he loved to play with toy soldiers marching across his bed – finally alienated the nobility.  He was forced to abdicate, and shortly after that he was murdered, though it is unclear whether Catherine ordered the killing.  Mistress Elizaveta subsequently married a mere colonel, and spent the next 30 years of her life in bitterness and ill health.  Downsized Elizaveta gets my vote for the romantic rival starting the rumor.

Propagating the rumor is Gladwell’s expertise and he outlines three basic components – the law of the few, the power of context, and the stickiness factor.  The law of the few basically describes how a rumor travels, and the context and stickiness  describe the content of the rumor, basically how believable it is.  Gladwell indentifies three categories of the “few,” i.e. mavens, connectors and salesmen.  Mavens are  information brokers, who have their ear to the ground for all the latest trends and gossip.  The information is then passed to a connector, who is one of those people who seems to know everybody through multiple different walks of life.  As the rumor  starts to spread, the “salesmen” reinforce the message.  In Catherine the Great’s court percolating with political intrigue, it is easy to imagine a vast network of mavens, connectors and salespeople.

The interesting question is how the rumor made the big leap from the higher echelons of the Russian court to Western Europe and beyond.  And here is where the power of context comes in.  According to Gladwell, the power of context is “sensitive to the conditions and circumstances of the times and places in which they occur.”  Basically, our environment primes us to accept or reject a rumor.  As much as Catherine tried to modernize Russia along the model of Western Europe, Russia remained a menacing and mysterious country just across the border.  Catherine wanted Russia to be considered among the enlightened European countries, but she couldn’t overcome the barriers of culture and geography.  The “otherness” of Russia and the fear it inspired created a receptive context for the rumor.

Queen Elizabeth I of England was another powerful single woman in command of an empire, and yet her image is that of the “virgin” queen, who used her supposed chasteness to her political advantage.  I don’t believe for a minute that she was unsullied, but no there are terribly nasty rumors about this European ruler.  In contrast, Catherine the Great was apparently perfectly frank about her succession of lovers, referred to as court “favorites,” and that might have been her downfall.  Although her biographer Massie apparently feels that it is beneath him to comment on the prevalent rumor, he does indirectly defend Catherine by stating that she only had 12, count ‘em, 12 lovers, all boy toys who came from the lower ranks of nobility, typically played no political role, and were well compensated when Catherine moved on.  Indeed, the role of favorites was well established in the Russian court and was not considered scandalous.  All in all, no biggie, according to Massie, who nevertheless downplays the little detail that her lovers got steadily younger as she aged.  At the end of her life, her “favorite” was 40 years her junior.   Europe was primed and ready to believe the worst about Catherine.

Here’s the interesting thing about the context of this rumor – it hasn’t really changed over the past 250 years. Russia remains mysterious and still makes us nervous.  When I first heard the rumor, we were in the midst of the Cold War, and Russia was the unpredictable giant, a vodka-soaked country, spewing a mysterious guttural and spitty language that features a chronic shortage of vowels and oversupply of “v’s.”  It was the brutish and boorish country of Stalin, followed by Nikita Khrushchev, who distinguished himself by taking his shoe off at a UN meeting and banging it on the table to make a point.  As a country, we are primed and ready to believe anything about those crazy Ruskies.   In contrast the rumor may have died out in Russia, no longer considered relevant.  I conducted a very unscientific poll of two Russians, neither of whom had heard the rumor.  Instead, one woman commented only on how Catherine the Great was a good role model for women.

And now for the stickiness factor.  I can imagine the deposed mistress Vorontseva saying something mean-spirited but perhaps not lurid, along the lines of, “That Catherine, I think that she is in love with horses, she has a whole stable of them, never rides side saddle like all ladies should, and have you noticed that all of her favorites come from the Horse Guards, plus she kind of looks like a horse.  I’m surprised she doesn’t whinny at night, if you know what I mean?”  Now according to Gladwell, in the next step, the rumor is “leveled” by deleting all the details for understanding the true meaning of the story – basically the bitter musings of a deposed mistress – and then other details are exaggerated to add some juice.  I have only had terrifying experiences with horses, but there are certainly plenty who have an intense emotional attachment to a horse.  Maybe it is something about those soulful dark eyes and taut shimmering muscles.  In fact, I think the horse is the perfect animal for this rumor.  There is no other barnyard animal that could have sustained such a story across centuries and continents.  For me the stickiness is all about the horse, of course.

The missing words in the following poem are anagrams (i.e. share the same letters like spot, post, stop) and the number of asterisks indicates the number of letters.  Your job is to solve the missing words based on the above rules and the context of the poem.  Scroll down for answers.

A German princess arrived in St. Petersburg near the ***** of the Baltic Sea,

And was immediately repulsed by the ugliness of her husband-to-be.

But she became the powerful Empress known as Catherine Great

One of the ***** of Russian history except for one rumored trait.

She had many young lovers, which started gossip of course

But her undoing might have been her affair with a *****.








shore, heros, horse


Leave a Comment