The flamboyant and central character of Russian Empress Catherine II of Russia, as well as the dramatic changes the country underwent during her long rule, gave rise to many urban legends, most casting her in an unfavorable light. Some stories were loosely based on true events, others were clearly false. The palace intrigue of her son Paul I of Russia was a fertile ground for such rumors.
Catherine II journeyed to Russia from Germany with her mother in January 1744. When they reached Russia, the Empress Elizabeth took a great liking to Sophie (Catherine). But her nephew, Peter (Catherine's husband), who was very undeveloped mentally and physically from having no proper parenting and love and spent his time playing childish games, hated the country over which he was to reign, and admired Frederick the Great of Prussia, who was a hero to him.
Several stories about the circumstances of her death at the age of 67 probably originated soon after. A common story states that she died as a result of her voracious sexual appetite while attempting sexual intercourse with a stallion - the story holds that the harness broke and she was crushed. In reality, Catherine probably died of a stroke.
This story coexists with another, less physically impossible but also totally unsubstantiated, tale: that Catherine did engage in a sexual relationship with a stallion, but at a younger age.
Another story, that she died on a toilet when the seat broke under her, is true only in small part: she did collapse in a bathroom from a stroke, but after that she died being cared for in her bed. This tale was widely circulated and even jokingly referred to by Aleksandr Pushkin in one of his untitled poems. ("Наказ писала, флоты жгла, / И умерла, садясь на судно." — literal translation: "Decreed the orders, burned the fleets / And died boarding a vessel", the last line can also be translated as "And died sitting down on the toilet".)
Rumors of her private life had a large basis in the fact that she took many young lovers, even while in old age. (Lord Byron's Don Juan, around the age of twenty-two, becomes her lover after the siege of Ismail (1790), in a fiction written only about twenty-five years after Catherine's death.) This practice was not unusual by the court standards of the day, nor was it unusual to use rumor and innuendo of sexual excess politically. One unfavorable rumor was that Alexander Dmitriev-Mamonov and her later lovers were chosen by prince Potemkin himself, after the end of the long relationship Catherine had with Potemkin, where he, perhaps, was her morganatic husband. After Mamonov eloped from the 60-year-old Empress with a 16-year-old maid of honour and married her, the embittered Catherine reputedly revenged herself of her rival "by secretly sending policemen disguised as women to whip her in her husband's presence".
According to some contemporaries close to Catherine, Countess Bruce was prized by her as an "eprouveuse", or "tester of male capacity". Every potential lover was to spend a night with Bruce before he was admitted into Catherine's personal apartments. Their friendship was cut short when Bruce was found "in an assignment" with Catherine's youthful lover, Rimsky-Korsakov, ancestor of the composer; they both later withdrew from the imperial court to Moscow.
A long-surviving story about the Potemkin villages was false, even though it became eponymous. It states that Potemkin built fake settlements with hollow facades to fool Empress Catherine II during her visit to Crimea and New Russia, the territories Russia conquered under her reign. Modern historians, however, consider this scenario at best an exaggeration, and quite possibly simply malicious rumors spread by Potemkin's opponents.