The man who annexed Crimea – Prince Potemkin, the shadow ruler of Russia, and the secret husband of Catherine the Great. Part 1

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Potemkin and Catherine the Great adorned with St. George ribbons

August 6th, 2015

Translated by Kristina Rus from Russian Wikipedia



Part 1. Was Potemkin and Catherine the Great husband and wife?

Most evidence suggests that a secret marriage between Catherine the Great and Potemkin indeed took place in the summer or fall 1775 or in January 1775.

Besides the strong feelings for each other, the reason for the marriage could have been Catherine’s pregnancy with Potemkin’s daughter, as well as Potemkin’s role in helping Catherine defeat the Pugachev rebellion.

Potemkin was an old friend of Catherine’s who took part in the coup which brought her to power. The relationship began in the spring of 1774 when Potemkin was 34 and Catherine was 10 years older. 

Their daughter Elizaveta Temkina was born on July 13, 1775. 

Elizaveta Temkina

The relationship went through a crisis from January to July 1776, caused by the strong personalities of both Catherine and Potemkin, whom she made a second political figure in Russia.

She wrote to him: “We are fighting over power, and not love”, and began to distance herself from him as a woman, while leaving him his power as a politician.

  Potemkin was not thrilled by being in the secondary position to his empress and his woman, and the distance between them only grew. 

According to Potemkin’s biographer, the crisis in the relationship between Catherine and Potemkin reached it’s peak in the winter of 1776, when “they loved each other, considered each other a husband and wife, felt a growing distance, but fought to remain together forever. Often Potemkin cried in the arms of his empress”.

In November 1776 Catherine found a new lover, Peter Zavadovsky, but as soon as he joined the anti-Potemkin Orlov party, he lost Catherine’s grace. 

Despite their issues, Catherine and Potemkin preserved mutual respect and friendship, and Potemkin remained the #2 person in the state until his death.  

Only Potemkin was referred to as husband by Catherine among her 20 official favorites.

Potemkin biographer writes: “The love affair between Potemkin and Catherine II seemed to have ended, but in fact it never did. It turned into a stable marriage. The spouses fell in love and found new lovers, but their relationship among themselves remained above all. (…) Most likely neither then nor later did she completely refused intimacy with the person whom she called her husband”. 

Potemkin’s rooms still connected to the apartments of the Empress, he had a right to enter without notice, and a current lover at any time could be faced with the need to tolerate his company or even to leave.

After the resignation of Zavadovsky until the rest of her life Catherine will have only 6 official favorites and all of them (except for the last one, Zubov), were recommended to the Empress by Potemkin, and served as his aides. As suggested by the historian, after the crisis caused by the appearance of Zavadovsky, Catherine and Potemkin concluded a tacit agreement: every favorite must protect the interests of the Duke at court, she demanded unquestioning obedience to Potemkin from the favorites and in the event of a violation of this rule the favorite received his resignation. Favorites of the Empress were mainly young men, who had neither wealth nor influential relatives and were indebted to Potemkin and Catherine for their rise and subsequently did not play an independent role. Potemkin’s biographer writes that historians often overlooked the triangle “Catherine — Potemkin — young favorite”, however, it is this triangle that was the “family” of the Empress.

Platon Zubov many years after the death of Potemkin complained: “Although I beat him by half, I could not eliminate him from my way completely. But to remove him was imperative, because the Empress herself followed his wishes and was afraid of him, as a demanding spouse. I got only love and she often pointed to Potemkin, as an ideal to follow.”

When on October 12, 1791 courier brought to St. Petersburg the news of the death of Potemkin, who died on the road from Yass to Nikolaev on October 5th 1791 in the steppe, Catherine was shocked. 

“Tears and despair” notes in his diary secretary  Khrapovitsky. “Yesterday evening,” notes Khrapovitsky 19/XI, and today in the morning she was crying — 24.XI. Combed her hair, dressed her head, but when putting on a dress, suddenly – tears… Complaining of  hypochondria and wants to stay away from the public, 4/XII… suddenly burst out in tears when reading a letter from Jassy”. 

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In a letter to Grimm, she wrote (at 2.30 am on October  13 1791): “Again struck me, as a hammer on the head, a terrible blow, my student, my friend, you can say, my idol, Prince Potemkin-Tavrichesky died in Moldavia from disease, which lasted a whole month. You can’t imagine how upset I am. (…) He passionately, jealously was loyal to me; swore and got angry when matters were not done as they should. (…) But he had another rare quality that distinguished him from all other people: he had the courage in his heart, courage in his mind, courage in the soul. Because of this we always understood each other and didn’t pay attention to rumors of those who understood less then us. In my opinion, Prince Potemkin was a great man who had not done half the things that he could do”

Potemkin, unlike many of her other favorites was not [officially] married (which confirms the version about the wedding) and, like Catherine, found solace in the arms of much younger members of opposite sex, and, what unpleasantly shocked his contemporaries, preferred his younger nieces (Catherine Engelhardt, Alexandra Branitskaya, and others).

At least in 28 letters Catherine calls Potemkin “husband” and “spouse” (30 times), and calls herself “wife” (4 times). Most often she addressed him with the words “dear husband”, but there are also such combinations as “a kind husband”, “lovely husband,” “tender husband”, “priceless husband”, “my own husband.”

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