The man who annexed Crimea – Prince Potemkin, the shadow ruler of Russia and a secret husband of Catherine the Great. Part 3. The Governor of Novorossia

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Russo-Turkish War

August 6th, 2015


Alexander Bokhanov


Author, historian, biographer of the Russian monarchs


Translated by Kristina Rus

Grigori Aleksandrovich hailed from the nobility. He was born September 13, 1739 in the village of Chizhovo of Smolensk governorate in the family of a retired Colonel Alexander Potemkin and his second wife, Daria Vasilievna (born Skuratov). His father was a despot, did not spoil his children, and was hard on his young wife, who was thirty years younger. But soon the family tyrant went to his grave. Grigory was not yet five years old when the cousin of his father, Kislovsky, who held a prominent position in Moscow – the President of the Chamber Board, took him in his care. In the capital city the boy spent his childhood.

He studied in a private school, and then at Moscow University. The early years were distinguished by diligence and zeal, at the intermediate exam in 1757 he was even awarded a gold medal “for achievements in the Greek language and theology”. Then, as he said, he got “the blues”: gave up his studies, started to read the writings of the Church Fathers. Soon the payback followed: in 1760, “for laziness and absenses”, he got kicked out of the university.

But by that time he had determined his goal in life: he decided to go into military service. In those days the noble minors were sent to various military regiments very young. Potemkin was enlisted in the horse guards not even at sixteen years old. In 1757 he received corporal, two years later was promoted to quartermaster. By the time of expulsion from the university he was already a sergeant and in this rank he arrived to St. Petersburg, where he began service as an orderly with the Prince George Golshtynsky.

Then, together with the heir Peter Fedorovich, many arrogant and greedy German princes arrived to Russia, who made up an extraordinary force after the accession of Peter III in 1761. The guard was rumbling. Potemkin also didn’t like all of this and, when in the summer of 1862, the officers staged a coup against Peter in favor of his wife Catherine, the young sergeant wholeheartedly supported the coup. He personally participated in the events and was among those who escorted the defeated monarch from Oranienbaum to Ropsha. However, he did not take part in his murder.

In the hot June-July days of 1762 he was first noticed by Catherine II. It was hard not to notice. Though in the guard everyone was prominent, but even among them Potemkin stood out with his two-metre height. But that’s not the only reason he was etched in memory. The night before the coup he gathered cavalry regiments in support of the new ruler. She did not forget it after her accession to the throne. Among the thank-you awards, with which she showered her supporters, Potemkin received 400 souls of peasants, 10,000 rubles, silver service and court rank of camer-juncker.

In subsequent years he did not play a significant role. His name became famous during the Russian-Turkish war of 1768-1774, which resulted in Russia for the first time receiving important ports on the Black sea and achieved recognition of the independence of the Crimean khanate from Turkey. Potemkin first headed a cavalry troop, and then became the “chief of the entire cavalry”. Became known for bold and skillful attacks.

That’s when he was truly appreciated by Catherine II, who sent a young officer a handwritten note, were she listed his achievements. “Love the service to your dear Fatherland”, she concluded. Potemkin was given the rank of major general, as mentioned in the decree of the Empress, “for bravery and experience.” In 1774 he returned to St. Petersburg and from this year entered into public administration. The Empress received him once, and then again and again. She likes him. Potemkin becomes her confidant and enters the circle of the most trusted people, who formed the Council of the Empress. She begins to ask his opinion, carefully listening to him.

Tsaritsa favors her new protege, and does not hide it. Old favorites are rejected. It is said that when, after his return from the war, Potemkin was walking up the main staircase of the Winter Palace, he met a grim “first favourite” count Grigory Orlov. Potemkin found nothing better then to ask the disgraced count a question: “What’s news?” And the answer was: “Nothing, except that you are now going up, and I’m going down”. Potemkin has really started his rise to fame.

Prince Potemkin

Awards and titles fell on Potemkin, as from the horn of plenty: the adjutant general, general-in-chief, vice president of military council, order of St. Alexander Nevsky, order of Ravnoapostolny Andre and lastly, the title of the count. He gratefully accepted all of it, but even if Catherine II did not award for all the “due diligence” with gifts and favors, it is hard to imagine that he would have refused the state service. He “loved the service” and, although he was not deprived of vanity, the main reason was rooted in something else: in the power and the greatness of Russia. For this he was ready to help always and in any position. Tsaritsa entrusted him with the most notable and troublesome matters. In January 1776 Catherine instructed Potemkin (in that year, he received the title of “Grand Prince”) to engage in the arrangement and development of newly acquired southern parts of the Empire. He became the Governor of Novorossia, Azov, Astrakhan and Saratov. In fact, the entire administrative, military and economic power in the South of the Russian Empire concentrated in his hands.

In the subsequent years Potemkin was engaged in the development of the vast territories of the Northern Black sea. But other important affairs of the state did not escape him. The Prince became the initiator of military reform, which was long overdue, but which no one dared to begin. He decided to take it upon himself. Military uniform was changed. Before everything was arranged in the Prussian manner: the soldiers were dressed in tight uniforms and wigs with “pigtails”. The soldiers suffered, from wigs they often had skin diseases. Now these absurdities were abandoned.

Potemkin achieved the abolition of corporal punishment in the army, banned the use of soldiers on private jobs of commanders. He wrote an order: “Declare to the officers that people should be treated with all possible moderation, would care about their benefits, in the punishment would not break the rules, treat them as I would, for I love them like children.” If earlier for most officers a soldier was a dumb brute, under Potemkin everything began to change. He personally oversaw food supply of the troops, the observance of sanitary norms. This has never occurred in the Russian army before.

The system of military defense of the frontiers of the Empire had to be changed. Previously this function was performed by the Don and Zaporozhye cossacks, among whom there was often no central authority. Here the free spirit was too strong, and after the Pugachev rebellion it became clear that without proper supervision the Cossacks can become not only a pillar of the throne and the Empire, but also the troublemakers. Potemkin subjugated the Cossacks to the central control.

The Prince was perfectly aware that for reliable, “eternal” presence of Russia on the Black sea, it is necessary to solve two main tasks: to create a network of military fortifications and economically develop these pristine, but fertile territories. It was important to create permanent population. He challenges the nobility and refuses to return runaway serfs, who fled to the Don and the sparsely populated areas of the South en masse. Now these runaways had to settle on the new land. A migration of colonists from Europe, mainly from Germany, also began to these lands. In the South of Russia they were allocated land.

Intensive construction had began. The cities of Kherson, Ekaterinoslav [now – Dnepropetrovsk], Nikolayev were founded on the initiative and by the plans, developed by the Prince. And another important matter was associated with his name: the annexation of Crimea.

Although after the war of 1768-1774 the Crimean khanate formally ceased to be part of the Turkish Empire, but in fact, as Potemkin knew well, Istanbul has not ceased to intervene in Crimean affairs, and representatives of the Sultan continued to meddle against Russia, hoping for a rematch in the future. The most profitable business in Crimea since long ago was the slave trade, mostly with captured Russians. This, too, could not be tolerated. The Prince wrote to the Empress that the issue must be addressed. He believed that “the acquisition of Crimea will neither strengthen nor enrich You, but can only bring respite”.

Tsaritsa agreed. In a secret directive recommended to fulfill this intention at the “first opportunity” so that “the Crimean peninsula is not a nest of robbers and rebels for the coming times, but was turned for the good of our state. Many attendants of the Empress advised to begin a military campaign to seize Crimea. But the Prince thought otherwise. 

He was sure that there is no need for blood, no need for war, when other means could be used.This means was money. He skillfully conducted his politics, generously rewarded and bribed the right people. Soon almost the whole inner circle of the Crimean Khan turned pro-Russian, and then the Khan himself took the oath of allegiance to Russia. It happened in 1783.

In the same year Potemkin founded Sevastopol, which became the main military base of Russia on the Black sea. The Prince started the construction of the Black sea fleet and he can be rightfully called its founder. In a letter to Potemkin, commenting on the unhappy voices abroad, the Empress said: “I treat the envy of Europe very calmly; let them complain, and we will carry on with our business”.

In the spring of 1787, Catherine II fulfilled a long-standing request of Potemkin, and visited the new regions of Russia, including Crimea. By the time she arrived in Sevastopol a whole squadron was awaiting her: 3 ships, 12 frigates, 20 small vessels, 3 bombardier boats. Tsaritsa was in awe of everything. Saw new cities, with regular streets, with churches, barracks, public places, saw what work is humming everywhere. After visiting Kherson she wrote: “Thanks to the care of Prince Potemkin, this city and this region, where at the signing of peace there was not a single hut, became a flourishing city and region and prosperity will grow from year to year.” In the other places impressions were the most blissful. The fleet in Sevastopol – was all like a dream.

Fireworks for the Empress in Sevastopol, 1787

Accompanying Tsaritsa Austrian Emperor Joseph II wrote to Vienna from Sevastopol: “The Empress in awe of such addition to the power of Russia. Prince Potemkin is currently the almighty, and it is impossible to imagine how everyone bows to him”. After the trip, Tsaritsa granted the Prince the title of “Tavrichesky” (a year later he received the rank of field Marshal). In a letter she reported:”Between you and me, my friend, the matter is simple: you serve me, and I’m grateful, that’s all; you hit your enemies on the fingers with your diligence towards me, and a zeal for the affairs of the Empire.”

Just as Catherine II reached St. Petersburg came the news that Turkey gave Russia an ultimatum. Among the main requirements – the return of Crimea. The brazen move was rejected and on August 13 the Sultan declared war. Tsaritsa appointed Potemkin the commander in chief of the Russian army. The war lasted for over four years, was tough, bloody, but Russia won one victory after another. The Prince himself coordinated the military activities, many other military leaders have shown themselves. By the end of 1790, it became clear that the final victory is near. All the major fortresses of the Turkish army in the Caucasus and the Northern Black sea region were taken. Potemkin has always stayed on the front line, personally inspected positions, displayed admirable calm and courage. In the army order he said:”I order you once and for all not to rise up in front of me, and do not lie on the ground from the Turkish cannonballs.”

The Prince himself never hid, even from cannon fire. In open field Marshal’s coat with a large portrait of Catherine II on the chest he appeared in different places. The image of the Empress was showered with diamonds and glistened so much that it was visible from afar. He was told that it was a convenient target that must be put away. He did not want to hear it. He never parted with this amulet gift for a single day.

In early 1791 Potemkin arrived on request of tsaritsa to Petersburg as the victor. The war was nearing completion. It became clear that no matter how much the Turks persist, but they will be forced to accept peace on Russia’s terms. He spent several months in the capital and soon after “Potemkin’s party” began to pack his bags. Had to finish the war and prepare for peace. In August he arrived to the Moldovan town of Yassy, at his field command. The Prince felt ill. He’s been sick for a while: was tormented with fever (malaria) caught on the rotten marshes of the mouth of the Dnieper river. The disease intensified, weakened, but in the last year did not let go. Now it became very bad.

One day of September 1791 he said to his confessor Metropolit Jonah: “It is unlikely that I will recover, so much time, but no respite. But all in God’s will. Only you pray for my soul and remember me. I didn’t wish bad on anyone”. In early October he got really bad, hardly slept at all. Decided to move to Kherson, where he built the Church of Saint Catherine. There he wished to be buried. But did not make it. Feeling the approach of death, at noon, October 5, asked to be carried out of the carriage. “I want to die in the field.” These were his last words. The Prince was laid on a rug. In less than forty minutes his soul flew away.

When Catherine II received the news of the death of the Prince, then, forgetting all the manners, she just wailed. It was a heavy personal loss, and a huge loss for Russia. She wrote to her good friend Baron F. Grimm: “”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”.

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