The man who annexed Crimea – Prince Potemkin, the shadow ruler of Russia and the secret husband of Catherine the Great. Part 2


Tavrichesky Palace of Prince Potemkin

August 6th, 2015

Alexander Bokhanov

Author, historian, biographer of the Russian monarchs

Translated by Kristina Rus

On April 28, 1791 an inconspicuous historic event occurred in Russia that, nevertheless, shocked contemporaries and in subsequent decades became a subject of memoirs, discussions, and gossip among the elites. That day was the legendary “Potemkin’s party”, the so-called grand reception, hosted by Grigory Alexandrovich Prince Potyomkin-Tavrichesky in the Tavrichesky Palace in St. Petersburg. Only in February of that year the Empress Catherine II gifted the palace to her counterpart, a loyal General Field Marshal. And he decided to thank the royal patroness.

For almost three months the undaunted winner of the Turks, the conqueror of Tavrida [Crimea] was busy preparing the “unprecedented event” for which he spared no efforts or resources. Fortunately there was no shortage of money; the Empress did not spare any favors. For a few weeks Tavrichesky Palace was engulfed in a fury of activity. Hundreds of people were busy tidying up the site (demolished old buildings, manicured the lawns, paved the roads), hundreds more worked inside. Artists, cabinetmakers, sculptors worked day and night. All kept under control by the owner himself, who scrutinized everything, found time to give his orders everywhere.

The schedule of the celebration marking the capture of a powerful Turkish fortress of Izmail (“the key of the Danube”) was drafted by Potemkin. And the day came when the grandest ball in the history of the Russian Empire took place. A few hours before the arrival of her Highness, the Prince was already in ceremonial garb, in a crimson velvet coat, and a cloak from black lace. And diamonds, diamonds, diamonds everywhere. Even the hat, a gift of the Empress, was embroidered with them and weighed nearly half a pound. He could not hold it for a long time, fatigued, and a special servant was assigned to the hat…

The Carriage of Catherine II arrived in the evening twilight. The Prince bowed to the ground, helped her out of the carriage himself, and then took her to his “gardens of Semiramida”. In the palace everything sparkled and glittered: 140 000 lamps and 20 000 and wax candles have been lit. Upon entering through the front doors, the choir sang a majestic hymn “Let the thunder of victory sound”. Then a few dozen pairs presented a holiday quadrille. Next was ballet and pantomime. And after – a walk through the halls of the palace.

The guests marveled, making up to three thousand people. No one has seen anything like this before. Most impressive was the spectacle in a huge central “ballroom”. An amazing garden was arranged there, reminiscent of a tale from “One thousand and one nights”. Green sod ramp was lined with blooming orange trees, Jasmine bushes and roses. Among the branches one could see nests of nightingales and other birds, singing in the garden. Between the bushes there were censers with incense and a fountain with lavender water. In the middle was a temple with an altar, where stood a statue of Catherine II. In a little distance was a grotto, and before it a crystal pyramid with a gold monogram of the Tsaritsa.

At midnight the dinner began, which contemporaries failed to describe in its abundance and sophistication. We only know that Catherine II was served by the host himself and she barely managed to get him to sit down. At about two am, the Empress was about to leave. As later recalled by the poet Derzhavin: “Potemkin fell on his knees before his empress and smothered her hand with kisses, paying earnest gratitude for the visit. Many guests stayed until the morning and eagerly danced”.

In the following days, the event was the talk of the town. Potemkin had few supporters at the court. He was not loved. And he hated the sleek members of the court. Knew that he was denounced, slandered, including by those who “shared the bed with the Empress”. But the Prince was sure: the Empress is smart, the smartest of all whom he had met; will be able to tell the truth from a lie. She always was wise enough not to confuse the bedchamber with the cabinet and divide “affections of the heart with affairs of the state.” And therefore he never tried to make excuses, or even more to blame someone for his own good. Once, to the question of the French envoy count Segur: “Whether he is afraid of his enemies”, he replied: “I despise them too much to fear them”.

Besides his influence, the high society could not forgive his wealth. Potemkin was considered the biggest magnate, although no one really knew about the size of his wealth. Knew only that the generous gifts of Catherine II – money, lands, serfs, jewellery, positions and medals – flowed constantly. The affection of the monarch always produced envy, hostility and gossip among the nobility. The courtiers were at a loss. He was no longer a “favorite”, the sovereign had other lovers, but the “one eyed pirate” is still in favor.

They said that this upstart, having received unmatched powers from Tsaritsa, became the almost absolute ruler of vast territories, in fact the whole of Southern Russia [including Novorossia], from the Prut river in the West, to Kalmyk steppes in the East. Built there cities, shipyards, ships at his discretion, got his own court, welcomed foreigners, and generally behaved like some Eastern monarch. And he got away with it. How many times Empress was told about the “obscene affairs of the Prince”, hoping that now, for sure, his star will burn out. But, no! He always got away with things. He must have some magic key to the heart of Tsaritsa. Some even claimed that he “bewitched her.”

But the evil tongues did not take into account what was especially appreciated by Catherine II. Grigory was a loyal, reliable person whom she could always rely on. And that is worth much. She has seen enough of the Russian ways. How many people around, a sea of flattery and assurances, and few can be trusted. All words, all lies. Potemkin is different. No, of course, he is Russian, a real Russian. Reckless courage, passionate nature – he has it all. Little political correctness. This cannot be changed. Sometimes she wondered how it happened that the first minister of the Empire was more like a bandit than a statesman. Could appear before important foreigners all in gold, in a doublet studded with diamonds, but ungroomed, in worn shoes on bare feet. And even in a robe, even without underwear could accept a noble Prince. And in public could shout so the glass would almost shatter in the windows. And his taste was pretty barbarian: loves radish, carrots, cabbage, pickled cranberries, pickles, black bread and kvass. Cannot stand all sorts of foreign dishes. Even despises pineapples, a rare treat at the court. His special joy – sour shi soup. This muck, as reported, he drinks several liters a day.

But can be different. Before her always appears in the most attractive attire, does not show his habits. When it is necessary, can carry an interesting conversation and can become courteous, has an unmatched wit. Speaks French proficiently and can recite poetry in Greek and Latin. Especially likes the Greek Plutarch and the Roman Ovid. Collects books, pays big money for rare editions from Europe. And not deprived of other talents. Can do a role in a play and sing a song, play the lute. For the rest of her life she remembered how he once dressed as an angel, so she almost died from laughter. 

A pirate! He looks good with one eye! Some said that he lost it in a drunken brawl, others, his sympathisers, claimed he lost it in combat, but Catherine knew the true reason. He told her that in 1763 one physician was treating him, put some compresses on his face and was so zealous that “deprived him of half his vision”. After that Grigory went into a hide out, did not come out for a few months,  and even said that he was going to retire to a monastery. But he got over it. And how could he survive in a monastery? He could not survive without a female company. He had so many Victorias, no fewer then victories.

Catherine II forgave Potemkin much. He disarmed the ruler: with devotion to her personally, and to the interests of the Empire. Honest and business savvy. When business is discussed, speaks to the point, often one replacing the entire board. Give him any mission, he will die, but fulfill it, and if something doesn’t work, then will respond honestly, will not put the blame on others. Once he assured her that if her Highness wishes, “he will get the moon.” He could. Laughing she answered that she will not task him with that, otherwise “we will all be left without moonlight.” And quite seriously she told Potemkin:”Without you I am like without hands”.

This amazing man appeared out of nowhere at the foot of the throne and played a visible and important role in Russia’s history. 18th century was rich with such stories. In the whirlwind of military battles, victory marches, court intrigues and coups suddenly popped up a name, all of a sudden someone appeared who later became the glory (or infamy) of Russia.

Potemkin etched in the annals of the Fatherland not as a brilliant courtier, not as a fabulously wealthy tyrant, as he was often portrayed, but as a statesman of the highest caliber. The name of this man is connected to the glorious military victories of Russia, accession of vast southern territories, their development, strengthening the borders of the state, and the creation of the Black sea fleet. He did not spare himself in any endeavors, did everything with maximum amplitude, had the vision for the future and never claimed the merits of others.

He valued the capable and talented, supported and promoted them. Nobility, rank, and “court merits” had no meaning for him. He preferred the bold and talented. And people appreciated it. As Suvorov wrote to him: “The great soul of Your Grace shines my way for the greater Imperial service”.

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