Potemkin, Grigory Alexandrovich

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(17391791), prince, secret husband of Catherine II, statesman, commander, imperial viceroy, eccen tric.

Grigory Potemkin's life contains many mysteries. His year of birth and paternity are both disputed. His father, Alexander Vasilievich Potemkin (c. 16901746), an irascible retired army officer from the Smolensk region, courted young Daria Skuratova (17041780) while she was still married. Grigory was the fifth born and sole male of seven children. A Moscow cousin provided care for the family after the father's death. At school in Moscow, Potemkin displayed remarkable aptitude in classical and modern languages and Orthodox theology. Clerical friends led him to consider a church career. Potemkin entered the Horse Guards while continuing school at age sixteen. In 1757 he was one of a dozen students presented at court by Ivan Shuvalov, curator of Moscow University. Despite a gold medal, his academic career ceased with expulsion for laziness and truancy. He began active service with the Guards in Petersburg, participating in Catherine's coup of July 1762, for which he was promoted to chamber-gentleman and granted six hundred serfs. Accidental loss of an eyemistakenly blamed on his patrons, the Orlov brotherslent mystique to his robust physique and ebullient personality. He became assistant procurator of the Holy Synod in 1763 and spokesman for the non-Russian peoples at the Legislative Commission of 17671768. On leave from court for active army service in the Russo-Turkish War of 17681774, he fought with distinction under Field Marshal Peter Rumyantsev from 1769 to December 1773. At Petersburg he dined at court in autumn 1770, enhancing a reputation for devilish intelligence and wit, hilarious impersonations, and military exploits.

After Catherine's break from Grigory Orlov in 17721773, she sought a fresh perspective amid multiple crises. In December 1773 she invited Potemkin to Petersburg to win her favor. Installation as official favorite swiftly followed. He sat beside her at dinner and received infatuated notes several times per day. He was made honorary sub-colonel of the Preobrazhensky Guards, member of the Imperial Council, vice-president (later president) of the War Department, commander of all light cavalry and irregular forces, and governor-general of New Russia, and given many decorations capped by Catherine's miniature portrait in diamonds only Grigory Orlov had another. Potemkin helped to conclude the war on victorious terms, to over-see the end of the Pugachev Revolt, and to craft legislation strengthening provincial government against renewed disorders.

Apparently the lovers arranged a secret wedding in Petersburg on June 19, 1774. They spent most of 1775 in Moscow to celebrate victories over the Turks and Pugachev, ceremonies that Potemkin choreographed. Catherine supposedly gave birth to Potemkin's daughter, Elizaveta Grigorevna Temkina (a tale debunked in Simon Montefiore's biography). From early 1776, despite elevation to Prince of the Holy Roman Empire, Potemkin drifted away as a result of persistent quarrels over power and rivals. In New Russia he supervised settlement and arranged annexation of the Crimea, finally accomplished with minimal bloodshed in 1783 and renamed the Tauride region. This was part of the Greek Project that Potemkin and Catherine jointly pursued in alliance with Austria and that foresaw expulsion of the Turks from Europe and reconstitution of the Byzantine Empire under Russian tutelage. The couple constantly corresponded about all matters of policy and personal concerns, especially hypochondria. She regretted his ailments however petty, but when she fell into depression from favorite Alexander Lanskoi's death in 1784, Potemkin rushed back to direct her recovery. He planned the flamboyant Tauride Tour of 1787 that took her to Kiev, then by galley and ship to the Crimea, and then back via Moscow. This inspired the myth of "Potemkin villages," a term synonymous with phony display. He was awarded the surtitle of Tavrichesky ("Tauride") during the tour.

The Turks declared war in August 1787, Potemkin taking supreme command of all Russian forces in the south. He panicked for some weeks when the new Black Sea fleet was scattered by storms and Ottoman invasion threatened, but Catherine kept faith in his military abilities, and Potemkin led Russia to land and sea victories that eventually won the war in 1792. He missed the final victory, however, dying theatrically in the steppe outside Jassy on October 16, 1791.

See also: catherine ii; pugachev, emelian ivanovich; russo-turkish wars


Alexander, John T. (1989). Catherine the Great: Life and Legend. New York: Oxford University Press.

Madariaga, Isabel de. (1981). Russia in the Age of Catherine the Great. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Montefiore, Simon Sebag. (2000). Prince of Princes: The Life of Potemkin. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

Raeff, Marc. (1972). "In the Imperial Manner." In Catherine the Great: A Profile, ed. Marc Raeff. New York: Hill and Wang.

John T. Alexander