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An Affair to Remember

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The story of Catherine the Great and Prince Grigory Potemkin is not only about the most passionate and intimate royal love affair ever revealed in detail, an affair that places Antony and Cleopatra or Napoleon and Josephine very much in the shade. Taking place between Catherine’s seizure of power in 1762 and Potemkin’s death in 1791, it is a chronicle of one of history’s most successful and equally shared political partnerships between a man and a woman. Both were remarkable not only for their political genius but also for their eccentricities, their culture, their uninhibited sexuality, their openness in relationships, and their wit. Obsessed with power and ambition, they not only expanded their empire by force and guile, they also contrived to be among the more humane rulers ever to reign over Russia, even if we take into account the supposedly democratic leaders of post-Soviet Russia.

Not for nothing did Voltaire call Catherine “The Great.” Not for nothing did Pushkin describe Potemkin as “touched by the hand of history,” while Jeremy Bentham called him “Prince of Princes” and the Prince de Ligne (who knew Frederick the Great and Napoleon) thought him “the most extraordinary man I ever met.” Catherine herself, in making Potemkin her imperial partner, called him a “genius” as well as her “tiger,” her “hero,” her “idol,” and her “dearest friend.” In his superb new work, the distinguished scholar Douglas Smith provides the first carefully edited selection from their hundreds of letters.

The story of Potemkin and Catherine starts at dawn on June 28, 1762, when the woman who would become famous as Catherine the Great was abruptly awakened in her suburban palace by a group of her supporters in the Guards Regiments, led by the Orlov brothers, one of whom, Grigory Orlov, was her lover. At thirty-three, she had committed herself to a plot to overthrow her husband, Emperor Peter III, and take his throne for herself. The guardsmen had come to tell her that the conspiracy had been discovered.

Born an obscure German princess of Anhalt-Zerbst, Catherine had no legitimate claim whatever to the Romanov throne. She was only fourteen when she was brought to Russia in 1744 by the Empress Elizaveta to marry the heir, Peter the Great’s grandson, Grand Duke Peter, a limited and simple-minded German contemptuous of all things Russian. (Peter the Great had married his daughters to German princelings, which meant that Russia frequently found itself suffering under the rule of legitimate but Germanic rulers.) In 1761, Empress Elizaveta died and Peter succeeded her as Peter III with Catherine as his empress.

The marriage of Catherine and Peter had been deeply unhappy and both had taken lovers. Catherine, a highly intelligent, sensual woman and a Russophile, chafed under her husband’s incompetence and oafishness. In his short reign, Peter’s bungling and his dislike of Russia had cost him much support from his people. Meanwhile, Catherine became the leader of what amounted to an anti-German, pro-Russian party centered around the top guardsmen, including her latest secret lover, the handsome officer Grigory Orlov, and his four determined and energetic brothers. The Orlovs were to provide her with crucial political support.

At dawn on June 28, 1762, while Catherine hurriedly dressed, Alexei Orlov, the brutal, scarfaced brother of Grigory Orlov, told her that they would either hang or take power that day. As Catherine and Alexei Orlov climbed into their carriage, a powerfully built guardsman leaped onto the back. He was Grigory Potemkin, age twenty-two, the son of a poor and splenetic Smolensk squire, who had come to the capital to make his fortune. He rode atop the carriage while Catherine was driven to the Winter Palace in Petersburg. There she was hailed as Catherine II, and that afternoon she massed her guardsmen in front of the palace before leading them to Peterhof to arrest her fallen husband. When she emerged from the palace, dashing in her male guardsman’s uniform, the young Potemkin, noticing that she lacked the correct swordknot, galloped up to her, introduced himself, and offered her his own. As the march began, Potemkin’s horse refused to leave the Empress’s side, for it had been trained to ride alongside its fellows “in cavalry squadron.” Later, when he was co-ruler of Russia, Potemkin would joke that he owed everything to a fresh and disobedient horse.

Catherine’s coup was successful, concluded with her usual finesse and ruthlessness: Peter III was deposed and murdered by the Orlovs. Catherine was established on the throne. Young Potemkin henceforth became part of Catherine’s circle, and she soon noticed how remarkable he was. Ten years her junior, tall, blue-eyed, and with a flowing head of auburn hair much admired by Catherine, he was enormously erudite, extremely intelligent, and deeply sensual. He was also eccentric and fearless. He was nicknamed “Alcibiades” after the beautiful, debauched, politically brilliant Athenian.

The conventional image of Catherine as a nymphomaniac is an absurdity: in almost seventy years, she perhaps had twelve lovers, hardly a sign of nymphomania by eighteenth-century (or twenty-first-century) standards. But she had to work out a way of remaining empress while having male consorts, whose attention and love she needed. Orlov was a good-natured soldier, bluff, jovial, kind, and often drunk, but he was never her equal intellectually or politically—indeed she never promoted him to a post higher than chief of the artillery. Catherine was what we would now call a serial monogamist and she claimed she would have stayed with Orlov forever if she could have, but his infidelities undermined their relationship, which lasted for over ten years.

Meanwhile her reign was soon a success: she restored stability, reformed the provincial administration, set up new schools, made peace with Prussia, established a friendly king on the Polish throne, and corresponded with the philosophes, including Voltaire and Diderot. She managed to avoid a public marriage to either Orlov or any other of the scions of the powerful aristocratic Russian clans who might have limited her political appeal.

The sprawling Ottoman Empire was already in decline and its vast provinces to the south offered Russia an opportunity to expand. In 1768, border tensions led to a major war with the Ottoman Empire. It was then that Cath- erine began her successful policy of imperial expansion. But the Ottoman war and the conflicts within her family placed both her regime and her relationship with Orlov under strain.

The pressure was increasing on Catherine the usurper to share power with or yield the throne altogether to the rightful tsar, her son Paul. Her one legitimate child by Peter III, he grew up to be an embittered military martinet much like his father. They certainly shared an unfortunate appearance, an obsessional Prussophile mil- itarism, a manic unpredictability, and a complete lack of political tact, which would in both cases end in their assassination. But it is also possible that Paul was really the son of Catherine’s first lover, Sergei Saltykov. In any case, Catherine showed little fondness for either potential father and a positive dislike for the tsarevich, her heir. By 1772, he was coming of age and demanding his rights. But Catherine refused to share power with him.

As the war with the Ottomans continued without a clear Russian victory, Orlov, preoccupied with his mistresses, was of little help and incapable of giving Catherine serious political support. When, in 1773, a Cossack named Emelian Pugachev launched a peasant revolt on the Volga which threatened Moscow, Catherine called in the impressively strong, haughty Potemkin, now a general and a war hero who had made his name as a cavalry commander. While he took part in the siege of the Ottoman city of Silistria (in modern Bulgaria), she wrote him a revealing letter, which is published in Smith’s book:

Sir Lieutenant-General…. Since for my part I very much desire to preserve fervent, brave, clever, and skilful individuals, so I ask you not to endanger yourself for naught. Upon reading this letter, you may well ask: why was it written? To which I can offer you the following reply: so that you had confirmation of my opinion of you, for I am always most benevolent toward you. Catherine.

Potemkin immediately returned to Petersburg, where he found that Catherine had broken with Orlov and had embarked on a tedious relationship with an obscure guardsman named Vassilchikov. Potemkin had to seize the initiative. He did so by sulking in the Nevsky Monastery and threatening to take holy vows. Catherine probably hesitated because she knew he was such a dominating and intelligent man that there could be no half-measures with him. But she knew she needed him.

When he accused her of promiscuity, she wrote one of the most revealing confessions ever written by a ruler. She admitted that she had taken various lovers: “God knows they weren’t the result of debauchery, for which I haven’t the least inclination, and had fate given me in my youth a husband whom I could’ve loved, I would’ve remained true…. The trouble is my heart is loath to be without love even for a single hour.” In the same letter she went on to describe Potemkin as follows:

Then came a certain knight. Through his merits and customary kindness, this hero was so charming that people, upon hearing of his arrival, were already saying he should take up residence here….

Potemkin was soon installed in the Winter Palace, marking a radical political change. The Orlovs lost much of their prestige, and the political aristocrats whose advice had been influential became less important. Catherine now had the ally she wanted. Their intimacy, political insights, and sexual games are all made graphically clear in the letters they wrote to each other. The Autocrat of all the Russias was soon writing Potemkin as follows:

My dear, I came after seven o’clock, but found your valet standing across from the doors with a drinking glass in his hand. And so I didn’t come in to you. I write this so that you know why I violated our dear, established arrangement. Adieu, mon faisan d’or. Je vous aime beaucoup, beaucoup.

Or, in another letter: “General do you love me? Me love general very much.”

However cozy their relationship, to a reigning autocrat virtually everything is political, and the letters soon show Potemkin taking over the war ministry, joining the Imperial Council, supervising the campaign against the Pugachev rebels, negotiating a peace with the Turks that added a large new territory to the Empire, and defying the claims of the heir, Paul. Still, Potemkin found the role of a “golden pheasant” in the royal palace boring and constricting for a man of his talents. He was born to command. He was jealous of Catherine’s flirtations (fearing that she would one day lose interest in him) yet he also found it impossible to be caged in her golden embrace. If she was to keep his political advice and support as well as his love, she was going to have to give him a higher and more secure position.

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