An Affair to Remember

Grigory Potemkin
Grigory Potemkin; drawing by David Levine


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,…

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