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, 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.

It was probably sometime in June 1774, just a few months after the start of the affair, that she agreed to secretly marry him, as a later letter makes clear:

My Lord and Cher Epoux! I shall begin my answer with that line which touches me most of all: who ordered you to cry? Why do you give greater authority to your lively imagination than to the proofs that speak in your wife’s favor? Was she not attached to you two years ago by bonds of Holy Matrimony?

Their rows are revealed in their famous double letters in which Potemkin complains and she answers him. Servants ran back and forth down the long corridors of the Winter Palace bearing their replies to each other:

Potemkin: Allow me, my precious dear, to say these final words that, I think, will end our row.

Catherine: I permit you. The sooner the better.

P: Don’t be surprised that I am so uneasy about our love.

C: Be calm.

P: Beyond the innumerable gifts you bestowed on me,

C: One hand washes the other.

P: you’ve placed me in your heart.

C: Firmly and solidly.

P: I want to be there alone, preferred to all former ones,

C: You are and will be.

P: since no one has so loved you as I.

C: I see and believe it.

P: And since I am the work of your hands, so I desire that you should secure my peace,

C: I’m happy with all my soul.

P: that you should find joy in doing me good,

C: My foremost pleasure.

P: that you should devise everything for my comfort

C: It’ll come by itself.

P: and find therein repose from the great labors that occupy your lofty station. Amen

C: Let your thoughts be calm, so that your feelings can freely act; they are tender and will find the best way themselves. End of quarrel. Amen.

The solution they worked out in 1776, the year this was written, was, so far as I know, unique in the history of political relationships. They were to continue their secret marriage and political alliance. But, thirsting for glory, pleasure, and attention, they were no longer able to satisfy each other emotionally, personally, and professionally—though they retained their sexual attraction for each other until the end. In times of emotional crisis, such as when Catherine’s heart was broken by the unfaithfulness of another young man, Potemkin would again become her lover.

Henceforth Catherine increasingly took younger and more pliable lovers, guardsmen who had no political importance and were usually introduced to her by Potemkin himself. Meanwhile, he embarked on a period of debauchery, taking various adventuresses and princesses as his lovers. His favorite mistresses were his nieces, the five most gorgeous girls at court, who were, in effect, adopted by the Empress and appointed her ladies-in-waiting. As the letters show, this curious arrangement meant that Catherine’s lovers had to write to “Batenka” (Father) Potemkin as if he was their father-in-law, which in a way he was. Similarly, Potemkin’s nieces were continually writing to Catherine as a sort of mother-in-law. The imperial couple remained the best of friends, conspirators, and political allies, comparing problems with their love affairs and their health while deciding policy together.


Far from becoming a buffoonish imperial pimp, as some have later characterized him, Potemkin was in effect co-tsar and co-ruler. Even if the marriage was a well-kept secret, his status was clear. He had, for example, the complete access to the Treasury that only Catherine had, and he was greeted across Russia with the receptions only granted to the imperial family. On March 21, 1776, she obtained for him the title of prince of the Holy Roman Empire and he was henceforth known in Russia as “The Prince” or just “Serenissimus.”

His transformation had been melodramatic and filled with tantrums and crises, but Potemkin was now secure in his exercise of power. The result was Catherine’s golden age, a period that combined the high culture of the Russian court with the expansion of the Russian Empire to include large parts of the Ottoman Empire and Poland, as well as the Crimea, much of modern Ukraine and Belorussia, the northern Caucasus and modern Georgia and Armenia. In those days, political success was measured largely by the size of acquired lands and recruited armies. By these standards, the couple was triumphant.

It is worth noting too that they could be ruthless. Among those who were imprisoned and killed during Catherine’s reign were three potential claimants to the throne, two of whom were legitimate but overthrown emperors, her husband Peter III and an unfortunate earlier prince who had been a child-emperor as Ivan VI. The other victim was a beautiful young adventuress who, calling herself “Princess Elisabeth,” traveled in Europe claiming to be the secret daughter of Empress Elizaveta. She was kidnapped in Italy on the orders of Catherine and Potemkin, and brought to Petersburg. She perished in a dungeon. Their much-publicized interest in Enlightenment values and their love of English and Italian art and architecture were undoubtedly genuine, but power always came first. At the slightest hint of turbulence or disquiet, their taste for reform gave way to ironclad conservatism.

The most important change came after the Pugachev Rebellion, when a peasant revolt and panic among the nobility led Catherine to put aside plans for reforming serfdom. But it was between 1789 and 1791, the years of the French and Polish Revolutions, that both Empress and prince became die-hard conservatives. Catherine called revolutionary ideas “poison.” Any hint of revolutionary ardor, whether in words or action, was suppressed. When a young nobleman named Alexander Radischev published in 1790 a veiled attack on serfdom, the Empress, and the prince, and advocated the introduction of French Revolutionary ideas to Russia, Catherine went into a frenzy and had Radischev arrested and sentenced to death. Potemkin, who had been personally insulted in Radischev’s book, displayed his customary sense of proportion and justice, writing to her: “I’ve read the book sent to me. I am not angry…. And you also won’t be angry. Your deeds are your shield.” Catherine commuted the sentence, but the author was exiled to Siberia.

Potemkin continued to introduce Catherine to young lovers and to console her when they—as they always did—cuckolded the increasingly plump Empress with someone their own age. In one letter she thanked him for introducing her to her latest young lover, Korsakov, one of his aides-de-camp: “There wasn’t a hint of shyness; you conducted yourself in the most agreeable manner. C’est un Ange, grand, grand, grand merci.” Meanwhile, Potemkin himself was enjoying an affair with his lovely niece Varvara, who later became ill when the relationship collapsed: “Listen my dear, Varenka is very ill,” Catherine wrote him. “Si c’est votre départ qui en est cause, vous avez tort! [If your leaving her is responsible, you’re in the wrong!] You’ll be the death of her and she is becoming very dear to me.” Such was the bizarre intimacy of the imperial “family.”

The letters also show Potemkin’s mastery of military affairs: he was already in effect war minister as well as in charge of policy toward the Ottomans and the Balkans. He was appointed viceroy of the south—the territory in the south of Russia that he had conquered from the Turks. Thus he gradually became Catherine’s full partner in foreign policy. But he was never fully content. He was vain but much too clever and too much aware of spiritual values to be satisfied with just luxury, money, titles, even power; the priesthood, he said, often beckoned him. But as viceroy he had the chance to use his amazing talents to develop southern Russia, and so he did.

Here his mission was vast—he recruited settlers, including whole villages of Englishmen encouraged to emigrate by the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, as well as Italians, French, Germans, and Scandinavians, and Jews from throughout Europe but largely from Poland. He built ports (such as his first city, Kherson, and later the naval bases Nikolaev, Sebastopol, and his southern capital Ekaterinoslav, now Dnieperpetrovsk), and founded the Black Sea fleet, a counterpart of Peter the Great’s Baltic fleet. Using his remarkable energy and imagination, Potemkin managed to complete these colossal tasks swiftly, galloping back and forth between Petersburg and the Black Sea. Catherine gave him absolute power in the south and over the military, and he used it, becoming more and more like an emperor himself, surrounded by women (his sensuality was increasingly harem-like), aides-de-camp, bishops, and rabbis (he was by far the most philo-Semitic statesman ever to rule Russia, before or since).

He developed what he and Catherine called the Greek Project, the creation of a southern empire where, he hoped, he would restore a Russianized Byzantium that would ultimately replace the Ottomans in modern-day Turkey and the Balkans. He first changed Russia’s main ally from Prussia to Austria, whose emperor, Joseph II, became his partner in carving up the Ottoman Empire.

In May 1780, Potemkin welcomed Joseph II to Mogilev to fulfill the first part of his grand plan. Letters went back and forth between the Empress and the prince as they arranged for Joseph to meet Catherine. Now Potemkin, the boy from the poor gentry, was negotiating his own foreign policy with the Holy Roman Emperor himself. Once this alliance was in place, Potemkin moved, in 1783, to annex the Crimean Khanate, a buffer state with the Ottomans ruled by the Giray dynasty, descendants of Genghis Khan. Large political interests came into play. France, Britain, and Prussia were unwilling to see Russia seize the approaches to the Ottoman Empire, which would make the Black Sea a Russian lake. But fortunately for Potemkin, Britain and France were embroiled in the last stages of the American War of Independence. The tension wore down both Catherine and Potemkin: “Your Majesty! God alone knows how exhausted I am,” wrote Potemkin. Finally, he delivered this triumphant promise: “In three days, I shall congratulate you on your acquisition of the Crimea.” Gaining Crimea, his special love, was his personal achievement, and he was rewarded with the title Prince of Taurida (Crimea). He built up the Black Sea fleet and founded a new naval base which he called Sebastopol.

He now found himself the object of jealousy on the part of the circle of the heir, Tsarevich Paul—and in Europe, which was suddenly waking up to Russian power. The Prussian and English rulers encouraged the Ottomans to reclaim their territories. Paul and his followers spread rumors that Potemkin’s achievements in the south were “Potemkin villages,” mere façades. Partly to prove them wrong and partly to solidify Russian power in the south, Potemkin now conceived his supreme triumph of political theater: Catherine’s visit to the Crimea, accompanied by the principal Western ambassadors. The trip, made in 1787, was a huge success. Foreign rulers who had become skeptical about Potemkin’s accomplishments had to admit to the reality of his fortresses, his ships of the line, and the settlements he had organized.

At the height of his power, Potemkin lost none of his strange charisma: “What is his magic?” wrote the Prince de Ligne, who was on the Crimean trip and observed Potemkin closely. In a letter that Smith quotes in his introduction he wrote:

Genius, and then genius, and again genius; natural intelligence, an excellent memory, elevation of soul, malice without malignity, craft without cunning, a happy mixture of caprices, of which the good when they are uppermost win him all hearts; great generosity, grace, justice in his rewards, much tact, the talent of divining what he does not know, and great knowledge of men.

But his successes now caused alarm in Europe. The Ottomans regarded Catherine’s Crimean visit as an intolerable provocation. Encouraged by Britain and Prussia, the Ottomans in late 1787 tried to recover their losses. Potemkin was appointed commander in chief, a punishing responsibility. The war did not start well. Sweden moved against Russia; Austria proved to be inept militarily; Britain and Prussia watched warily, ready to attack Russia if its victories became too great.

The tension between Catherine and the exhausted Potemkin on the Black Sea was often unbearable. Potemkin seemed on the edge of nervous collapse, and Catherine wrote him: “My true friend, Prince Grigory Alexandrovich. My greatest and chief concern and worry now are for your health.” Prince Potemkin, who had now become, in effect, the emperor of the south, managed in 1788 to defeat the Ottoman Fleet, taking the powerful Black Sea fortress of Ochakov, a triumph that almost led to war with Pitt the Younger’s Britain. His military successes were clear but the elated and exhausted prince also had to spend much energy consoling the Empress about her health problems—and heartbreaks; her current young lover, Alexander Dmitriyev-Mamonov (another Potemkin aide-de-camp), had humiliatingly cuckolded her. Simultaneously, in 1789 she in turn warned him not to become too pleased with himself as he conquered the Danubian Provinces:

I ask you not to be haughty… rather to show the world the magnificence of your soul….

Potemkin spent the following year living and ruling as a supreme warlord at his opulent court in Jassy (in present-day Romania); but Prussia and a rebellious Poland were now in alliance to attack Russia, while the war with Sweden continued. As Europe turned against them and their ally Joseph II died, Potemkin and Catherine debated in their letters what policy to follow. They faced down Prussian intentions to attack and managed to make peace with Sweden, narrowly avoiding war on three fronts. Potemkin then achieved victories over the Ottomans with his Black Sea fleet, and he was able to storm the largest Ottoman fortress, Ismail, in a bloody battle.

Potemkin had been away for almost two years from Petersburg. Catherine was now a breathless, overweight old lady, passionately in love with a foppish officer named Zubov, who was forty years her junior. The prince himself, physically run-down and obese, juggled his vast commands with love affairs and wild extravagance (famously giving parties in which diamonds were served on spoons for dessert while he wandered about half-naked under his dressing gown). His reunion with Catherine was the meeting of two mighty potentates. To celebrate, Potemkin gave a huge party at the neoclassical Taurida Palace in Petersburg. There, as Paul’s sons, the two imperial grandsons (one of whom, Alexander, was later to vanquish Napoleon), danced together, Potemkin fell to his knees with tears pouring down his face to thank Catherine. She kissed his forehead and helped him rise to his feet.

Two months later the fifty-two-year-old Potemkin left Petersburg for the last time. In Jassy, he caught a fever. Her worried letters pursued him as he was borne in pain across the steppes, as if trying to flee his own physical collapse. “My paroxysms continue for a third day. I’ve lost all strength and don’t know when the end will be,” he wrote on September 1791. And, later, “Beloved matushka, my not seeing you makes it even harder for me to live.” “My true friend, Prince Grigory Alexandrovich. I’m so extremely worried about your illness,” she replied on September 30. “For Christ’s sake, if necessary, take what the doctors recommend….” But it was too late: “Matushka, how sick I am,” he replied on October 2, barely able to write the words. The next day, he headed onto the steppes, desperate for a breeze to cool his fever. In his last letter he wrote: “I don’t know what’s to become of me.”

On October 5, in the wild Bessarabian countryside, he ordered the carriages to stop and was carried out by his Cossacks and and placed in the arms of his favorite niece, Countess Alexandra Branicka. He was holding Catherine’s letters in his hand when he died. “Lived on gold; died on grass,” one of the Cossacks was heard to mutter.

On October 12, a courier in black and covered in dust arrived at the Winter Palace to deliver the bad news. “A terrible, crushing blow struck me,” Catherine told her friend Baron Grimm. “A courier brought me the mournful news that my pupil, my friend, one might say my idol, Prince Potemkin-Tavrichesky has died.” “Nothing will ever be the same,” she is reported to have said. “It is impossible to replace him since another person like him would first have to be born….” Catherine never recovered.


That of course was not the end of the story. It has taken two hundred years for their letters to appear. Why? For a long time, both Catherine and Potemkin were victims of their own success. Their flamboyance and sexual freedom made them into historical jokes. Potemkin particularly was the victim of anti-Catherinian propaganda, of anti-Russian slurs, of sexual sniggers and Victorian primness, and, later, of Soviet puritanism. His enemies managed to belittle his vast achievements, inventing the phrase “Potemkin village” to describe the fake villages he was said to have set up like an eighteenth-century film set to deceive the Empress and her guests during the 1787 visit to the Crimea. Byron called him the “spoiled child of the night” and this sort of description stuck. Even one of the most reputable Cambridge University historians could write that he “lacked self-confidence anywhere outside the bedroom.”

The destiny of their political and erotic correspondence testifies to its explosive quality. Catherine’s imperial successors in the Romanov dynasty hated Potemkin and were embarrassed by the sexual impropriety of his relations with Catherine. The letters were suppressed until the reign of Nicholas II when, in 1907, some were published in a censored edition. After 1917, an edition was planned but it lapsed when in the early Thirties Stalin took control of historical scholarship and began to promote Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great as model rulers. In fact, however, Stalin admired Prince Potemkin. While researching my most recent book, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, I talked to Stalin’s son-in-law, Yury Zhdanov, himself a top official and son of Stalin’s heir apparent, Andrei Zhdanov. When I presented this nonagenarian professor with my biography of Potemkin,* Zhdanov recalled a day when Stalin, Sergei Kirov, his father, and himself were sitting outdoors near the Black Sea discussing history: “What was the genius of Catherine the Great?” asked Stalin and replied: “Her greatness lay in her choice of…Prince Potemkin…to govern the State.”

Some of the letters between Catherine and Potemkin were smuggled out of Russia and published in an inaccurate edition in Paris in 1934. Silence followed for sixty years. But in the Soviet archives during the Eighties and Nineties, a first-rate historian named Viacheslav Lopatin was laboring to gather together the more than one thousand letters that survive. In 1997, Lopatin published his masterpiece in Russian: Catherine II and G.A. Potemkin: Their Personal Correspondence, 1769–1791. In the West, scholarly perestroika had begun earlier: in 1981, the great scholar Isabel de Madariaga published her seminal work, Russia in the Age of Catherine the Great, which rehabilitated Catherine as a great statesman, instead of as a sexual joke. There, describing Catherine and Potemkin’s partnership, she wrote that he deserved a full-scale biography. Madariaga and Lopatin both inspired me to write the first real biography of Potemkin and his partnership with Catherine, which, I hope, has done something to rehabilitate him as one of the great statesmen of the eighteenth century, destroying forever the libel of the “Potemkin villages.”

Yet the letters remained only in Russian, and Douglas Smith has performed a great service by selecting and publishing a wonderfully readable collection that is beautifully translated and shrewdly edited. It is hard to exaggerate how entertaining and poignant these letters are, while Smith’s edition is also vitally important for understanding Catherine’s regime and the creation of the Russian Empire.

During the first months of Vladimir Putin’s presidency, I was secretly approached by a top Kremlin official who met me in a London hotel and told me that a most elevated personage, who could not be named, was casting about for historical models for the Russian state and wondered if I thought Potemkin, with his mixture of humanitarianism and authoritarianism, might be a useful basis for a twenty-first-century Russian president. He asked me to write a memorandum on the subject, which I did. I heard nothing further. But my impression is that in the former Soviet Union today as well as in the West, there is widening agreement that no one personifies the enigmas of Russia quite as vividly as Potemkin. The imperial partnership of Catherine and Potemkin, brilliantly revealed in these letters, has long been overlooked, but these two remarkable, contradictory, and often lovable characters left a powerful empire that would have the potential to defeat Napoleonic France and become the arbiter of Europe.

This Issue

February 24, 2005