Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Catherine the Great and Potemkin

SWF, 44, CEO of large multinational corporation, smart, witty, loves horseback riding, palace coups, and expanding into foreign territories, seeks SWM, must be fleshy, charismatic, and willing to take orders. War heroes always welcome. Applicant should have 'enormous assets.' Must like hot saunas, long walks, talking late into the night about rights of man, and the greatness of 'Mother Russia.' No puny weaklings or drunken sadists need apply. Successful applicant will receive many rewards, including thousands of rubles, country estates, and titles.

By the time Catherine the Great (1729-1796) met Grigori Potemkin in 1772, she had been Empress of Russia for 9 years. Born Sophia Augusta Frederica of Anhalt-Zerbst, Catherine had been chosen to be her cousin Karl Ulrich's (the future Peter III) bride at the age of 15, probably because the Empress Elizabeth felt that she would be biddable and grateful for having been rescued from osbcurity.

Married at 16, Catherine's marriage was unconsummated for seven years. Her husband Peter, a puny, ineffectual weakling, who preferred playing with toy soldiers, chose one ugly hunch-backed mistress after another, making Catherine the laughing stock of the Russian court. Finally the Empress Elizabeth threw up her hands in frustration and suggested through intermediaries that Catherine take a lover, going on the theory that a child by any father was better than none. Catherine was seduced by ladies man Sergei Salytkov who became the father of her son, the future Tsar Paul.

Catherine soon took other lovers, including Stanislaus Poniaktowski, the future King of Poland, but it was Gregory Orlov, and his brothers who helped Catherine seize the throne. Catherine bore a son by Orlov, but he soon began cheating on her, throwing his weight around, and sulking when she spent too much time ruling her vast Empire. She was grateful to him for putting her on the throne, Orlov was now boring her, and she'd replaced him with other lovers but no one had that something-something that would leave her feeling satisfied. Orlov had also betrayed her by falling in love with his young cousin. Catherine gave him her blessing along with a substantial sum, and welcomed the young woman to court.

When Potemkin (1739-1791) arrived in St. Petersburg, he was like a breath of fresh air to Catherine. He was tall, broad shoulders, fleshy with sensual lips. He wore his hair long and unpowdered, not classically handsome, he was also blind in one eye, refusing to wear an eye patch. Charismatic and intelligent, he had an enormous personality as well as an enormous, well you know what I mean (rumor has it that Catherine had a plaster cast made of her lover's appendage that was kept in the Hermitage Museum for years. However, if it existed, it is now lost. Perhaps it will turn up one day like Napoleon's penis). Women threw themselves at him, and men wanted to be like him. Catherine took one look at him and said "Mama like."

Like Orlov, Potemkin didn't come from the nobility, his father was a minor army officer. Born in the Ukraine, Potemkin studied at the University of Moscow before joining the Chevalier Guard. He'd been one of the officers who had participated in the palace coup that put Catherine firmly on the throne of Russia. On becoming reacquainted, they immediately became lovers. He urged Catherine to get rid of her current lover and focus all her attention on him. Catherine was soon besotted with her lover, nicknaming him 'Grisha.' She would leave little notes for him, some sexual and some political. "There is not a cell in my whole body that does not yearn for you, oh infidel!" read one. Another day she wrote, "Beloved, I will do as you order, should I come to your room, or will you come to mine?"

"Oh Monsieur Potemkin! By what sorcery have you managed to turn a head which is generally regarded as one of the best in Europe!" The lovers met at night in the palace sauna where they took their meals. It was here that they ate, made love, and made plans for the Empire. Catherine was so besotted with her new lover that she may even have married him in a morganatic marriage. There was precedence for it. The Empress Elizabeth married her favorite. Her correspondance supports this theory, she was soon referring to him in letters as 'my dear husband,' and signing herself 'your devoted wife.'

In Potemkin, Catherine had found her ideal lover. He had prodigious energy and intellect. Not only was he intelligent but he was also a musician, architect and a poet. He was also ambitious and it was this ambition that changed the nature of their relationship. Although Catherine had heaped more honors on her lover, even having him made a Prince, than ever Gregory Orlov received, Potemkin was not satisfied. Not even having been made a member of her secret council and a vice president of the council of war was enough. He wanted real power, but there could only be one Emperor and Catherine already had that role.

Potemkin began to act outrageously, flaunting his relationship with the Empress. He would show up at council meetings in his bathrobe, walk around without underwear, eat radishes during meetings. Despite his behavior, Catherine relied on him completely. He was her other half, her Marc Antony. They fought as often as they made lover. Of course, Potemkin's relationship with the Empress inspired jealousy and hatred among her courtiers who couldn't understand how the Empress could favor this coarse and crude giant.

Finally their differences began to pull them apart. While Catherine was extremely disciplined, going to bed early at night, spending hours working on state papers, Potemkin was erratic. He would work for many hours straight only to collapse exhausted. He'd like to work hard and to play hard. He also chafed under Catherine's constant emotional and physical demands. He would tease Catherine by refusing to make love to her, keeping her waiting for him at night, and not showing up. Catherine finally realized that in order to keep him, she would have to let him go. However, Potemkin was smart, he decided to personally choose his successor in Catherine's bed. Someone who would not replace him in the Empresse's right-hand man. Candidates were vetted by him and then taken to bed by Catherine's friend, the Countess Bruce to assess their bedroom potential. Only then were they delivered to Catherine.

Potemkin left St. Petersburg to govern various provinces for Catherine, reporting his progress to her. He still advised her but at a distance, when he came to St. Petersburg they still slept together but it was with the familiarity of old lovers. In 1783, he ended up in the Crimea, where he could play absolute ruler. He invited foreign colonists to come and take up residence, founding new cities such as Sebastopol, and Odessa. He built the Black Sea fleet which he used to defeat the Turks, adding more territory to Russia. He was an enlightened ruler who tolerated many faiths.

In the Crimea, he lived like a Sultan with a harem, walking around in loose trousers and caftans. He had a hundred and twenty piece orchestra that played at all hours of the day and night. A great showman, he would throw huge banquets, spending thousands of rubles at a time. He was known as 'Serenissimus, the Prince of Princes,' the most brilliant statesman in Russia since Peter the Great. Still, like most successful men, Potemkin grew bored. Having achieved all his ambitions, he wondered what there was left to conquer. Still he kept up a running correspondance with Catherine, giving her advice. In 1787, he invited Catherine to see the greatness that he had created out of nothing. Seeing him in his element made Catherine realize that none of her other lovers could touch Potemkin for greatness.

Potemkin died in 1791 on his way from St. Petersburg to make peace with the Turks. He never made it. He died on the side of the road, on a mattress, suffering from malarial fever and liver failure. When Catherine heard the news, she sobbed, "Whom shall I rely on now? Prince Potemkin has played me a cruel turn by dying! It is on me on whom the burden now falls."

Although Catherine would continue to have lovers up until the day she died, none stood taller than Potemkin in her life and soul. He was the great love of her life, the only love greater was her love for Russia.

Sources include:

Great Catherine - Carrolly Erickson
Sex with the Queen - Eleanor Herman, Harper Perennial, 2006
Potemkin: Catherine the Great's Imperial Partner - Simon Sebag Montefiore, Vintage Books (2005)


Ms. Lucy said...

Wow! I had never heard of this in such detail. Thanks for this really interesting post.

TammiMagee said...

Thanks, I really enjoyed reading this!

AlwaysMe said...

Thank you. I enjoyed this one, too.

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I'm glad that you enjoyed it. I've always loved Catherine the Great.

Shibishi Maruatona said...

Invigorating summary of this interesting love story! Thank you.

Princess Maria Sviatopolk-Mirski said...

I love reading about both, Prince Grigory Alexandrovich Potemkin and Catherine the Great. Never boring!
My maternal Grandmother, Princess Nadezhda Vasilievna von Engelhardt is a direct descendant of Prince Grigory
Alexandrovich Potemkin.