Odds & Ends
A Newsletter of Eagles Byte Historical Research
May 1997 No. 20
Steak or Sizzle?
Prince Grigori Aleksandrovich Potemkin suffers from bad press today.
Richard III, Grigori Aleksandrovich may be best known from portrayals
his political enemies. The story of his Potemkin villages may poss ibly
a fabrication; if so, the legend is more powerful than the
Writing from the Republican National Convention in the
August 15, 1996,
issue of Newsday, syndicated columnist Martin Schram
refers to the journalists
and the delegates gath ered in San Diego as,
"a Potemkin village, a
poster backdrop." David Fox, writing for
Reuters on January 10th of
that year accused China of building
"Potemkin orphanages"and quoted
Robin Munro, of the Human Rights
group Watch/Asia, who
called a press visit
to an state-run orphanage there as, "a sham...just propaganda...Anything
unsightly was moved, anything embarrassing was moved." President Clinton's
Health Reform package was called the "health-financing equivalent of
Potemkin village--much of it for show and little of substance" according
to U. S. News & World Report.
During World War II the Nazis would play out a macabre variation with their
model towns designed to make international relief organiz
that Jews were happily resettled in bright, shiny new settlements, complete
with self-government, nurseries for children and symphony orchestras for
the enlightenment of Germany's loved and respected Jewish brethren.
Who was this P
otemkin and what were these villages? We'll take a look at
the man first.
Most of the verbal portraits of Potemkin are anything but flattering. Iconoclast
playwright George Bernard Shaw took particular delight in pillorying Patiomkin
ling) in his play Great Catherine. He called the Russian statesman,
"a violent, brutal barbarian, an upstart despot of the most intolerable
and dangerous type, ugly, lazy and disgusting in his personal habits."
What actor wouldn't kill for that
Shaw went on to admit that ambassadors found Potemkin to be the ablest man
in Russia. Other writers call him brilliant, moody, noble, mean,
insecure, incapable of loyalty. He was described as
fearsomely cleve r, physically intimidating. He was
all of these, and more.
A showman to rival P. T. Barnum, he was a master
of humbug and pokazukha,
a Russian term for a strutting display used to
deceive or impress. Perhaps
his greatest asset for many years was his
abili ty to play Catherine II as
a great violinist would play a
Grigori Aleksandrovich Potemkin was born in
Smolensk Province on September
13, 1739, to Aleksandr Potemkin, a
provincial army officer and nobleman,
considered poor, with only
four hundred serfs. When Aleksandr was about
to marry the future mother
of Grigori, it was discovered he already had
a wife, but that one retired
into a convent. Darya and Potemkin were married
and Grigori was born into
a proper and legitimate household.
When the father
died, seven years after Potemkin's birth, he left a widow
and five children
behind. Unable to afford a foreign tutor for the boy,
Darya sent him off
to study with the village deacon, where learned to read
and to appreciate
fine music. The
year after his father's death he was packed off to Moscow
to live with a
godfather who had court connections. A bright student he
soon displayed a
flair for languages and an intense interest in theology.
University, he excelled in his stu dies, won a gold medal
theological treatises, and seemed destined for a career as a priest.
destiny had other plans.
A university-related visit to the court
of the Empress Elizabeth at St.
Petersburg opened Potemkin's eyes to the
roya l stage on which he would one
day play a central role. But the
immediate result was his enlistment into
Another provincial player had entered the stage a
short while earlier -
Sophie Fredericke Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst. Th e
young lady of the German
lesser nobility, born in Poland, had been brought
to Russia as a bride for
Grand Duke Peter of Holstein, heir to the Russian
throne, to which he ascended
in 1762 as Peter III. Catherine declared
while Peter was away from the court Sophie Fredericke Auguste, now
Catherine, dressed in the uniform of a colonel of the Guards and
to review the troops. At the beginning of the ceremony Potemkin,
and reputed to be the most handsome
man in Russia, rode up to her.
He pointed out that her uniform was
incomplete without a sword knot, then
offered her his own. Amused by his
audacity she accepted the decoration.
Potemkin returned to his place in
the Horseguards' line and Catherine went
o n with the review. But the
slim, handsome empress (she could never be considered
forget the incident, or the dashing officer.
Catherine's marriage was an unhappy one and when he alienated
court factions and w as overthrown by the Imperial Guards on July
his wife (widow within a few days) was placed on the throne.
With a friend in the highest of places, Grigori began quickly
way up in the ranks. A two-rank leap to Quartermaster was
a gift of 10,000 rubles. He saw service in Russia's first
war with Turkey,
winning decorations for bravery. In 1774, now Lieutenant
was recalled to St. Petersburg from service on the
Danube, and quickly became
a court favo rite.
Both empress and
general had changed in appearance. Catherine, although
always a striking
figure, was becoming quite stout. But Potemkin was almost
In an age when personal hygiene was non-existent, Potemkin
would have been
considered a slob. At some point after 1762 one of his eyes
infected. Making no effort to relieve the condition he ended up losing
eye, but refused to wear a patch or cover the empty socket. Blaming
by-now extravagant and dissolute life sty le, he retreated to a
where he remained for nearly two years before returning to duty.
1774, he too had grown corpulent. A medallion of the period shows
double-chinned profile. A sneer curls the fleshy lower
But a lack of personal beauty didn't dull the attraction
either one felt
toward the other. If the concept of cloning existed in
that era, there might
have been suspicions of the pair. Questing minds,
eccentric and outrageous
behavior, a gift for mimicry (Potemk in would
send Catherine into fits of
laughter with his dead-on impression of her),
all made for a perfect match.
At this point Potemkin becomes emperor in
all but name. And if two large,
pale bodies amorously sporting naked in a
Turkish bath (at a suppose dly
secret location) are not the stuff of
Hollywood passion plays, the two lovers
could not care less. There would
be rocky periods to come in their relationship,
usually manipulated by
Potemkin - the consummate showman - for maximum effect.
mance would cool to boredom and other lovers would appear,
respect, and mutual admiration would always remain.
skimming through and past a lot of history, including the
Pugachev rebellion that would in many ways prefigure the
with its bloody excesses and revealed class hatred. Also
the second war
of expansion to the south to wrest the Crimea from Turkey -
a war that would
drag on for several years, dispirit Potemkin as well as
Catherine's otherg enerals, bring a naval commander from the newly-freed
in North America, named John Paul Jones, to Russia, and
send him home again
when his advice was ignored after a few initial
The two lovers (quite possibly man and w ife) were
for their time, although they did nothing to
alleviate the desperate living
conditions of the serfs. Potemkin, now the
most powerful man in Russia,
was tolerant toward religious dissidents,
protected national minorities,
in troduced a more humane conception of
discipline into the army, promoted
colonization, founded Kherson and
several other new towns, and created a
Black Sea fleet.
we come to the Potemkin villages. In 1787 Potemkin arranged a
tou r by Catherine and her entourage through Russia's southern
designed to awe Russia's enemies. He had gained renown as a
creator of great
public spectacles. Spending large fortunes on overblown
would rival those of France's Sun
King, he now began planning Catherine's
progress". Preparations had begun several years
Catherine's instructions went out to provincial governors along
exhorting them to display to the empress and her ento urage,
dressed in their best...all houses to be
whitewashed...pigs removed from
the highways...no dead dogs and cats to be
seen in any street...No drunkard
to be seen standing outside inn-doors or
be heard using improper language."B eggars and cripples were to be
moved out of sight. A massive cleanup campaign
was launched. New
construction was launched, but most of it hadn't progressed
very far when
the tour was suddenly under way. And after Catherine had passed,
the new buil ding ceased. But the propaganda trek impressed those
designed to impress - the Turks. That and eventual military
would turn the tide of the war. The Crimea would be
But anti-Potemkin propaganda also succeeded. There's a
maxim in advertising
circles that the objective is to sell the sizzle not
the steak, i.e. the
impression not the reality. Among the proponents of
such tactics, Potemkin
must be considered a Creator. Legend now has it
that the wily Russian minister's
inten tion was to put one over on his
empress and fool her into thinking
she was seeing a prosperous and happy
land. Potemkin supposedly was one
day ahead of Catherine all the time,
throwing up false-front buildings with
no dimension, shoving well-scrubbed
peas ants and serfs in front of the facades
to wave at the royal party,
then, after the entourage had passed, giving
the human props back their
rags, tearing down the fake scenery and leapfrogging
it to the next
location, where the charade was repeated. Many o f today's
discount such historic huggermugger, but the Potemkin villages
live on in
And Potemkin? In 1791 he was sent to Moldavia to
represent Russia during
Turkish negotiations. He became ill and, convinced
he was dying, se t out
for St. Petersburg. Two hours into the journey he
had the driver halt the
carriage and declared he wanted to die on the
ground rather in the vehicle.
He was placed on a mattress just off the
roadway. A thick autumn mist isolated
his party from the p lains of
Moldavia, and there on Oct. 5th, Prince Grigori
died. A week later the news reached Catherine -
his Matouchka. She had to
be bled three times before she could summon the
strength to break the news
to Potemkin's troops.
This month we'll take a look at
European history in 1791, the
year of Potemkin's death.
France passes a patent law, based on that of the U. S.
W olfgang Amadeus Mozart's opera Cosi Fan Tutte premieres at
Theologian John Wesley, 87,
dies. ** All French royal guilds and monopolies
Robert Fulton paints a portrai t of
Viscount William Courteneay, in Devonshire,
William Grenville is named England's Foreign Secretary. Henry Dundas
named Home Secretary.
The French royal family escapes
T he French royal family is seized at
Varennes and returned to Paris.
The French National
Guard suppresses an anti-royalist assembly at Paris'
Champ de Mars and
guns down 50 protesters.
Composer Jakob Liebmann Beer
( Giacomo Meyerbeer) is born in Germany.
opera La Clemenza di Tito premieres at the Prague Theater,
libretto based on Pierre Corneille's Cinna.
France's Louis XVI swears allegiance to t he new
Mozart's opera Die Zauberflöte
(The Magic Flute) premieres in
becomes a constitutional monarchy as the Legislative Assembly
Thomas Pinck ney is appointed as U. S.
minister to England.
Johann Chrysotom Wolfgang Amadeus
Mozart dies of typhus.
Jefferson explains to British
Minister Hammond England's violations of the
J acques-Louis David's drawing The Tennis Court
Wolf Rock beacon, atop a 20-foot
wrought-iron mast, is erected, off
Bristol, England, brewer Frederick Harvey
builds a rectory at Blackheath
H ouse, Londonderry. ** Dublin's Beresford
Place is named for First Commissioner
of the Revenue John Beresford.
Robert Fulton exhibits at the Royal Academy. ** Naval
officer Fountain North
buys Admiral's House, constructs Admiral's Walk , a
quarterdeck, on the roof.
** Henry Dundas proposes changes to the internal
structure of the East India
Poland adopts a
The Old Statistical Account is
published. ** A Highlander dies at
the age of
The British navy frigate Pandora,
carrying four Bounty mutineers
on board, sinksoff of Australia's
Cape York Peninsula.
PEARL OF AN
Our URL of the month is
for the Russian
page hosted by Bucknell University.
The page contains a set
of timelines for Russian History, broken down into
three periods - Pre
Petrine (860 -1689), Petrine (1689-1916), and Soviet
and Post-Soviet (1917
to the present). There's also a link to other timelines
for such special
subjects as Brezhnev, Chekhov, the Crimean War, the Mongol
Smuggling Incidents, Russian Literature, and Stravinsky
EB SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY
An article the
length of the above must necessarily present an
extremely rough sketch of
detailed versions available)
co mplex period. For greater detail take a look in some of the
sources. I relied on the Almedingen, Erickson and Haslip books
Steak or Sizzle?
- Almedingen, E.
M. - Catherine: Empress of Russia (New York, Dod d,
- Anderson, Roger C. - Naval Wars in the Levant 1559-1853
- Erickson, Carolly - Great Catherine (New York,
- Haslip, Joan - Catherine the Great: A Biography (New
- Kennet, Audrey and Victor - The Catles of
Leningrad (London, 1973)
- Molloy, Fitzgerald - The Russian Court in the
Eighteenth Century (London,
- Morison, Samuel Eliot - John Paul
Jones (New York, Atlantic Monthly
- Polotsoff, Alexander -
The Fav ourites of Catherine the Great (London,
Gladys - Catherine the Great and the Expansion of Russia
- Shaw, George Bernard - Compete Plays with Prefaces, Volume IV
Dodd, Mead, 1962)
- Soloveytchik, Georg e - Potemkin, A
Picture of Catherine's Russia (London,
- Storch, Henry - Pictures
of St. Petersburg (London, 1801)
- Thorn, J. O. & Collocott, T. C.,
eds. - Chambers Biographical Dictionary
As alway s, I hope you've enjoyed this
issue of Odds & Ends.
Feel free to contact me at
firstname.lastname@example.org with any comments or
© 1997 David Minor/Eagles Byte