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. Like Richard III, Grigori Aleksandrovich may be best known from portrayals by his political enemies. The story of his Potemkin villages may poss ibly be a fabrication; if so, the legend is more powerful than the fact.

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 a 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 ations believe 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 (Shaw's spel 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 part?

S Shaw went on to admit that ambassadors found Potemkin to be the ablest man in Russia. Other writers call him brilliant, moody, noble, mean, arrogant, insecure, incapable of loyalty. He was described as entertaining, morose, 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 Stradavarius.

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. Entering Moscow University, he excelled in his stu dies, won a gold medal for his theological treatises, and seemed destined for a career as a priest. But 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 the Royal Horseguards.

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 herself empress.

One day while Peter was away from the court Sophie Fredericke Auguste, now called Catherine, dressed in the uniform of a colonel of the Guards and set out to review the troops. At the beginning of the ceremony Potemkin, now 22 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 beautiful) didn't forget the incident, or the dashing officer.

Peter and Catherine's marriage was an unhappy one and when he alienated important court factions and w as overthrown by the Imperial Guards on July 9, 1762, his wife (widow within a few days) was placed on the throne.

With a friend in the highest of places, Grigori began quickly making his way up in the ranks. A two-rank leap to Quartermaster was accompanied by a gift of 10,000 rubles. He saw service in Russia's first war with Turkey, winning decorations for bravery. In 1774, now Lieutenant General Potemkin 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 unrecognizable. 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 became infected. Making no effort to relieve the condition he ended up losing the eye, but refused to wear a patch or cover the empty socket. Blaming his by-now extravagant and dissolute life sty le, he retreated to a monastery where he remained for nearly two years before returning to duty. Now, in 1774, he too had grown corpulent. A medallion of the period shows a jowly, double-chinned profile. A sneer curls the fleshy lower lip.

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. Eventually ro mance would cool to boredom and other lovers would appear, but friendship, respect, and mutual admiration would always remain.

We're skimming through and past a lot of history, including the threatening Pugachev rebellion that would in many ways prefigure the French Revolution 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 English colonies in North America, named John Paul Jones, to Russia, and send him home again when his advice was ignored after a few initial victories.

The two lovers (quite possibly man and w ife) were unusually enlightened 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.

And now we come to the Potemkin villages. In 1787 Potemkin arranged a ceremonial tou r by Catherine and her entourage through Russia's southern provinces, designed to awe Russia's enemies. He had gained renown as a creator of great public spectacles. Spending large fortunes on overblown extravaganzas that would rival those of France's Sun King, he now began planning Catherine's Crimean "royal progress". Preparations had begun several years earlier when Catherine's instructions went out to provincial governors along the route, exhorting them to display to the empress and her ento urage, "inhabitants 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, most of the new buil ding ceased. But the propaganda trek impressed those it was designed to impress - the Turks. That and eventual military successes would turn the tide of the war. The Crimea would be annexed.

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 scholars discount such historic huggermugger, but the Potemkin villages live on in our culture.

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 Aleksandrovich Potemkin 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.

Jan 7
France passes a patent law, based on that of the U. S.

Jan 26
W olfgang Amadeus Mozart's opera Cosi Fan Tutte premieres at Vienna's Burgtheater.

Mar 2
Theologian John Wesley, 87, dies. ** All French royal guilds and monopolies are abolished.

Robert Fulton paints a portrai t of Viscount William Courteneay, in Devonshire,

Jun 8
Lord William Grenville is named England's Foreign Secretary. Henry Dundas is named Home Secretary.

Jun 20
The French royal family escapes from Paris.

Jun 25
T he French royal family is seized at Varennes and returned to Paris.

Jul 17
The French National Guard suppresses an anti-royalist assembly at Paris' Champ de Mars and guns down 50 protesters.

Sep 5
Composer Jakob Liebmann Beer ( Giacomo Meyerbeer) is born in Germany.

Sep 6
Mozart's opera La Clemenza di Tito premieres at the Prague Theater, with a libretto based on Pierre Corneille's Cinna.

Sep 14
France's Louis XVI swears allegiance to t he new Constitution.

Sep 30
Mozart's opera Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) premieres in Vienna.

Oct 1
France becomes a constitutional monarchy as the Legislative Assembly opens.

Thomas Pinck ney is appointed as U. S. minister to England.

Dec 5
Johann Chrysotom Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart dies of typhus.

Dec 15
Jefferson explains to British Minister Hammond England's violations of the Treaty of Paris.

J acques-Louis David's drawing The Tennis Court Oath.

Wolf Rock beacon, atop a 20-foot wrought-iron mast, is erected, off Land's End.

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 Company.

Poland adopts a constitution.

The Old Statistical Account is published. ** A Highlander dies at the age of 104.

The British navy frigate Pandora, carrying four Bounty mutineers on board, sinksoff of Australia's Cape York Peninsula.


Our URL of the month is for the Russian Chronology 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 Empire, Nuclear Smuggling Incidents, Russian Literature, and Stravinsky timelines (among others).

(more detailed versions available)

An article the length of the above must necessarily present an extremely rough sketch of a
co mplex period. For greater detail take a look in some of the following sources. I relied on the Almedingen, Erickson and Haslip books when writing Steak or Sizzle?

As alway s, I hope you've enjoyed this issue of Odds & Ends.

Feel free to contact me at dminor@popmail.eznet.net with any comments or questions.

David Minor

© 1997 David Minor/Eagles Byte