Grigori Aleksandrovich Potemkin

The Russian administrator and field marshal Grigori Aleksandrovich Potemkin (1739-1791), a favorite of Catherine the Great, is best known for his work in the economic development of southern Russia.

Grigori Potemkin the son of a minor nobleman, was born on Sept. 13, 1739, in Chizhovo, a village of western Russia. At an early age he was taken to Moscow, where his formal education began. Intelligent and alert, he did commendably well in his preparatory studies. Later, while attending the University of Moscow, he lost all interest in scholarly pursuits and became so negligent that, in 1760, he was expelled. He left Moscow then, going to St. Petersburg to serve in the Horse Guards Regiment.

Two years later Potemkin took part in the coup that placed Catherine II (the Great) on the throne. In so doing, he gained the favorable attention of the new empress, who was inclined to be very generous to her supporters. She promoted Potemkin in rank and rewarded him with both money and land. In addition, she admitted him to her small circle of friends, where his charm and vivacity easily won him acceptance. Potemkin, both ambitious and able, took advantage of every opportunity for advancement.

As a military man, Potemkin moved ahead rapidly. By the end of the Russo-Turkish War of 1768-1774, during which he fought with distinction, he had attained the high rank of lieutenant general.

Potemkin's career then took a new turn: Catherine II began an affair with him and began to treat him with the lavishness that had marked her treatment of previous lovers. She gave him vast estates, large sums of money, and high honors. She also persuaded Joseph II of Austria to make Potemkin a prince of the Holy Roman Empire. Potemkin differed from other lovers of the Empress in having not only the inclination to assume governmental responsibilities but also the ability to carry them out successfully. Consequently, since Catherine was eager to entrust him with important tasks, he soon became one of the major forces in the empire. He became also one of the richest men in Russia; but, being profligate in his habits, he often had to appeal to the Empress for funds to meet his debts.

Although Catherine ended her affair with Potemkin in 1776, she continued to respect his capabilities and to trust his judgment (even in the selection of her lovers). He therefore retained his importance in the empire and continued to serve her—as diplomat, general, and administrator. His most important service was in the posts of governor general and military head of the region including New Russia (an expanse north of the Black Sea that Russia had taken from Turkey), Azov, and Astrakhan. Potemkin's task was to make this area militarily secure and to strengthen its economy. In order to accomplish these ends, he initiated and carried out ambitious projects for attracting settlers from Russia and abroad, building cities (including Sevastopol, Kherson, Nikolaev, and Yekaterinoslav), establishing a Russian fleet on the Black Sea, and improving the military units under his command. Meanwhile, with Catherine's approval, he conquered the Crimea and added it to the area he administered. As a reward for these achievements, he was advanced to the rank of field marshal and given the title of prince of Taurida.

The many activities connected with his work in the south did not consume all of Potemkin's energies. He made frequent trips to St. Petersburg, where he advised Catherine, served on the State Council, helped to reorganize the imperial army, and acted in diplomatic negotiations.

Nevertheless, Potemkin's chief concern remained Russia's southern affairs, and he continued to maintain a dominant place in them. He faced an important test when, in 1787, Catherine named him commander in chief of the army to oppose the Turks, who had declared war on Russia. Although an able officer and a conscientious commander, Potemkin was not a strategist, and the course of his exceptionally successful career might have been altered at this time had he not been fortunate enough to have two brilliant generals, Aleksandr Suvorov and Mikhail Kutuzov, serving under him. The war was a long and hard one. By mid-1791, however, the Turks were ready to discuss peace terms.

Potemkin was selected to negotiate with the Turkish representatives. He met them in Jassy (laši) to undertake this assignment, which proved to be his last. While negotiations were still underway, he died on Oct. 5, 1791, of malaria complicated by exhaustion.

Further Reading on Grigori Aleksandrovich Potemkin

George Soloveytchik, Potemkin: A Picture of Catherine's Russia (1938), is a well-balanced biography. Another study is Jerome Dreifuss, Catherine and Potemkin: An Imperial Romance (1937). There is also extensive material on Potemkin in lan Grey, Catherine the Great: Autocrat of All Russia (1962).