This was a magnificent book.
The title is deceptive. This is a biography of Potemkin. Catherine II of Russia was his lover and his monarch and his political ally and a crucial part of his life but this book is about him and she is important background.
Potemkin was minor nobility but highly intelligent, giant in stature, extraordinarily handsome (they called him Alcibiades at school, presumably more for his physical beauty than at that time for his generalship), and extrememly energetic. He therefore stood out (literally). As a young guardsman he caught the eye of the new Empress who had succeeded her husband (first in a coup, then after having him murdered) and became her 'favourite'. Even after their affair ended (she had many lovers) he worked with her to annex lands from Poland and from Turkey; it is Potemkin who made the Crimea Russian.
But what marks this book out as an epic is the extraordinarily romantic nature of the tale. It starts with his death: the dying Prince asks to be taken out by his Cossacks into the countryside and 'dies on grass having lived on gold' as an eyewitness allegedly said. But it includes a secret marriage between Potemkin and Catherine, a vast chorus of lovers, many of them his nieces, a Cossack rebellion led by a Pretender and the most extraordinary cast of characters.
Walk on parts are accorded to Napoleon (who may have tried to enlist as a young soldier in Potemkin's armies), John Howard of prison reform (and Bedford) fame, George Psalmanazar, Casanova, the allegedly 2000 year old Comte de Saint-Germain, and Count Cagliostro, the quack and charlatan who later became involved in the Diamond Necklace affair which damaged the reputation of Marie Antoinette. There are also John Paul Jones, the father of the US Navy , who also fought for Potemkin, Francisco de Miranda who fought with Bolivar to liberate Venezuela, the wonderful Duchess of Kingston, a good time girl who got rich quick from marrying into nobility and then toured European palaces, scandalously and a crew of assorted noblewomen of dubious origins who were no better than the should have been (although even the true bred aristocracy seemed to have no compunction about hopping into bed with either Potemkin or Catherine and cuckolding their complacent spouses; the Countess of Bruce had a reputation as the lady who tried out Catherine's later favourites although once Catherine caught her in flagrante with Catherine's current boyfriend). A key colleague of Potemkin's was his engineer Samuel Bentham, brother of Jeremy, the philosopher.
I particularly loved Joseph II, Kaiser of Austro-Hungary, who travelled through Russia under the oncognito Comte de Falkenstein. He called himself 'first clerk of the state' and loved to travel with only one or two companions and bed down on a military mattress in a flea-bitten roadside inn. There weren't many in Russia so Potemkin turned mansions along the route into taverns, a sort of echo of the plot of She Stoops to Conquer that had been first performed seven years previously.
I absolutely loved this big book. It is big and occasionally heavy but the verve of the narrative and the dash of these wonderful characters make it every bit as good a read as the author's brilliant Young Stalin and incomparably better than his Jerusalem.
Must be read! July 2014; 557 words
- I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57