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
- Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57