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 possibly 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 gathered 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 organizations 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 Potemkin 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 spelling) 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?
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 clever, 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 ability 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 studies, 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 royal 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. The 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
on 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 was 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 favorite.
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 style, 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 (Potemkin 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 supposedly
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 romance 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 other
generals, 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 wife) 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,
introduced 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
tour 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 entourage, "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."
Beggars 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 building 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
intention 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 peasants 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 of 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, set 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 plains 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.
France passes a patent law, based on that of the U. S.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's opera Cosi Fan Tutte premieres at Vienna's
Theologian John Wesley, 87, dies. ** All French royal guilds and monopolies
Robert Fulton paints a portrait of Viscount William Courteneay, in Devonshire,
Lord William Grenville is named England's Foreign Secretary. Henry Dundas
is named Home Secretary.
The French royal family escapes from Paris.
The 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.
Mozart's opera La Clemenza di Tito premieres at the Prague Theater,
with a libretto based on Pierre Corneille's Cinna.
France's Louis XVI swears allegiance to the new Constitution.
Mozart's opera Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) premieres in
France becomes a constitutional monarchy as the Legislative Assembly opens.
Thomas Pinckney 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
Treaty of Paris.
Jacques-Louis David's drawing The Tennis Court Oath.
Wolf Rock beacon, atop a 20-foot wrought-iron mast, is erected, off Land's
Bristol, England, brewer Frederick Harvey builds a rectory at Blackheath
House, 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 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.
PEARL OF AN URL
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).
EB SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY
An article the length of the above must necessarily present an
extremely rough sketch of a
(more detailed versions available)
complex 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?
- Almedingen, E. M. - Catherine: Empress of Russia (New York, Dodd, Mead,
- Anderson, Roger C. - Naval Wars in the Levant 1559-1853 (Liverpool,
- Erickson, Carolly - Great Catherine (New York, Crown, 1994)
- Haslip, Joan - Catherine the Great: A Biography (New York, Putnam's,
- 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 Favourites of Catherine the Great (London,
- Scott-Thomson, Gladys - Catherine the Great and the Expansion of Russia
- Shaw, George Bernard - Compete Plays with Prefaces, Volume IV (New York,
Dodd, Mead, 1962)
- Soloveytchik, George - 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 always, 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