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Prince of Princes: The life of Potemkin by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Prince of Princes: The life of Potemkin
Simon Sebag Montefiore

Prince of Princes: The life of Potemkin
Simon Sebag Montefiore
Phoenix Press
London 2000

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It is perhaps surprising that Prince Grigory Potemkin has not more often come under the magnifying glass of biographical scholarship. His name has been assimilated into contemporary parlance in a sense that has come to be associated with the Russian nation itself. He has become the embodiment of the brilliant and imposing facade, masking the squalor and dilapidation within, the rotten apple that has become of his old Empire. This has particularly been the case with the often referred to and little understood ‘Potemkin villages’. The name of Potemkin has become legend, even having a titular role in the Revolution that was to scar Russia for 74 years. Like most legend he is rarely understood and has become couched in a mythology that only serves to further blur this most unique figure.

The impressive scholarship of Simon Sebag Montefiore is at its best in cutting through the significant mythology that surrounds the most serene prince. He is quick in despatching the considerable sexual innuendo and cliché that has become received wisdom in portraits of Potemkin and will be familiar to anyone who has studied any Russian history. For much of the book he manages to keep discussion of the influence Potemkin wielded at court outside the bedroom door, an achievement in its own right.

This scholarly achievement is despite the fact that, in deconstructing the Prince’s early life, Montefiore has to rely largely on the spurious accounts of figures such as Saint Jean and Georg von Helbig – figures that the author freely admits to being ‘myth-writers’. While the ambiguity of his subject’s early life is deftly handled by Montefiore and his account littered with caveats, it merely serves as a background to his later and more impressive rise to the very top of the Imperial hierarchy. The position of power held by Potemkin is almost unfathomable in the modern context of democratic control and the cult of checks and balances. It is likely that this is the reason his power has seemed to dilute with each re-telling and criticism, often founded on envious portrayals released after the Prince’s death, colours many accounts. Montefiore falls into no such evidentiary traps.

It is the analysis of the Prince’s position as favourite to Catherine II that many readers will find most enlightening. This fiery duumvirate ruled Russia like none had before and have since. Indeed, their destinies are so deeply intertwined that this tome serves almost as well as treatment of Europe’s most formidable Empress since Elizabeth I. Catherine the Great comes across as passionate as she was calculating, as regal as she was disarmingly humble. The Empress was an enigma to rival the man whom, the author convincingly argues, she secretly married in 1774.

The chapters dealing with the Prince’s southern ambitions and his ‘Greek project’ are truly engaging. It was this dedicated classicist, so inspired by the prospect of the conquest of Constantinople (Tsargrad in Russian mythology) in the name of the ‘Third Rome’ that would influence nearly two centuries of Russian Messianism. His role in the recasting Russian foreign policy, most acutely in relations with Prussia, has often been obscured and unfairly underestimated and Montefiore has gone some way to redressing the balance. With such original and incisive research into these spheres of Potemkin’s influence it is unfortunate that his Caucasian exploits are left somewhat untouched.

While some specialists may quarrel with Montefiore’s interpretation of the consequences of the 1783 treaty of Georievsk, his forensic eye and readable style place Montefiore among biography’s top names. In focusing on an under-exploited and highly intriguing figure, Montefiore has done what biography should do – produce an engaging and learned volume that highlights gaps which could be filled by future scholarship. In doing so, Simon Sebag Montefiore has produced perhaps the best treatment of Prince Potemkin in any language since Adamczyk’s 1936 work.

Reviewed by Michael Redman


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