A life of Prince Potemkin that starts out as an artful pot-boiler, then turns into a possessing diplomatic history of Potemkin’s role in Russia’s last great push for empire.
So often caricatured as an arrogant and indolent debauchée, Potemkin gets his record set straight: recklessly indulgent, yes, but a force of nature, relentlessly ambitious, inspired and quixotic, the guiding figure of Catherine II’s rule. From the moment Potemkin first takes the Empress’s notice to his death on the Bessarabian steppe, Montefiore dogs his heels, building the case for Potemkin as an equal of Peter the Great: expanding the empire, building the Black Sea Fleet, taking the Crimea and establishing the likes of Sebastopol and Odessa. In particular, he demonstrates how Potemkin and Catherine’s evolving relationship, from lovers to what amounts to co-rulers, was an alliance remarkable for both its intimacy and statecraft. After Potemkin left Catherine’s bed for good, he devised an imperial ménage à trois, supplying the Empresses with suitable lovers but always remaining the real man of the household, a perfect arrangement for the two willful, dominating personalities. Potemkin’s “scientific longing for knowledge, mercantile enthusiasm, and purely imperial aggrandizement” shines through, as do his abilities as a soldier and a military tactician. Montefiore keeps readers’ interest piqued with a fascination of minutiae, for instance a terrific day-in-the-life chapter of the subject when he was in his 40s, or his development of a silk industry on his Crimean mulberry plantations, or a thorough debunking of the “Potemkin Village” malarky, how he might have lost his eye, how he most certainly took his nieces as mistresses. That he ruled “like an emperor” from the River Bug to the Caspian, from the Caucasus almost to Kiev, is evidence enough of his mark on history.
A landmark biography. Montefiore goes a long way toward rescuing Potemkin from his promiscuous action-figure reputation by justifiably rubbing a fair share of Catherine’s greatness off onto, in Jeremy Bentham’s words, the Prince of Princes.