Grigory Orlov - Biography

Grigory Orlov was a Russian statesman and favorite of Catherine the Great who organized the coup to place her on the Russian throne and subsequently helped the Empress rule the country.

Grigory Orlov was born on October 17, 1734, into a Russian noble family which produced several distinguished statesmen, diplomats, and soldiers. Grigory Orlov senior served the Tsar and achieved the rank of State Adviser. In the early 1740’s, he was one of the vice-governors of the city of Novgorod. He married late and his wife was three times his junior. They had 9 sons, but only 5 of them survived. The five brothers each went on to great service and deeds in the Russian court; Grigory became the paramour of Catherine II, Aleksey would command the Russian fleet in the war against the Turks, Vladimir became a senator, and Fyodor and Ivan were made chamberlains after the coup which enthroned Catherine II while killing her husband, Peter III.

Grigory started his love affair with Catherine while she was only Grand Duchess. The details of Grigory Orlov’s childhood have escaped history, but it is known he was educated at the cadet corps in St. Petersburg. In 1749, he began his military career in the Seven Years' War of 1756–1763, a global military conflict that affected a number of countries including Russia. Orlov was an officer in the artillery division, while two of his brothers, Aleksey and Vladimir, were merely common soldiers in the guards. While serving in the capital as an artillery officer, he caught the fancy of the Empress-to-be Catherine, and led the conspiracy to overthrow and murder her husband Peter III in 1762.

Orlov was a very strong and handsome man, always popular with women. There was one incident involving an affair between Orlov and Princess Kourakina, the mistress of his colleague Pyotr Shuvalov. The conflict between the two men ended in a duel, in which Orlov killed Shuvalov. The whole series of events was followed by a great scandal.

Rumors of this incident reached the ears of Catherine, and out of curiosity she wished to meet the youth whose great exploits in love were the subject of public conversation. Orlov was secretly introduced to the Grand Duchess, and when they became lovers, she unveiled to him her ambitious plans to take the throne from her husband. Orlov was resolved to make Catherine his sole sovereign and started gathering a team of supporters.

Peter III, Catherine’s husband had been on the throne for a short time and was a failure as a ruler and a husband. One example of his neglect of Catherine was that months after their wedding, she was still a virgin. In her later years, she would more than compensate for this sour beginning of her personal life.

As soon as Empress Catherine II saw herself firmly seated on the throne, she rewarded the participants of the revolt by lavishing titles and money on them. Grigory Orlov was promoted to the rank of Major-General and was awarded the title of count. He was her favorite and first counselor. Apart from his good looks and brevity, Orlov possessed neither the advantages of a noble birth nor a good education.

Even according to Catherine II, who had always been more inclined to exaggerate the merits of her lovers, Orlov was poorly educated and his knowledge of French was so limited that he couldn’t read in it and didn’t understand poetry. However, Catherine considered him to be “an amazing creature, endowed with beauty, a wonderful soul and intelligence”.

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