Grigory Potyomkin was a favorite and lover of Catherine the Great, a statesman, and an adviser to the Empress. For a time he was the power behind the throne of the Russian Empire, and his conquests as a military general increased Russia’s territory by a third.
Grigory Potyomkin was born in 1739 in the village of Chizhovо near Smolensk in the west of Russia. Potyomkin’s father didn’t boast a big fortune; he retired after having served several years as a captain in one of the infantry regiments.
Grigory didn’t receive a very good education; his father died while Grigory was still very young and left his family with no means for survival. Grigory’s uncle took pity on him and brought him to Moscow, where the boy was put in the same school as his cousin.
Potyomkin was an exceptionally bright and exceptionally lazy student. At one point he expressed a desire to join the clergy, and even tried to pursue it by singing in a church choir. However, in 1757 Empress Elizabeth founded the first ever University in Moscow for children of the nobility, and this is where Grigory was admitted at the age of twelve. He studied well, and his knowledge of Greek and Latin was so deep he took great pleasure in reading ancient texts in the original. He also enjoyed Russian poetry.
However, Potyomkin’s piquant wit and his violent temper made his teachers think him more fit for the active and risky pursuits of war than for peaceful church life. Eventually, he was expelled from the University for missing classes and moved to St. Petersburg to pursue a military career.
Potyomkin’s relatives in Moscow recommended him to their acquaintances in high positions, so it didn’t take him long to become a cornet in a cavalry regiment. In Petersburg, Potyomkin was introduced to a number of young men, some of whom belonged to powerful families. This was another step toward making his fortune and acquiring the power he had longed for.
He soon obtained a lieutenancy and became acquainted with the prominent noble family of the Orlovs. There were five boys in the family, each of them making great careers. Grigory Orlov was the eldest and became Catherine the Great’s favorite and lover, essentially ruling Russia on her behalf; Aleksey commanded the Russian fleet in the war against the Turks; Vladimir became a senator, and Fyodor and Ivan were made chamberlains.
The Orlov brothers were the main force behind the coup that overthrew Peter III and helped his wife Catherine the Great ascend the Russian throne. The 23 year old Potyomkin was in the regiment which participated in the coup, and this is how he met Catherine II for the first time. Grigory Orlov (who was already having an affair with the new Empress) discovered in Potyomkin a soul mate and an ally, and Potyomkin now frequently saw Catherine II and admired her beauty. As soon as Catherine came to power, she granted generous rewards to the principal actors in the revolt against her husband. Being one of the members of the coup, Potyomkin was made a colonel and a gentleman of the bed-chambers. He was immediately sent to Stockholm to inform The Russian ambassador Count Ostermann of the revolution that had taken place in Petersburg.
Upon his return from Sweden, Potyomkin used every opportunity to penetrate Catherine’s circle. Nature had endowed Potyomkin with a masculine and noble figure. He had polished manners and was a man of great intelligence. These qualities had not gone unnoticed by the Empress, and he received such flattering receptions from his sovereign that he thought himself authorized to repay her every attention.
Potyomkin was given his first command with the Izmailovsky Cavalry in 1766. The following year he was sent to Moscow, where he served within the Legislative Commission that was to draft a new law code for Russia.
Moved from military to court service, he escorted delegates to the Commission sent by various Asiatic tribesmen. It was then that Potyomkin developed his lifelong passion for the eastern inhabitants of the Russian Empire.
In 1768, Potyomkin was made a Chamberlain, but still was relatively unknown at court. He left his post to join the Russian army as a volunteer to fight in the First Russo-Turkish War (1768-74).
Potyomkin's first post upon returning to his military career was an assignment to the staff of Field Marshal Dmitry Golitsyn, and then to that of his replacement General Nikolay Rumyantsev. Because of his court connections, Rumyantsev made Potyomkin his aide-de-camp, which promised Potyomkin both security and easy promotions. Potyomkin, however, desired a chance to show himself off as a soldier, and appealed directly to the Empress for a post at the front – a request she granted.
As an active cavalry commander during the war, he distinguished himself in battles and contributed to the brilliant victories that earned Rumyantsev the rank of field marshal. Though still a junior commander, Potyomkin's role in routing the Turkish army earned him a promotion to lieutenant-general and the coveted awards of the Orders of St. Anna and St. George. By this time he had been recognized as one of the best cavalry commanders in Russia and once again came to the attention of Catherine the Great, who had recently ended her long affair with Grigory Orlov. In late 1774 the Empress reassigned Potyomkin to her personal regimen, and he returned to St. Petersburg.
Catherine II was 44 when Grigory Potyomkin, ten years her junior, became her lover. In the permissive atmosphere of the 18th century Russian court, Potyomkin's relationship with the Empress was by no means a secret. Potyomkin escorted the Empress openly and participated in all public affairs, gradually acquiring significant influence over her mind.
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