DEATH ON THE STEPPES
`Prince of Princes'
Jeremy Bentham on Prince Potemkin
Whose bed - the earth: whose roof - the azure
Whose halls the wilderness round?
Are you not fame and pleasure's offspring
Oh splendid prince of Crimea?
Have you not from the heights of honors
Been suddenly midst empty steppes downed?
Gavrili Derzhavin, The Waterfall
Shortly before noon on 5 October 1791, the slow cavalcade of carriages, attended by liveried footmen and a squadron of Cossacks in the uniform of the Black Sea Host, stopped halfway down a dirt track on a desolate hillside in the midst of the Bessarabian steppe. It was a strange place for the procession of a great man to rest: there was no tavern in sight, not even a peasant's hovel. The big sleeping carriage, pulled by eight horses, halted first. The others - there were probably four in all - slowed down and stopped alongside the first on the grass as the footmen and cavalry escort ran to see what was happening. The passengers threw open their carriage doors. When they heard the despair in their master's voice, they hurried towards his carriage.
`That's enough!' said Prince Potemkin. `That's enough! There is no point in going on now.' Inside the sleeping carriage, there were three harassed doctors and a slim countess with high cheekbones and auburn hair, all crowded round the Prince. He was sweating and groaning. The doctors summoned the Cossacks to move their massive patient. `Take me out of the carriage...' Potemkin ordered. Everyone jumped when he commanded, and he had commanded virtually everything in Russia for a long time. Cossacks and generals gathered round the open door and slowly, gently began to bear out the stricken giant.
The Countess accompanied him out of the carriage, holding his hand, dabbing his hot brow as tears streamed down her face with its small retrousse nose and full mouth. A couple of p0Moldavian peasants who tended cattle on the nearby steppe ambled over to watch. His bare feet came first, then his legs and his half-open dressing gown - though this vision in itself was not unusual. Potemkin notoriously greeted empresses and ambassadors in bare feet and open dressing gowns. But now it was different. He still had the leonine Slavic handsomeness, the thick head of hair, once regarded as the finest in the Empire, and the sensual Grecian profile that had won him the nickname 'Alcibiades" as a young man. However, his hair was now flecked with grey and hung over his feverish forehead. He was still gigantic in stature and breadth. Everything about him was exaggerated, colossal and original, but his life of reckless indulgence and relentless ambition had bloated his body and aged his face. Like a Cyclops he had only one eye; the other was blind and damaged, giving him the appearance of a pirate. His chest was broad and hairy. Always a force of nature, he now resembled nothing so much as a magnificent animal reduced to this twitching, shivering pile of flesh.
The apparition on this wild steppe was His Most Serene Highness Prince of the Holy Roman Empire, Grigory Alexandrovich Potemkin, probably husband of the Empress of Russia, Catherine the Great, and certainly the love of her life, the best friend of the woman, the co-ruler of her Empire and the partner in her dreams. He was Prince of Taurida, Field-Marshal, Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Army, Grand Herman of the Black Sea and Ekaterinoslav Cossacks, Grand Admiral of the Black Sea and Caspian Fleets, President of the College of War, viceroy of the south, and possibly the next King of Poland, or of some other principality of his own making.
The Prince, or Serenissimus, as he was known across the Russian Empire, had ruled with Catherine 11 for nearly two decades. They had known each other for thirty years and had shared each other's lives for almost twenty. Beyond that, the Prince defied, and still defies, all categorization. Catherine noticed him as a witty young man and summoned him to be her lover at a time of crisis. When their affair ended, he remained her friend, partner and minister and became her co-Tsar. She always feared, respected and loved him - but their relationship was stormy. She called him her `Colossus', and her `tiger', her `idol', `hero', the `greatest eccentric'.' This was the `genius" who hugely increased her Empire, created Russia's Black Sea Fleet, conquered the Crimea, won the Second Turkish War and founded famed cities such as Sebastopol and Odessa. Russia had not possessed an imperial statesman of such success in both dreams and deeds since Peter the Great.
Serenissimus made his own policies - sometimes inspired, sometimes quixotic - and constructed his own world. While his power depended on his partnership with Catherine, he thought and behaved like one of the sovereign powers of Europe. Potemkin dazzled its Cabinets and Courts with his titanic achievements, erudite knowledge and exquisite taste, while simultaneously scandalizing them with his arrogance and debauchery, indolence and luxury. While hating him for his power and inconsistency, even his enemies acclaimed his intelligence and creativity.
Now this barefoot Prince half staggered - and was half carried by his Cossacks across the grass. This was a remote and spectacular spot, not even on the main road between Jassy, in today's Rumania, and Kishnev, in today's Republic of Moldova. In those days, this was the territory of the Ottoman Sultan, conquered by Potemkin. Even today it is hard to find, but in 200 years it has hardly changed. The spot where they laid Potemkin was a little plateau beside a steep stone lane whence one could see far in every direction. The countryside to the right was a rolling green valley rising in a multitude of green, bushy mounds into the distance, covered in the now almost vanished high grass of the steppes. To the left, forested hills fell away into the mist. Straight ahead, Potemkin's entourage would have seen the lane go down and then rise up a higher hill covered in dark. trees and thick bushes, disappearing down the valley. Potemkin, who loved to drive his carriage at night through the rain,' had called a stop in a place of the wildest and most beautiful natural drama.'
His entourage could only have added to it. The confection of the exotic and the civilized in Potemkin's companions that day reflected his contradictions: `Prince Potemkin is the emblem of the immense Russian Empire,' wrote the Prince de Ligne, who knew him well, `he too is composed of deserts and goldmines.'' His Court - for he was almost royal, though Catherine teasingly called it his `bassecour', halfway between a royal court and a farmyard' emerged on to the steppe.
Many of his attendants were already weeping. The Countess, the only woman present, wore the long-sleeved flowing Russian robes favoured by her friend the Empress, but her stockings and shoes were the finest of French fashion, ordered from Paris by Serenissimus himself. Her travelling jewellery was made up of priceless diamonds from Potemkin's unrivalled collection. Then there were generals and counts in tailcoats and uniforms with sashes and medals and tricorn hats that would not have been remarkable at Horse-Guards in London or any eighteenth-century court, but there was also a sprinkling of Cossack atamans, Oriental princelings, Moldavian boyars, renegade Ottoman pashas, servants, clerks, common soldiers - and the bishops, rabbis, fakirs and mullahs whose company Potemkin most enjoyed. Nothing relaxed him as much as a discussion on Byzantine theology, the customs of some Eastern tribe such as the Bashkirs, or Palladian architecture, Dutch painting, Italian music, English Gardens . . .
li0The bishops sported the flowing robes of Orthodoxy, the rabbis the tangled ringlets of Judaism, the Ottoman renegades the turbans, pantaloons and slippers of the Sublime Porte. The Moldavians, Orthodox subjects of the Ottoman Sultan, wore bejewelled kaftans and high hats encircled with fur and encrusted with rubies, the ordinary Russian soldiers the 'Potemkin' hats, coats, soft boots and buckskin trousers designed for their ease by the Prince himself. Lastly the Cossacks, most of them Boat Cossacks known as Zaporogians, had fierce moustaches and shaven heads except for a tuft on top leading down the back in a long ponytail, like characters from Last o f the Mohicans, and brandished short curved daggers, engraved pistols and their special long lances. They watched sadly, for Potemkin adored the Cossacks.
The woman was Potemkin's shrewd and haughty niece, Countess Alexandra Branicka, aged thirty-seven and a formidable political force in her own right. Potemkin's love affairs with the Empress and a brazen parade of noblewomen and courtesans had shocked even French courtiers who remembered Louis XV's Versailles. Had he really made all five of his legendarily beautiful nieces into his mistresses? Did he love Countess Branicka the most of all?
The Countess ordered them to place a rich Persian rug on the grass. Then she let them lower Prince Potemkin gently on to it. `I want to die in the field,' he said as they settled him there. He had spent the previous fifteen years travelling as fast across Russia's vastness as any man in the eighteenth century: `a trail of sparks marks his swift journey', wrote the poet Gavrili Derzhavin in his ode to Potemkin, The Waterfall. So, appropriately for a man of perpetual movement, who barely lived in his innumerable palaces, Serenissimus added that he did not want to die in a carriage.y He wanted to sleep out on the steppe.
That morning, Potemkin asked his beloved Cossacks to build him a makeshift tent of their lances, covered with blankets and furs. It was a characteristically Potemkinian idea, as if the purity of a little Cossack camp would cure him of all his suffering.
The anxious doctors, a Frenchman and two Russians, gathered round the prone Prince and the attentive Countess, but there was little they could do. Catherine and Potemkin thought doctors made better players at the card table than healers at the bedside. The Empress joked that her Scottish doctor finished off most of his patients with his habitual panacea for every ailment a weakening barrage of emetics and bleedings. The doctors were afraid that they would be blamed if the Prince perished, because accusations of poisoning were frequently whispered at the Russian Court. Yet the eccentric Potemkin had been a thoroughly uncooperative patient, opening all the windows, having eau-de-Cologne poured on his head, consuming whole salted geese from Hamburg with gallons of wine - and now setting off on this tormented journey across the steppes.
The Prince was dressed in a rich silk dressing gown, lined with fur, sent to him days earlier by the Empress all the way from distant St Petersburg, almost two thousand versts. Its inside pockets bulged with bundles of the Empress's secret letters in which she consulted her partner, gossiped with her friend and decided the policies of her Empire. She destroyed most of his letters, but we are grateful that he romantically kept many of hers in that sentimental pocket next to his heart.
Twenty years of these letters reveal an equal and amazingly successful partnership of two statesmen and lovers that was startling in its modernity, touching in its ordinary intimacy and impressive in its statecraft. Their love affair and political alliance was unequalled in history by Antony and Cleopatra, Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, Napoleon and Josephine, because it was as remarkable for its achievements as for its romance, as endearing for its humanity as for its power. Like everything to do with Potemkin, his life with Catherine was crisscrossed with mysteries: were they secretly married? Did they conceive a child together? Did they really share power? Is it true that they agreed to remain partners while indulging themselves with a string of other lovers? Did Potemkin pimp for the Empress, procuring her young favourites, and did she help him seduce his nieces and turn the Imperial Palace into his own family harem?
As his illness ebbed and flowed, his travels were pursued by Catherine's caring, wifely notes, as she sent dressing gowns and fur coats for him to wear, scolded him for eating too much or not taking his medicines, begged him to rest and recover, and prayed to God not to take her beloved. He wept as he read them.
At this very moment, the Empress's couriers were galloping in two directions across Russia, changing their exhausted horses at imperial post-houses. They came from St Petersburg, bearing Catherine's latest letter to the Prince, and from here in Moldavia they bore his latest to her. It had been so for a long time - and they were always longing to receive the freshest news of the other. But now the letters were sadder.
`My dear friend, Prince Grigory Alexandrovich,' she wrote on 3 October, `I received your letters of the 25th and 27th today a few hours ago and I confess that I am extremely worried by them .. . I pray God that He gives health back to you soon.' She was not worried when she wrote this, because it usually took ten days for letters to reach the capital from the south, though it could be done in seven, hell for leather. Ten days before, Potemkin appeared to have recovered - hence Catherine's calmness. But a few days earlier on 30 September, before his health seemed to improve, her letters were almost frantic. `My worry about your sickness knows no bounds,' she had written. `For Christ's sake, if necessary, take whatever the doctors think might ease your condition. I beg God to give you your energy and health back as soon as possible. Goodbye my friend ... I'm sending you a fur coat ...'. This was just sound and fury - for, while the coat was sent on earlier, neither of the letters reached him in time.
Somewhere in the 2,000 versts that separated the two of them, the couriers must have crossed paths. Catherine would not have been so optimistic if she had read Potemkin's letter, written on 4 October, the day before, as he set out. `Matushka [Little Mother] Most Merciful Lady,' he dictated to his secretary, `I have no energy left to suffer my torments. The only escape is to leave this town and I have ordered them to carry me to Nikolaev. I do not know what will become of me. Most faithful and grateful subject.' This was written in the secretary's hand but pathetically, at the bottom of the letter, Potemkin scrawled in a weak, angular and jumping hand: `The only escape is to leave.' It was unsigned.
The last batch of Catherine's letters to reach him had arrived the day before in the pouch of Potemkin's fastest courier, Brigadier Bauer, the devoted adjutant whom he often sent galloping to Paris to bring back silk stockings, to Astrakhan for sterlet soup, to Petersburg for oysters, to Moscow to bring back a dancer or a chessplayer, to Milan for a sheet of music, a virtuoso violinist or a wagon of perfumes. So often and so far had Bauer travelled on Potemkin's whim that he jokingly requested this for his epitaph: `Cy git Bauer sous ce rocher, Fouette, cocher!' ('Here lies Bauer under this stone, Coachman, drive on.!'
As they gathered round him on the steppe, the officials and courtiers would have reflected on the implications of this scene .for Europe, for their Empress, for the unfinished war with the Turks, for the possibilities of action against revolutionary France and defiant Poland. Potemkin's armies and fleets had conquered huge tracts of Ottoman territory around the Black Sea and in today's Rumania: now the Sultan's Grand Vizier hoped to negotiate a peace with him. The Courts of Europe from the port-sodden young First Lord of the Treasury, William Pitt, in London, who had failed to halt Potemkin's war, to the hypochondriacal old Chancellor, Prince Wenzel von Kaunitz, in Vienna - carefully followed Potemkin's illness.
His schemes could change the map of the Continent. Potemkin juggled crowns like a clown in a circus. Would this mercurial visionary make himself a king? Or was he more powerful as he was - consort of the Empress of all the Russias? If he was crowned, would it be as king of Dacia, in modern Rumania, or King of Poland, where his sprawling estates already made him a feudal magnate? Would he save Poland, or partition it? Even as he lay on the steppe, Polish potentates were gathering secretly to await his mysterious orders.
These questions would be answered by the outcome of this desperate rush from the fever-stricken city of Jassy to the new town of Nikolaev, inland from the Black Sea, to which the sick man wished to be borne. Nikolaev was his last city. He had founded many, like the hero whose achievements he had emulated, Peter the Great. Potemkin designed each city, treating it lovingly like a cherished mistress or a treasured work of art. Nikolaev (now in Ukraine) was a naval and military base, on the cool banks of the Bug, where he had built himself a Moldavian-Turkish-style palace, low by the river, cooled by a steady breeze that would ease his fever. This was a long journey for a dying man.