Over two weeks ago, Ken wrote:
Time for a new feature at Popehat: the Book of the Week. Each Thursday one of us will link to a book that we recommend, or one that we’ve heard of that we want to read.
So much for that, but it isn't a bad idea. As a couple of folks here know I spent some time in Russia and have a fascination with the country. I've always read a lot of history. Consequently, I read a lot of Russian history.
Most of it I wouldn't recommend to a general audience, but Simon Montefiore's Potemkin: Catherine the Great's Imperial Partner, recently back in print and which I just finished, is an exception. Montefiore is best known for the recent Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, which took on the ambitious task of the private life of one of history's monsters, but missed the forest for the trees. It was like reading Hitler's love poems to Geli Raubal.
Grigory Potemkin, the first minister (and possibly husband) of Catherine the Great in the late 18th century, is an altogether more worthy subject for Montefiore's intimately personal style of biography, a man whose private life was almost as interesting as the public. Today, the name Potemkin is best known for an Eisenstein film about a mutinous battleship crew and for the phrase "Potemkin Village," meaning a false front put up to hide the fact that not much is there. (That phrase was coined, libelously, by Potemkin's enemies after his death to diminish his founding, almost overnight, of the very real cities of Odessa and Sevastopol, which at least I can confirm is real because I've been there.)
Potemkin rose from dirt poor country aristocrat to perhaps the most powerful man in the world, in his day, on the strength of two assets: a mind of genius, and a personality sufficient to attract the love of Catherine the Great, no slouch herself, who held on to him as friend and statesman long after their intimate relationship ended. He conquered the Turks, founded and designed cities, ran the government, outmanuevered the French, Prussians, and British, crushed internal rebellions, and led Catherine's armies, all while maintaining a reputation as a scholar and even an early ecumenicalist, keeping an entourage of friends who included Orthodox bishops, Sunni clerics, and Catholic priests. Great men from Jeremy Bentham to the Prince de Ligne, who knew Napoleon and Washington, called him the most remarkable man they ever met. Posthumous admirers included Pushkin and Stalin.
Montefiore, in addition to his biographical talents, is a fine prose stylist. If you're interested in reading of a life and history not well known in the west, I recommend this book highly.