«THE PHILOSOPHICAL AGE ALMANAC 16 EUROPEAN IDENTITY AND RUSSIAN MENTALITY A reader for the participants of the 4th International Summer School in the History of Ideas ...»
This exceptional personality ought to be manifested outwardly, and contemporaries were looking for signs of it. Thus, upon meeting the famous American admiral John Paul Jones, Andrew Swinton, an English traveler (who, of course, strongly disliked the «American pirate») noticed that Jones had «nothing remarkable in his figure. I should not have noticed him, had he not been pointed out to me.» Prince Nassau-Siegen, on the other hand, «has a something about him which immediately interests you. It is not necessary to be informed that he is a man of distinction.» Particular ways of expressing this exceptionality follow from the nature of Potemkin’s status. First, Potemkin created an impression of extraordinary physical strength and endurance. His former gardener by the name of Gould told an English traveler that Potemkin «was uncommonly hardy; and used to sleep in a The Political and Legal Writings of Denis Fonvizin. Translated with Notes and an Introduction by Walter Gleason, (Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis Publishers, 1985), p. 191.
Andrew Swinton, Travels into Norway, Denmark, and Russia, in the Years 1788, 1789, 1790, and 1791, (London: Printed for G.G.J. and J. Robinson, 1792), p. 310.
298 I. Fedyukin sleep in a latticed sort of Tent.»1 An episode recorded by James Harris, the British envoy, is very significant. According to him, Potemkin is a very extraordinary man, who every day affords me new matter of amazement and surprise. Our conversation took place immediately on his coming off a journey of three thousand versts, which he had performed in sixteen days, during which period he had slept only three times; and besides visiting several estates, and every church he came near, he had been exposed to all the delays and tedious ceremonies of the military and civil honors, which the Empress had ordered should be bestowed on him wherever he passed, yet he did not bear the smallest appearance of fatigue, either in body or mind, and on our separating I was certainly the more exhausted of the two. It should be noted that Harris did not accompany Potemkin on this trip. This Englishmen, moreover, is a generally quit reliable source, so we have no reasons to suggest that Harris made the entire story up; we must assume that it was Potemkin himself who provided the diplomat with the description of his exploits. Stories conveying a similar message are numerous enough – the most famous among them is, perhaps, Pushkin’s anecdote about the silver bathtub, analyzed by Lotman. In this story General Levashov and Prince Dolgorukii are invited to «fill» the beautiful bathtub with unspecified bodily liquid implying that its rightful owner, Potemkin, could easily perform this superhuman task. Potemkin’s virility is, of course, a variation of this theme. His numerous adventures with women were not a secret; moreover, they were deliberately publicized. According to witnesses, during the Turkish war in 1780s, Potemkin tried to seduce the wife of one of his subordinates. Finally, they were left alone in his quarters, and at a certain moment, on Potemkin’s sign, a nearby battery saluted to his success with cannon fire.4 Parallel to the image of extreme physical strength and sexual energy runs the image of fabulous wealth — one needs only to be reminded the episode from his famous 1791 reception where the guests were served with the plates full of precious stones, or the luxury of his southern head-quarters5. Extravagant spending became no less a part of Potemkin’s legend than his physical strength. He is reported to send couriers to bring a pair of shoes from Paris for the new object of his courtship or a special sort of pickles John Parkinson, A Tour of Russia, p. 27.
Diaries and Correspondence of James Harris, First Earl of Malmesbury, Containing His Account of His Missions at the Court of Madrid, to Frederick the Great, Catherine the Second, and the Hague; and His Special Mission to Berlin, Brunswick, and the French Republic. Edited by His Grandson, the Third Earl. Second edition. Vol. I, (London: Richard Bentley, 1845), p. 447.
Pushkin… Lotman… Engelgardt or Pushkin???
For description of his life in the South see Engelgardt, Memoirs.
from a village thousands of miles away, or order a sturgeon soup at a cost of 300 rubles per serving.
All this behavior was contributing to creation of the image of Potemkin’s extraordinary power he was trying to project. This power is truly exceptional not because of its scope, but because it runs across all the service hierarchies and puts him above all the rules. His power was not restrained by institutional framework, and Potemkin made a point of emphasizing «his conception of the total and personal nature of his authority.»1 This authority, of course, stemmed from his intimate relationship with Catherine. The nature of this relationship, obviously, could not be stated openly, yet it was hardly a secret. Potemkin was described as personally chosen by the monarch and granted special and extraordinary favors. In one of his earlier odes V. Petrov claims that «The [reflected] light of the monarch’s favors that falls upon you, / Reaches far and wide.»2 In another ode by Petrov, Apollo says to the author that he has selected Potemkin as his representative in the North.3 It is clear in both examples that Potemkin is described as the chosen one, unique by the virtue of proximity to the monarch.
In the same time, he is viewed as an intermediary between the monarch and other «mortals.» In other words, the favors bestowed at him oblige Potemkin to transmit them further down the social ladder. The monarch took personal interest in him and elevated him to power in spite of his ultimate imperfection (all subjects are imperfect, and that is why they are granted favors, not deserve them), so in a similar way Potemkin is expected to take personal interest in and protect the fallible ones around him.
That is why Potemkin is often described as particularly benevolent toward the lower ranks. Contemporaries noted his unusual «sensitivity» and «unwillingness to shed blood» (manifested in Potemkin’s attempt to avoid storming Ochakov). The demonstrated concern for the welfare of his soldiers is expressed in changes in the military uniform introduced by Potemkin. Marc Raeff mentions that «popular or soldiers» songs portray him as «fatherly military hero.» In L. Engelgardt’s memoirs an «old grenadier» is asked to compare Potemkin to Rumiantsev a few days after the former’s death: «The late His Excellency [Potemkin] was like a father to us, he made our service easier, cared about all our needs; so to say, we were his spoiled children … But under our father, Raeff, «In the Imperial Manner,» p. [V. Petrov], Oda Ego Svetlosti kniaziu Grigoriiu Aleksandrovichu Potemkinu, (Sankt-Petersburg: v tipografiii Veibrekhta i Shora, 1777).