As you may know if you follow me on Twitter, I’ve been yelling about the Hulu original series The Great for a while now. (Not in a complimentary way.) Which is why I’ve spent the past month researching Catherine the Great out of rage and spite. And I’m glad I did, because it reminded me of one of Russian history’s great dirtbags:
Grigori Potemkin, Nightmare Boyfriend Extraordinaire
Before I get accused of slut-shaming the long-dead, let me clarify: I have nothing against royal favorites of any gender. In fact, I respect the hustle. If you can get power in court by making yourself delightful to be around, by all means do. I hate neither the player nor the game.
(Unless the royal favorite is summoning demons and drinking potions made of ground-up babies, but as always, that’s a special case.)
No, I just hate Grigori Potemkin in particular, and let me tell you why.
Born in 1739, Grigori Potemkin was the only son in a noble family with six children, so it probably comes as no surprise that he was a spoiled, silly child. He went on to study at the University of Moscow, got bored, stopped going to class, got expelled, and decided a better use of his time was riding around on an army horse stabbing people.
By the early 1760s, it became time for every usurper’s favorite activity: an armed coup!
Potemkin joined up with a group of other Russian soldiers and statesmen, including Grigori Orlov and Nikita Panin, to overthrow the ineffectual Tsar Peter III and instate his schemey wife, Catherine II, as supreme empress of Russia.
That Don’t Empress Me Much
Catherine II—known to modern audiences as Catherine the Great—got on with the business of ruling and pretended to be sad when the Orlov brothers murdered her husband six months after the coup (the first of many bones I have to pick with the Hulu show, but again, that is a rant for another day!).
Potemkin, meanwhile, decided to make himself useful. He got appointed to a few administrative positions at court, then went on to serve in the army during the First Turkish War in 1769.
Catherine had a type, specifically “hot competent young men in uniform,” and she was getting bored with her current favorite anyway, so Potemkin’s flash of glory was perfectly timed. She wrote him a sexy letter asking him to come to court, and this is how I imagine Potemkin responded:
However, when Potemkin got there, Catherine didn’t immediately drop everything she was doing and start hooking up with him. Maybe because, I don’t know, she was running an empire &c. Whatever the case, Potemkin got steamed.
And when Grigori Potemkin gets steamed, this man gets dramatic.
The dialogue that follows is a dramatic interpretation of real events.
Potemkin: Alas! I am reduced to despair!
Catherine: *puts down pile of important government documents* Jesus fuck what now Grigori I am trying to legislate
Potemkin: *drapes one hand dramatically over his brow* I am in love with a goddess who loves me not in return! Ah, woe!
Catherine: I am begging you literally to wait thirty seconds
Potemkin: Alas! If I am not belovèd, what is there for me but a celibate life in a monastery, away from the whips and scorns of love?
Catherine: Wait what
Potemkin: *already halfway to a monastery* Farewell, cruel temptress!
Potemkin left court and entered the Alexander Nevsky Monastery, where he dressed in a monk’s robes, started growing a beard, and spent his days in dramatic whiny prayer, certain that Catherine would demand his return to court if he was just fucking annoying enough about it.
And the most infuriating part is that it worked.
Catherine called Potemkin back and immediately made him the new royal favorite, a position he occupied in one form or another until his death.
But was he satisfied with being the empress’s lover?
Of course not! He also decided to be the most annoying man on the face of the earth!
Potemkin wrote Catherine endless harassing letters doubting her love for him, accusing her of infidelities, bitching every time she spoke to another man. Just every toxic modern dating behavior you can think of, Potemkin tried it. Catherine kept promoting him in the army, giving him palaces and land, and Potemkin just kept whining.
Catherine put up with his bullshit, for reasons I can’t fathom, and some people think she and Potemkin may have been secretly married in about 1774. Who’s to say? They definitely banged either way, so who cares.
Time went on, and over the next two years, Potemkin took on more power in the everyday business of the empire. Catherine made him the Prince of the Holy Roman Empire, a title that is ridiculous as he was not descended from royalty or Catholic or anywhere near Rome, but whatever.
At one point, Catherine got tired of Potemkin being a whiny little pissant (finally) and took on another lover, but then Potemkin got whiny again and basically ran the new guy out of town.
(Potemkin didn’t exactly have a leg to stand on as far as fidelity goes, since he was most likely sleeping with at least two if not three of his own nieces.)
In the 1780s, Potemkin sailed off to annex the Crimea for Russia. (If that sounds familiar, it’s because Russian history is an endless Groundhog’s Day loop of Russia annexing the Crimea.) He spent nine years violently colonizing the people living near the Black Sea, built a bunch of forts, founded some new cities, and then invited Catherine to come on a big expensive sail down the river to look at all of it, like it was one of those Viking River Cruise PBS commercials.
Potemkin was such a loudmouthed asshole about all this that he sparked a Second Turkish War, since Turkey wasn’t thrilled by the whole “uncomfortably close military conquest” thing. Naturally, Catherine made Potemkin the supreme commander in chief during this war.
Naturally, he was a whiny asshole about it the entire time.
Potemkin spent a wild amount of time and money building himself an underground military HQ decorated with jewels and staffed with servants in powdered wigs. When an officer standing just behind him got whacked by a cannonball, he allegedly said “Children, I forbid you to get up for me and wantonly expose yourself to Turkish bullets,” which is just a real dickish thing to say to people who just watched a man get cannonballed.
The Russian army defeated Turkey at the end of 1790, and Potemkin came back to St. Petersburg, where he whined at Catherine one last time. Then, he started traveling back south again. Which is where things got bad.
“Just Leave Me in a Ditch to Die”
On his journey south, Potemkin came down with a serious case of malaria, which he refused treatment for, because he sucked. His doctors recommended a bland diet to maintain his health: this fuckboi ate an entire ham and four chickens for dinner, then got raging drunk.
Unsurprisingly, he…did not get better.
Potemkin wrote a letter to Catherine that basically said “excuse me love I’m dying, please send me the fanciest bathrobe you have, and also if Mozart himself isn’t too busy do you think you could send him too, I would like to hear sweet music before I perish.”
Catherine sent the bathrobe but not the Mozart.
Unfortunately the bathrobe didn’t have magic healing powers, and Potemkin got steadily worse. As he felt himself dying, he dramatically yelled for his servants to stop the carriage. Then he got out, spread an expensive carpet on the dirty ground next to the road, laid down on it, covered himself with the empress’s fancy bathrobe, and died.
RIP Potemkin. You died like you lived: extra, annoying, and a general inconvenience to those around you. May we all die so on brand.
Until next time, friends, I’ll leave you with my best dating advice: ask yourself what Grigori Potemkin would do, and then do the exact opposite of that.