Monday, 2 August 2021

A conversation with Simon Sebag Montefiore #History @simonmontefiore @AspectsHistory

Catherine the Great and Potemkin
The Imperial Love Affair
By Simon Sebag Montefiore 

Publication Date: 2021
Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicholson
Page Length: 640 Pages
Genre: Historical Biography

'One of the great love stories of history, in a league with Napoleon and Josephine, and Antony and Cleopatra ... Excellent, with dazzling mastery of detail and literary flair' Economist

It was history's most successful political partnership - as sensual and fiery as it was creative and visionary. Catherine the Great was a woman of notorious passion and imperial ambition. Prince Potemkin - wildly flamboyant and sublimely talented - was the love of her life and her co-ruler.

Together they seized Ukraine and Crimea, defining the Russian empire to this day. Their affair was so tumultuous that they negotiated an arrangement to share power, leaving Potemkin free to love his beautiful nieces, and Catherine her young male favourites. But these 'twin souls' never stopped loving each other.

Drawing on their intimate letters and vast research, Simon Sebag Montefiore's enthralling, widely acclaimed biography restores these imperial partners to their rightful place as titans of their age.

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One of history's great couples - and love affairs - the story of Catherine and Potemkin is one of power, passion and politics - of both amorous and military conquests. Can you remember what first attracted you to the project?

I think the clue is the words of the question: the partnership of two such gifted individuals, a man and a woman, of great talent is fascinating. Their love affair itself was passionate and turbulent and devoted and romantic. It far outstrips the better-known partnership of Mark Antony and Cleopatra. Or Evita and Peron. Or Napoleon and Josephine. And we are lucky that we have the correspondence. We have thousands of letters. A remarkable archive of letters that vary from one-line erotic messages to 40-page policy discussions on war and peace. Their political partnership ranks highly too. One thinks of Augustus and Agrippa. Henry VIII and Wolsey or Cromwell. Wilhelm and Bismarck. Metternich and Franz. Louis and Richelieu. But these rarely involve a woman. And one is usually far superior to the other. What is remarkable here is that the two both possessed rare political acumen. At Cambridge, I was studying Enlightened Despotism, brilliantly taught by professors like Beales and Blanning. Frederick the Great and Joseph II were much better understood than Catherine. But that led me to the remarkable works of Isabel de Madariaga. I noticed that Potemkin had a role far larger than powerful ministers like Kaunitz. Frederick and Joseph were obsessive control freaks who did everything themselves. Catherine and Potemkin were different but no one had examined their partnership. I planned to write a biography of Potemkin – after I had done one of Stalin. But it did not work out that way. I spent a lot of time in the Caucasus and Ukraine after the fall of the Soviet Union and both were regions where Potemkin had conquered or finessed Russian conquest and expansion. Then I became even more interested in his career… And I was so lucky that no one had thought of the idea. The archives were often unread and untouched for decades – sometimes centuries; the letters were extraordinary. The 18th century is always fun anyway but they lived on a majestic, indeed sultanic scale. And it became my first book, my favourite…and I wrote to the great British expert on Catherine – Professor de Madariaga – a very formidable and stern empress amongst historians – who generously read my book, corrected it, reprimanded me for many mistakes and infelicities, and then taught me to write history books. We became friends and I am always grateful to her. As I edit my books, I hear her voice instructing me… I was very lucky to know her. It is all thanks to her.

There are plenty of similarities between the two figures. They were both ambitious , sexually promiscuous, well-read, keen to expand Russia's influence and empire, willing to experience different cultures. What do you think was at the heart of their attraction to each other?

The heart of their attraction was their similar ambitions and passions and acumen. Someone said of them – ‘no wonder they fell in love, they are exactly the same.’ They called each other ‘twin souls.’ But they also shared what today we would call ‘sexual chemistry’ and sexual appetites that matched one another. There were great differences too: she was orderly, tidy, cautious, thoughtful, humourless. He was funny, fearless, exuberant, flamboyant and eccentric, but he had political imagination and a gift for great visions. Part of the attraction was that she realized he would help her develop visions for Russian expansion and then get things done for her. There were things – commanding armies in the field – that women could not do. But she realized he was the sort of man who would demand a share of government and hence she delayed taking him as a lover until she was in a desperate crisis… But there were problems in their sexual romantic relationship. She – having had no family life for a long time and a miserable marriage – craved a constant companion; he wanted to conquer empires and rule nations. To their credit they worked out a very sensitive and unique way of doing both which is described in the book.

*Catherine II (Catherine the Great) empress regnant of All Russia from 1762 until 1796 – the country's longest-ruling female leader.

*Prince Grigory Aleksandrovich Potemkin-Tauricheski.

Can you tell us about Catherine and/or Potemkin's view of the English or British? There is a sense that although Catherine wanted to forge closer ties with Great Britain, she kept them at arm's length in other ways, being wary of too close an alliance.

Catherine and Potemkin were fanatical Anglophiles: they thought England was the most civilized country in the world and they read everything about England. They wanted to know British grandees, English and Scottish. They wanted an English fleet. They wanted English gardeners for their English gardens. They wanted English advisors, admirals, generals, even philosophers. English painters, jewellers, architects. They loved hanging out with English people even when they were dodgy grifters, adventurers and mountebanks. But they were cautious politically because their ambitions directly threatened Poland and therefore the Baltic where Britain had interests in naval supplies, and even more so they threatened the Ottoman Empire where Britain had good relations for all sorts of reasons. They sympathized but rather revelled in the British humiliation in the American Colonies: they offered George III a Russian army to crush the American rebels! And they exploited British distraction in America to grab Crimea. When they stormed Ochakov and seized land around the Black Sea from the Ottomans, Pitt the Younger was determined to stop them and this led to a standoff that nearly led to war – the first crisis between Russia and Britain. So an alliance never quite made sense.

Read the interview in full over on Aspects of History. 

Aspects of History: Book Club 

Simon Sebag Montefiore is a bestselling writer whose books have been published in forty-eight languages and who has won prizes for both his history and novels. He is the author of the acclaimed Moscow Trilogy of novels SASHENKA, RED SKY AT NOON and ONE NIGHT IN WINTER (published in French as La Cercle Poushkine and in Italian as L’Amore ai Tempi Della Neve). ONE NIGHT IN WINTER won the Political Novel of the Year Prize (UK) and was longlisted for the Orwell Prize (UK). CATHERINE THE GREAT AND POTEMKIN was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson, Duff Cooper, and Marsh Biography Prizes. STALIN: THE COURT OF THE RED TSAR won the History Book of the Year Prize at the British Book Awards. YOUNG STALIN won the Costa Biography Award (UK), the LA Times Book Prize for Biography (US), Le Grand Prix de la Biographie Politique (France) and the Kreisky Prize for Political Literature (Austria). JERUSALEM: THE BIOGRAPHY was number one non-fiction SUNDAY TIMES bestseller and a global bestseller and won The Book of the Year Prize from the Jewish Book Council (US). It also won the Wen Jin Prize in China awarded by the National Library of China, and to date the book has sold almost 600,000 copies in Chinese. THE ROMANOVS, 1613–1918 has been a bestseller all over the world including being a NEW YORK TIMES top ten bestseller, and won Lupicaia del Terriccio Literature Prize (Italy). His latest book is VOICES OF HISTORY: SPEECHES THAT CHANGED THE WORLD.

He is the author of the series of childrens’ books (with Santa Montefiore) ROYAL RABBITS OF LONDON. All of his books are now being optioned and developed for either films or TV drama series.

He has written and presented five BBC TV series on Jerusalem, Rome, Istanbul (‘Byzantium: a tale of three cities’), Spain (‘Blood and Gold’) and Vienna, all available from

He read history at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge University, where he received his Doctorate of Philosophy (PhD). A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and Visiting Professor of Humanities at the University of Buckingham, he lives in London.

Dr Montefiore regularly lectures around the world on history, Russia and the Middle East, and on subjects such as leadership and revolution.

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* Author photo credit: Marcus Leoni / O Globo

* Prince Grigory Aleksandrovich Potemkin-Tauricheski: Wikipedia

* Catherine II (Catherine the Great) empress regnant of All Russia from 1762 until 1796 – the country's longest-ruling female leader: Wikipedia

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