AoH Book Club: Simon Sebag Montefiore on Catherine the Great & Potemkin

The acclaimed historian talks about his debut, which was an immediate bestseller and lauded by many including Mick Jagger.
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Catherine the Great & Potemkin

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.

Professor Isabel de Madariaga

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.

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.

Catherine the Great

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.

Can you tell us about Catherine and/or Potemkin’s view of the English and the 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.

The Siege of Ochakov in 1788

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.

The biography was both an immediate and immense success. It could be safe to say that the book changed your life even. Can you recall how you felt when it became apparent that the title was a critical and commercial success? Do you remember where you were, for instance, when Mick Jagger endorsed the book?

Catherine the Great and Potemkin did change my life in many ways. Of course, I remember the first good review I got in the Sunday Times from Antony Beevor. I am sure every writer remembers that first good review (and the worst reviews even more!) But in Russia, the book changed my life too because Putin had just come into power and he – or his lieutenants in the Kremlin – liked the book and regarded it as pro-Russian since it did not follow the usual British habit of treating Catherine and Potemkin as a nymphomaniac and a clown. Usually, they were treated by Brits and Americans with crass sniggers. Look at the recent TV series on them.

Anyway, the Russians asked if I would be interested in working on the Stalin papers that were about to be opened and I said yes please. And that led to my next book Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar that sold in many countries… Mick Jagger talked about the book in an interview and later we discussed him making a movie of Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar. He’s a very intelligent reader and lover of history who has read widely. It was great fun discussing history and politics with him. What can I say? I can only quote his songs to say he’s a ‘man of wealth and taste.’

The argument about whether Catherine and Potemkin married may never be wholly settled. But, if they did marry, it seems they experienced that rarest of things – a relatively amicable divorce. As passionate as they were, Catherine and Potemkin were pragmatists too. Can you tell us a little more about their relationship after the heat of their affair cooled? How true is it that Potemkin was heavily involved in vetting Catherine’s lovers?

Grigory Potemkin

The love affair deteriorated when Catherine wanted more companionship on the one hand, while also appreciating Potemkin’s political advice and energy. He did not want to be a courtier but a great statesman and to do that he had to travel. This led to massive rows and tantrums and much crying by both. Amazingly, in the end they worked out a new way to keep their relationship and partnership together and yet take other lovers. It suited both since they were erotic enthusiasts and enjoyed younger paramours. It is probable they blessed this arrangement with some sort of marriage ceremony that calmed his anxieties that he would lose power. It may have been a sort of blessing though I think that it was a secret marriage. After it he effectively became her co-tsar and partner and had access to the treasury unlike any other commoner before or after.

If you were to write the book again, is there anything you’d change or add?

No book is perfect that is for sure. And every writer wishes they had done things differently. But actually, I loved writing this. The only thing I wanted to do was bring it up to date with President Putin and his annexations of Crimea and ambitions for a New Russia in Ukraine. And when they did a new edition, I was able to add this material. So, the answer is: I have added things.

How did it feel when re-visiting the story of Catherine and Potemkin for your recent book, The Romanovs? Has your view of them changed or remained the same over the years? Would you amend anything in the book, knowing what you know now? What do you think of the recent TV adaptations of the story of Catherine?

I enjoyed revisiting Catherine the Great and Potemkin for The Romanovs and it was interesting to put them in context. History is all about context, isn’t it? When I looked across the dynasty over three centuries, I realized even more how impressive a statesman Catherine was – and that, whatever you think of Potemkin, he was by far the most able minister who served the Romanovs. Again, I was able in The Romanovs to project the concept of Russian leadership across Stalin to Putin. The Romanovs are very relevant to the way Putin sees Russia and himself – as I discuss in the book. To understand Putin, you have to understand the Romanovs.

The Romanovs

As to the recent TV adaptations, all of them fall into the very chauvinistic traps of regarding Catherine and Potemkin as an enormous joke to snigger about. Why shouldn’t a highly intelligent woman with a rather modern love life be treated seriously in 2021? I hope sometime she and he are treated seriously. That would be much more interesting drama.


Given the success of Catherine and Potemkin – and your interest in the titans of history – are there any other great power couples or famous love affairs that you would be tempted to write a similar biography of?

I think Anne of Austria and Mazarin have always tempted me…but there aren’t enough letters. I have written a lot about another tsar – Alexander II and his paramour Katya – in The Romanovs. Those letters are also amazing.


Simon Sebag Montefiore is a bestselling writer whose books have been published in 48 languages and who has won prizes for both his history and novels. His other books on Russian history are: Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, Young Stalin and The Romanovs. Catherine the Great and Potemkin: The Imperial Love Affair was his first book.