Written in History: Letters That Changed the World
Catherine the Great to Prince Potemkin, c.19 March 1774
This is the letter that reveals one of the most successful romantic partnerships and political alliances in all of history. Catherine was brought to Russia as a young German princess to marry the poxy heir to the throne, Grand Duke Peter, an inadequate bully who made her life hell. She was clever, cultured, passionate, and ambitious. Desperately lonely, she was supported personally and politically by a series of lovers. When it had become clear that her husband, as Emperor Peter III, was both a disastrous tsar and a dangerous man, she overthrew him with the aid of her lover, Orlov, and made herself Catherine II. Peter III was strangled. In danger of being murdered herself, Catherine was scarcely helped by Orlov. When their relationship foundered, his replacement was an intellectual nonentity named Vasilchikov, who made her even more unhappy. She needed the support of an equal, and she knew Grigory Potemkin already. Brilliant, flamboyant, and masterful, he was already in love with her.
Now she falls in love with him, knowing he has an intellect as superb as hers. In their letters, they call each other “twin souls,” writing day and night. Sometimes her letters are like texts: “Me love general, general love me,” but their ambitions are imperial. Physical passion dovetails with political acumen and changes Russia’s history: together they expand into Ukraine, annex Crimea, and found a Black Sea fleet as well as new cities from Odessa to Kherson.
In this letter, Catherine, nicknaming Potemkin “my hero,” “a Cossack,” and a Muslim Tatar (a “giaour”), admits that even at dawn, after a row in which she decides to
break up, she cannot live without the charismatic Potemkin: she is overcome with love and lust—what has he done to the cleverest woman in Europe?
Darling, really now, I suppose you thought I wouldn’t write to you today. You’re quite mistaken, sir. I awoke at five o’clock, it’s now after six—I should write to him [Vasilchikov]. But only so much as to speak the truth, and kindly take heed what sort of truth: I don’t love you and don’t want to see you anymore. You won’t believe it, my love, but I can’t abide you at all. Yesterday we chatted till twelve o’clock, and then he was sent away. Don’t be angry—indeed, as if one couldn’t do without him. The dearest thing of all that came from that conversation is that I learned what they say among themselves: no, they say, this is no Vasilchikov, this one she treats differently. And he is indeed worthy. No one is surprised, and the affair has been accepted as if they have long been expecting it. But no—everything must be otherwise. From my pinky to my heel and from these to the last hair on my head, I have issued a general prohibition today against showing you the least affection. And my love is being kept in my heart under lock and key. It’s awful how cramped it is in there. With great difficulty it squeezes itself inside, so mind well—it might just pop out somewhere. Now see here, you are a reasonable man, could so few lines contain more madness? A flood of foolish words has sprung from my head. How you can enjoy spending time with such a deranged mind I do not know. Oh, Mister Potemkin, what strange miracle have you performed in so thoroughly deranging a head that earlier was considered by society to be one of the best in Europe?
It’s time, high time indeed to start acting sensibly. It’s shameful, it’s bad, it’s a sin for Catherine the Second to allow this mad passion to rule over her. Such foolhardiness will make you loathsome even to him. I’ll begin repeating that last verse to myself often, and I hope this alone will be enough to lead me back onto the true path. But this won’t be the final proof of your great power over me. It’s time to stop or I’ll scribble a complete sentimental metaphysics that will finally make you laugh, though this will be its sole benefit. Well, my nonsense, off you go to those places, those happy shores where my hero dwells. If, perchance, you don’t find him still at home and are carried back to me, then I shall toss you directly into the fire and Grishenka won’t see this extravagant behavior, in which, however, God knows, there is much love; but it would be much better if he didn’t know of this.