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Gregory Potemkin – The Hoaxer with a Cast of Thousands

Gregory Potemkin’s task was to transform the Crimea. But his real work started when Empress Catherine decided to inspect the area. The result was the world’s most outrageous conjuring trick.

Gregory Potemkin Portrait

In 1783 Catherine II, Empress of Russia, annexed the Crimea after a war with Turkey, well aware that her new province was little more than a desert waste.

The Crimea must be transformed, she decided, and carefully considered those of her courtiers who might be able to carry out her wishes without much delay. Automatically she thought of her numerous lovers, past and present, and soon decided that Gregory Potemkin was the best man for the job.

She could hardly have made a worse choice, but Catherine, as always, was madly in love and saw in Gregory Potemkin qualities that no one else saw. The empress, for all of her faults, was energetic, often — as she wrote in her Memoirs — “rising at three in the morning and dressing myself alone from head to foot in male attire. Together with a fisherman and a pointer I shot ducks on the reeds in the canal at Orienburg. In the evening we rode out on horseback then for 24 hours I ate nothing and drank only cold water.”

In contrast, Gregory Potemkin spent every night drinking heavily and not cold water. His name was a byword for gluttony and he rarely rose before noon.

However, acting on a sudden whim, Catherine had appointed him Assistant War Minister, and soon afterward Gregory Potemkin became War Minister.

The promotion changed Potemkin completely and now, apparently inspired by Catherine’s plans, he embarked on a whirlwind transformation of the Crimea. He noted all her plans, added many of his own and, as governor of the province, Potemkin started work without delay.

The City of ‘Catherine’s Glory’

Potemkin began building the harbor at Sevastopol and ordered large fleets of battleships and merchantmen. From China he obtained silkworms and started a new industry. Forests and vineyards sprang up in what had been virgin land and, most impressive of all, he produced plans for a grand new city on the River Dnieper which he named Ekaterinoslav — ‘Catherine’s Glory’

In fact those wonders existed only in Gregory Potemkin’s fertile imagination. But, whenever he returned to St Petersburg, he reported plans that had not yet been started — nor ever would be — as if they had been completed in their entirety and Catherine, completely besotted in her love for Gregory Potemkin, believed every word.

So, in 1787, Catherine announced that she would visit the Crimea to inspect the transformation. Most men would have been horror-struck on realizing that their deception was soon to be exposed. But not Gregory Potemkin. He went ahead to make sure that bands of happy peasants, fields of waving corn, new palaces, prosperous villages and thriving factories were there for the empress to see as she progressed down the Dnieper river.

Catherine II of Russia Portrait
Catherine II of Russia

The fact that virtually none of the wonders he had described so vividly existed, and that Catherine was already on her way to the Crimea, did not worry Gregory Potemkin in the least.

Over a part of the route, Catherine traveled with a retinue of 40,000 friends, officials and servants. Her sleigh was like a miniature house on runners and was drawn by eight horses. At each stopping place Gregory Potemkin had 500 horses stationed. Bonfires blazed at scores of points and every village through which Catherine passed had been painted. To the empress everything was perfection — neat houses, happy villagers and a general air of contentment.

In fact the houses had only had their fronts painted. Trees had been hurriedly planted to hide unsightly spots. Roofs had been re-tiled with pieces of cardboard. Everyone was compelled to wear their best clothes and all the aged and infirm were kept out of sight until the royal procession had passed.

Only a few years before, Catherine had traveled along the same road and shed tears over the obvious poverty and misery she had seen. Now, it seemed to her, Gregory Potemkin had achieved miracles.

At Kiev everyone in her retinue was provided with a beautifully furnished house. After every meal the table linen was given to the poor and all the time Catherine chattered most enthusiastically about the prosperity of the region.

As soon as the ice on the river had melted Catherine and her company embarked in boats. Seven of them were floating palaces and the 80 vessels that followed, carrying 3,000 people, were scarcely less magnificent.

Catherine’s personal barge was lined with costly brocade. Servants wore splendid uniforms and served meals on golden plates. Each day the empress reclined under a silken awning admiring the triumphal arches, the fields filled with grazing cattle and smartly dressed soldiers drilling, Each night from the river she saw peasants dancing happily. Everything represented peace and prosperity, yet a vastly different scene was being enacted a few miles away at places she had already seen.

A Fantastic Charade

There the villages had in some cases vanished. They had been mere facades. At others the camouflage had been stripped away. Fields were empty of sheep and cattle and the splendid arches were already being speeded south, past the royal party, to be quickly re-erected further downstream.

Wherever Catherine stayed overnight her barge rocked gently in a small harbor giving views of a distant palace, waterfalls and trees. Tangled forests had been transformed into beautiful, formal gardens with tropical trees. These had been planted only a few hours before and would wither away a few days later when the empress had gone. The backdrop scenery would decay in wind and rain, but they had served their purpose. Catherine believed that they were real.

In what was to be the city of Ekaterinoslav the empress laid the foundation stone of a cathedral grand enough to make St Peter’s in Rome look like a village chapel. It was never built, but Catherine was certain that it would soon dominate her new city and on she went.

Gregory Potemkin and Chaterine II the GreatEverywhere she saw new factories, people building houses and roads. What she remembered as tiny hamlets from just a few years ago were now bustling towns and she had no idea that serfs from dozens of towns had been dragooned into the masquerade.

There was no limit to the wonders that Gregory Potemkin provided for her. A whole army paraded before her at Poltava re-enacting a battle won by Peter the Great on that very spot.

At Kherson a new fortress towered over a harbor crammed with men-o’-war, their guns powerful and menacing. Then Catherine turned for home, completely satisfied with what she had seen with her very own eyes.

A day later rain fell in Kherson and the fortress, built of sand, just melted away. The guns she had seen had no ammunition. The magnificent warships were made of the flimsiest materials.

Over a route of many hundreds of miles Gregory Potemkin had perpetrated the most expensive and grandiose hoax in history.

It had cost seven million rubles and countless man hours. Poor people had been driven from their homes to play their part in the magnificent masquerade. Not a vestige of the grand buildings, towns or villages that Catherine had seen stood for more than a few weeks.

The only result of it all was that the empress had enjoyed the spectacle and Gregory Potemkin was held in yet higher esteem by the woman he had so brazenly deceived.

The real secret, however, was that Catherine had seen what she wanted to see; and believed what she wanted to believe. As much as anything, the empress had deceived herself.