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Prince of Princes: The Life of Potemkin Paperback – 20 Sep 2001

4.5 out of 5 stars 33 customer reviews

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Paperback, 20 Sep 2001
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Product details

  • Paperback: 656 pages
  • Publisher: Orion; New edition edition (20 Sept. 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1842124382
  • ISBN-13: 978-1842124383
  • Product Dimensions: 13.8 x 4.9 x 21.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (33 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,735,204 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Amazon Review

For most of the 20th century Grigory Potemkin has existed as no more than an entertaining side-show for Russian historians. And make no mistake--he is very entertaining; in the Russian royal court of Catherine the Great that was noted for its sexual promiscuity, Potemkin stood out as the libertine par excellence. Although his affair with Catherine only lasted a couple of years, after which he moved on to a succession of nieces and became Catherine's procurer-in-chief, Potemkin remained the love of her life and remained a powerful figure at court. In his new doorstop of a biography, Simon Sebag-Montefiore aims to show that Potemkin is much more than a historical divertissement and is instead one of the central figures of political influence in 18th-century Russia--and by and large he succeeds. Sebag-Montefiore refutes the image of the paper tiger who erected cardboard villages along the banks of Dnieper to convince Catherine that the colonisation of the Ukraine was continuing apace, and instead credits him as the architect for the cities of Odessa and Sebastapol that emerged out of his Great Plan to secure the Crimea--and hence a southern coastline--for Russia. At times, one feels that perhaps Sebag-Montefiore doth protest too much and that he pushes his claims for Potemkin too far. But this is more than compensated for by his enthusiasm. Many historians these days write with a jaded eye, looking to debunk popular heroes; Sebag-Montefiore aims to do the opposite and he has combined his journalist's eye for a good story with an academic's attention to research and detail to create a highly readable biography which is accessible even to those who know little of the period. --John Crace --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.


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)

A rather wonderful book ... (Mick Jagger Sunday Times)

If you want a good racy historical read, CATHERINE THE GREAT & POTEMKIN certainly provides it! Book of the Year (Antonia Fraser)

It is a wonderful story, and Simon Sebag Montefiore tells it with joyful verve. He evidently warms to Potemkin's overblown personality and relishes the adventurers who swarmed around him. He has a firm grasp of the politics at the Russian court and of the diplomatic context, which is not easy, since the centre of gravity of this story shifts between St Petersburg, Vienna, Berlin and Istanbul. He is very good on the relationship between Potemkin and Catherine. His explanation of the day-to-day mechanics of the unusual ménage is light-handed, movingly told and psychologically credible (Adam Zamoyski The Times)

This well researched and highly ambitious biography has succeeded triumphantly in re-creating the life of an extraordinary man of mixed moods... Sebag Montefiore also provides a remarkably good panorama of the period (Antony Beevor Sunday Times)

Clearly what fascinates Sebag Montefiore is the man himself - his personality, his achievements, his lifelong relationship with his sovereign/lover - and that fascination shines through every page of this book. Although more than 500 pages long, it could easily have been double the length, so enjoyable is it to read (Anne Applebaum Sunday Telegraph)

With great industry and huge enthusiasm he has combed the archives to give us a detailed account of a gigantic but, until now, almost forgotten figure. The writing is fluent, the sympathy obvious (Nigel Jones Sunday Express)

This exhaustive and beautifully-written biography... Montefiore vividly brings to life his supporting cast of envious conspirators, aristocratic mistresses, dandies, diplomats and adventurers (Christopher Hudson Daily Mail)

The contradictions in Potemkin's character are beautifully brought out in this magnificent biography (Petronella Wyatt Independent)

Montefiore's reputation so far has been for lively journalism and a couple of novels. With this lavish biography he has announced himself as a historian who deserves to be taken seriously (Victor Sebestyen Evening Standard)

This splendid biography, as sprawling, magnificent and exotic as its subject, provides for the first time in English a fully researched, accurate and immensely readable history of this extraordinary man (Nikolai Tolstoy Literary Review)

Magnificent ... Montefiore's passionate and committed revisionism on behalf of his hero is just one of a host of excellent things about this book. Massively researched in Russian archives, it is a work of fine scholarship ... This is a superb biography and it is hard to see how it can ever be superseded (Frank McLynn Financial Times)

Exhilarating ... In describing Potemkin's career, Sebag Montefiore succeeds admirably in capturing its scale and ambition (Stella Tillyard Mail on Sunday)

This gripping and richly researched biography ... CATHERINE THE GREAT & POTEMKIN makes it easy to see why novelists are often seduced away from fiction to write biography - where, just sometimes, implausible reality exceeds plausible fantasy many times over (Peter Nasmyth TLS)

An example of how to make a page-turner out of the most profound scholarship (New Statesman)

Impeccably researched, beautifully written and handsomely presented, it takes us at an unslackening pace through the colourful life of one of the most legendary of all Russians, a war hero, consummate politician, visionary and lover of Catherine the Great (Simon Heffer Daily Mail)

A triumph of research and a joy to read (Antony Beevor Books of the Year, Independent Weekend Review)

This book is a conspicuous achievement. The author's researches have been extensive and his command of his subject exemplary. His writing has the quality of a vivid soap-opera of the highest class, more than equal to his subject. He brings out Potemkin's personality perfectly... Potemkin is depicted in this work as the giant he undoubtedly was, and the biography will secure him a new audience, and a renewed place in history (Country Life)

POTEMKIN opened up a whole world ... to me. Book of the year (Alain de Botton Independent)

This irresistible biography is history from above. To write this stupendous, engaging tour de force, the first biography of Potemkin in any language since 1891, Montefiore has devoted many hours in the archives of Moscow and Petersburg and covered thousands of miles of the former Russian empire ... (Philip Mansel Spectator) --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Potemkin is nowadays mostly known in the expression "Potemkin village", describing achievements that are basically a sham.
In reality Potemkin was a fascinating character responsible for a great number of very real achievements. Very Russian in a lot of ways, he was on the other hand way ahead of his time - and very un-Russian - in his treatment of common soldiers and labourers. Simon Sebag Montefiore has managed to write an eminently readable book on this man, his complex relationship with his Empress and his very eventful life. I will gladly forgive his slight tendency to try and find a deep meaning or strategic reasoning behind almost any of Potemkin's acts: he probably was a true Russian in doing a lot of things just for the hell of it. Beautifully illustrated as well as well written, this book is very hard to put down. And since the author has had the good sense of starting the book with the last chapter - Potemkin's death - you are saved the trouble of searching through the last chapters for an advance peek on the subject. Well worth all of it's 5 stars!
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By A Customer on 17 Nov. 2000
Format: Hardcover
As a scholar of Imperial Russia, I can say that Mr. Sebag-Montefiore offers us a masterful and fair treatment of Prince Potemkin in his book. To put matters bluntly, history has treated Potemkin poorly, and it is only now, what with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the return to long-ignored subjects of Russia's past, that we are beginning to get a clearer, more objective view of events and personalities such as Potemkin. Sebag-Montefiore's biography, based on significant archival research and written with a good feel for the dramatic quality of his life, represents a major contribution to the reassessment of Catherine's most trusted advisor. This is a first-rate biography, and I recommend it most highly. It will be the book in English on Potemkin for decades to come.
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With its 634 pages this book seems intimidatingly weighty but is absolutely worth a read. Potemkin was much maligned after his death by those who were jealous of his genius and his powerful position as Catherine the Great's lover, secret husband and in every way her equal. Montefiore puts this to rights, detailing Potemkin's complex character. The extravagance of his nature and lifestyle are almost impossible to grasp in this day and age - with his power and money he could command not only the greatest riches the entire world had to offer but also the best engineers and all manner of experts from all over the world to build his Black Sea navy and carry out his projects of building new towns in record time in conquered territories such as the Crimea. He travelled everywhere with an English landscape gardener who created an instant English garden for him, even in the many battles he fought. Not only that, as he was a great lover of music an orchestra of some 200 musicians and ballet companies were at his beck and call at all times, wherever he went.

I do however have a major criticism of the book : In Potemkin's age a fraction of 1% of Russian society enjoyed an absurd level of privilege and luxury whilst the Russian population starved, died of cold and suffered unimaginable hardship as 'souls' (mostly peasants owned, bought, sold or given by Catherine the Great to her favourites in their thousands). I do not expect Potemkin to have had all that much thought for them, but Simon Sebag Montefiore should at least, in his 634 pages and probably nearly 300,000 words, have found a page or two to include something about the general conditions of the everyday life of the Russian population at the time. It's great to immerse oneself in the life of the rich and powerful, but a little heart and compassion for the remaining millions in Russia would have been in order here.
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It is a relevant read because Potemkin was the man whose life was dedicated to the expansion of Russian territory towards the Black Sea and the Ukraine. His is the story about the colonisation of the Crimea and western Ukraine, and this book will explain to you why all those Russian speaking people live here and there, and why the sense of nationality is such a delicate issue.

I am no historian and cannot evaluate the controversies that Simon Sebag Montefiore stirs. This work, like most of his other books, is based on Russian documents that have become accessible after the collapse of the Soviet Union. One of the controversies is that of the very character of the Potemkin, a person who earlier on - as I understand it, had reputation for being a fraud and fortune hunter. Through letters, SSM demonstrates how this picture is wrong and portraits a dedicated nation builder, a lager than life type, sure, but an extremely hard working, original and very productive man with a vison and the energy to carry it put. Very inspiring!

It is very well written and brings a presence to two great historic figures, Catherine and Potemkin, that I was largely ignorant of before. To be read anywhere, not easy to lose the thread, and if you do, its easy to pick up again.
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Format: Paperback
What an exhilarating read! If it was a novel you wouldn't believe it, but it really happened in 18th century Russia! A splendid biography, as magnificent and exotic as its subjects, Potemkin, the prince of princes, most beautiful man in St.Petersperg, most extraordinary man in all Europe. Born a son of a poor Nobleman, he was not made by his friendship with Catherine the Great, but by her recognition of his talents, he became important because of his intelligence, originality, drive, and imagination, he brought himself to her attention with irresistible exuberance on the day she seized power, he was an impossible man, but a wonderful character! a control freak and an appalling hypochondriac who always made his point in a characteristically flamboyant manner, one can't help but become a fan.

He died at the young age of 52. Running a country at the time was immense pressure, not only was he co-emperor of Russia, he was also running the army, building a navy, founding cities all around the black sea, conducting umpteen love affairs, sending shopping expeditions to Paris and Milan, he was collecting art, he was building English gardens, this was a man who was living every minute of his life, an insomniac, so he did a lot of it at night!

Catherine the Great, a legendary figure, an incredibly talented and adept politician, second to none, she survived almost 20 years before she became empress herself, ruled triumphantly for thirty years, a very sensuous woman, married at the age of 14, a marriage arranged by her very ambitious mother, she had a very miserable life, in fact the marriage she had with Peter was so unhappy and so unsatisfying for such passionate inelegant woman.
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