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on 9 November 2001
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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on 5 March 2017
Thrilling and gripping. .Essential reading for an understanding of central eastern Europe today.
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on 31 August 2010
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. She needed a life partner, and after going through a series of lovers , finally there was Potemkin who (as the letters would prove) was the love and the best friend of her life, it was very romantic, for she knew him for 12 years before she took him as a lover, all that time he was passionately in love with her. They shocked Europe by taking younger lovers, yet they secretly married and ruled together as best friends and lifelong lovers.

Their secret letters, are the most romantic and unique letters ever written, simply because of the intelligence, politics,and power all mixed in with an incredible sexual passion and friendship. He carried her letters by his heart, and when he died he had them out and wept on them.

Simon Sebag Montefiore is an exceptional historian and writer. After reading his novel Sashenka, I couldn't wait to read all of his work, he tells it with joyful verve, The writing is fluent, with a dazzling mastery of detail. Montefiore's skill really shines in making a page-turner out of the most profound scholarship, that was massively researched in Russian archives as is all of his work, I highly recommend this book.
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on 26 December 2014
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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on 28 November 2011
What a dilemma! The subject matter is extraordinary. Potemkin comes across as way beyond what we would normally think of as a 'polymath'--- this is a virtuoso life by any yardstick. Thus far so good - it is a veritable feast of gossip, history, revisionism (for good reason correcting the slings and arrows of jealous contemporaries and subsequent, politicised, commentators)and 'spectacular' in the tradition of those Cecil B DeMille movies 40 years ago. I cannot stress enough just how mind-boggling the achievements, as laid out for us here, of Potemkin were.

Characterisation is more of a problem. I'm not sure whether I know the man any better now, after many hundreds of pages, than I did at the outset. Given the industrial quantity of source material that Sebag-Montefiori had at his disposal it would surely have been possible to write a chapter just on the man - to help the reader understand his decision-making processes. What we are, in fact, left with is a series of little explained contradictions that either define Potemkin as completely unstable or a beguiling mystery painted over with layer upon layer of 'interpretive varnish'.

The big problem with the book is its construction. Whilst awe-struck by the author's scholarship - years of research, travel, speculation and determination - I ached for evidence that he had had an editor at his side to bring coherence to this gargantuan pile of data. There is none. The book sprawls, loosely in chronological order, but with endless darting about within 'scenes'. I gave up counting the inconsistencies and factual errors.

So, in sum, whilst I heartily commend this epic volume to all who are fascinated by the splendour and grandiloquence of the Court of Catherine the Great and her inseperable partner Potemkin, whilst much of Europe was in international and national turmoil (French Revolution, American War of Independence, umpteen Alliances and bizarre factions everywhere), I must caution that if you are looking for a clear narrative flow and well-structured articulation of this complex web of connections you will be disappointed and, indeed, irked. I lay the blame squarely at the feet of the publisher not the author. This is a disgracefully edited but nonetheless vital historical conspectus that, on balance, I was happy to wrestle with. Bravo Mr Sebag-Montefiori and bah to his editor......
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on 1 January 2015
I thoroughly enjoyed this - a cracking good read perhaps because the characters were so lively. I think this is the best of Simon's books. I would read it again after a few years. Prince of Princes: The Life of Potemkin.
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on 29 December 2014
A superbly written account of the life (And loves ) of Count Grigory Potemkin. I admit that I knew very little about this important figure of late 18th Century history but then again, according to Montefiore, even the Russians were in ignorance of his colossal influence over Catherine the Great until relatively recently. A man of huge ambitions he was responsible for the advance of the Russian Empire into the Crimea, the Caucasus and other regions around the Black Sea. His overriding ambition was to conquer Constantinople and establish a new empire - something to which the rulers of Russia in the 19th Century continued to aspire. Montefiore describes the many facets of his character - his organisational skills, his ability as a commander of armies, his love of opulence and women and his great espousal of 18th century culture including the establishmen t of 'English Gardens' wherever he went using the skills of William Gould. Above all though, what shines through the story is the mutual love and reliance between him and The Empress Catherine the Great. A must read for anybody interested in the history of Russia
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on 17 November 2000
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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on 7 March 2016
This is a great book, written by someone so familiar with the subject matter that it feels as if he is improvising. What you get when reading this one is a double biography of Catherine and Prince Potemkin (and their intimate interaction obviously), but this effortless read is also thoroughly educational in other respects: it describes the Russian-Turkish war of 1768-1774 in great detail (including the contemporary Pugachev rebellion), as well as the next war starting in 1786 (the very bloody one, with Suvorov storming the Turkish fortresses on the Black sea, and with a rather ignominious role for John Paul Jones), then there are the visits of Joseph II, Potemkin's 'colonization' of what is now the southern part of Ukraine (and the Crimea) including the story with the Potemkin villages, and if all that is not enough, a lot on life and intrigues at the St. Petersburg court. My only minor point of criticism is that the book sort of peters out after Potemkin dies; the important removal of Poland from the map of Europe just before Catherine's own death does not quite get the attention it deserves, I thought.

Overall verdict: a fantastic book by a great writer, highly recommended.
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on 21 July 2001
The proper title of this book is "Potemkin, prince of princes" and as such you will find it elsewhere in Amazon's catalogue; together with a extensive description and the rave reviews it fully deserves
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