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News from a wargamer with a special interest in the military history of the Balkans. It mainly covers my current reading and wargaming projects. For more detail you can visit the web sites I edit - Balkan Military History and Glasgow & District Wargaming Society. Or follow me on Twitter @Balkan_Dave
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Saturday 10 December 2022


 Prince Potemkin is one of the most fascinating characters to emerge from Russian history. He popped up in my reading of Alexander Mikaberidze's Kutuzov biography and in topical stories. He founded the Ukrainian city of Kherson, and the Russians apparently removed his bones when they fled. The Kinburn spit, a tiny headland at the mouth of the Dnipro (Dnieper) river, has been described as having "enormous strategic importance" in the next phase of the Ukraine war. It was in Potemkin's day, although then he was fighting the Ottomans. He also colonised Crimea, which is presumably why Putin was keen to grab his remains.

All of this reminded me that I had a copy of Simon Sebag Montefiore's biography on my bookshelves. I had dipped into it but never read it cover to cover. Russia is a big country, and books about it are correspondingly long! So, it has taken a while, but worth the effort.

Grigory Potemkin was born into a military family in the village of Chizhova on Russia's western borderland. His father was a Colonel, although it has been suggested that he might have been the by-product of his Mother's affair with a senior civil servant. As the author beautifully puts it, 'One simply has to confront the prosaic fact that, even in the adulterous eighteenth century, children were occasionally the offspring of their official fathers.'

I hadn't fully grasped the military side of his career until I read the Kutuzov biography. Potemkin is famous for being the lover (probable husband) of Catherine the Great. Still, I had yet to fully appreciate how long the romance survived and how he effectively ruled as a co-Tsar, particularly in southern Russia. I must stop watching Netflix/Prime TV dramas! He served in the Horse Guards and was part of the coup that brought Catherine to power, later supplanting the Orlovs. Although being beaten up by the Orlovs and losing an eye is probably a myth. 

Needless to say, I enjoyed the chapters on the Russo-Turkish Wars the most. These include the epic sieges of Ochakov and Ismail. It was here that he made his name as a military commander. He was personally brave but became more of an effective military administrator and strategic thinker than a great battlefield commander. He brought on Suvorov and Kutuzov, so he also had an eye for talent. He also encouraged several Brits to come to Russia and was the leading Anglophile at the Russian court. Better not mention that to Putin!

His most long-lasting achievements were the Russian colonisation of the south. The scale of the conquests and city building was staggering in only 15 years. I have to confess that I have used the phrase 'Potemkin Villages', only now to discover it is a myth. Western observers simply could not grasp how he could achieve so much. I have mentioned Kherson, but also Sebastopol, Nikolaev and many more. This led to the creation of the Black Sea Fleet. He also loved the Cossacks, rebuilding the Zaporogian Host and putting them at the heart of the Russian army. 

He populated the lands he conquered with people from many countries, including criminals emptied from British prisons. We should remember that these 'criminals' could have been convicted for minor crimes by today's standards, and this approach didn't harm Australia much. Recruitment from abroad was not uncommon in the eighteenth century, and a squadron was commanded by John Paul Jones and others by Royal Navy officers. However, he did turn down a certain Corsican called Napoleon Bonaparte. Oh, how history turns on small events! He always had an eye for the classical, and for a brief period, he had a unit of Amazons wearing skirts of crimson velvet, with gold lace and white Turbans, all armed to the teeth. That is one wargame unit I must have! 

Potemkin died at the age of 52, looking out over Bessarabia. The book's epilogue deals with his legacy, used and abused over the centuries since his death. A legacy that has to be seen in the context of his partnership with Catherine, an unparalleled marriage of love and politics coupled with immense achievements.

This is a fabulous book about a great historical figure.

For the wargamer, my immediate reaction was to dust down my 6-8mm Seven Years' War Russian army. However, the great man wasn't satisfied with the standard Russian uniform, so he designed his own. In particular, his infantry had the distinctive 'Potemkin helmets'. A couple of Russian firms do this, but of course not accessible at present. The Facebook group for the SYW helped point to a few other options, but primarily dead ends in the smaller scales. So, it looks like the North Star 28mm range.


  1. It sounds interesting and one for the list of 'potentials' for sure.
    The Potemkin uniform is amazing. So far ahead of its time. Sad that it was quashed with the regime change to Paul (and no doubt some vested interests, along with the new Czar's love of 'things Prussian'—even though the new/old uniforms were not exact copies of Freddies Prussians). Hagen Miniatures do some lovely Russians in Potemkin uniform. Beautifully sculpted and really good poses too.
    Regards, James

    1. Thanks for that. I have bought ships from Hagen, so I'll have a look.