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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Why Russia Took the Skull and Bones of Potemkin from Ukraine

This week, as Ukrainian troops approached the captured port city of Kherson, the Kremlin’s puppet rulers deployed a team to an 18th-century stone church with a particular mission: to take Prince Grigory Aleksandrovich Potemkin’s remains.

Those in the Kremlin intent on recreating the Russian empire have a clear recall of the 18th-century conqueror. In 1783, Potemkin convinced his beloved Catherine the Great to seize Crimea. As the creator of Kherson and Odessa, he endeavoured to establish “New Russia,” a dominion that spanned the present-day southern Ukraine along the Black Sea.

President Vladimir V. Putin referenced Potemkin’s vision when he invaded Ukraine in February to restore a portion of a long-lost kingdom.

Now that Mr. Putin’s army has failed in its march on Odessa and is in danger of being expelled from Kherson, his great plans are in trouble. Among Kremlin supporters, though, the conviction in what they see to be Russia’s legitimate dominion persists.

Within St. Catherine’s Cathedral, a crew climbed into a crypt under a single white marble tombstone.

According to individuals who have seen the crypt, they would have uncovered a trapdoor in the floor and descended a tiny corridor to reach Potemkin’s bones. They would have discovered a plain wooden coffin on a raised dais with a single cross.

Under the lid of the coffin was a little black bag containing Potemkin’s skull and numbered bones.

In fact, Kremlin operatives have made no attempt to conceal the crime. Vladimir Saldo, the Russian-appointed leader of the Kherson area, said that Potemkin’s remains were moved from the city, located on the west side of the Dnipro River, to an unidentified place on the east bank of the Dnipro as Ukrainian forces advance.

“We moved the holy prince’s bones from St. Catherine’s Cathedral to the left bank,” Mr. Saldo stated in a televised interview aired in Russia. We transported the individual Potemkin.

Local Ukrainian activists stated that the cathedral had been ransacked, along with the removal of revered sculptures of Russian heroes. According to the historian and author of “Catherine the Great and Potemkin,” Simon Sebag Montefiore, this was the ninth time that Potemkin’s tranquilly had been disturbed.

In an interview, Mr. Montefiore said that immediately after the release of his book in 2000, the Kremlin called him to express Mr. Putin’s admiration for his work. Mr. Montefiore, meanwhile, said on Thursday that Mr. Putin’s interpretation of history was profoundly erroneous and that his war had put to rubble Ukrainian towns such as Mariupol and Mykolaiv that Potemkin and early Russian imperialists helped to construct.

According to him, the demolition of the cities that Potemkin helped construct has placed Putin in the character of a destroyer of these prior achievements.

The looting of Potemkin’s tomb is consistent with Russia’s attempts to eradicate Ukrainian identity. Ukrainian Orthodox churches, national monuments, and cultural heritage sites have been demolished and robbed systematically by Russian soldiers. They sent professionals to steal 2,300-year-old gold artefacts from the Scythian civilisation.

The United Nations organisation UNESCO has verified damage and destruction in over 200 cultural sites as of October 24.

However, the remains of Potemkin, a renowned military leader and politician, have additional significance for the Kremlin. Mr. Montefiore, who chronicled the “outrageously libertine lifestyle and exuberant political triumphs” of Potemkin and Catherine, noted the special place in history they hold for Mr. Putin and the ultranationalists, who are attempting to combine “the gilded majesty of the Romanov empire with the grim glory of a Stalinist superpower into a peculiar modern hybrid.”

The narrative of what happened to Potemkin’s bones over the years demonstrates that Russian monarchs have not always treated the legacy of Potemkin and Catherine with admiration.

Mr. Montefiore claimed that after Potemkin died in 1791, the mourning empress arranged a spectacular burial and had his corpse moved to Kherson, where it was exposed in a specially built vault.

Infuriating her son and successor, Paul I, who governed Russia until his death in 1801 was the fact that, by the time Catherine died in 1796, it had become something of a pilgrimage place. He ordered that Potemkin be buried in an unmarked grave, and according to other sources, he authorised a local official to break and scatter Potemkin’s bones in the Devil’s Gorge.

It was unclear for years if the directives were followed out.

Not until 1818 was it determined during an investigation of the crypt that the bones were still there. The burial was reopened in 1859 and 1873 to confirm that the bones were truly those of the great prince. As a result of the embalming technique, a telltale triangular hole was left in the skull, proving their identity.

As the Bolshevik Revolution raged, the vault of St. Catherine’s was again uncovered, and as Mr. Montefiore wrote in his book, there were images of revolutionaries clutching the corpses that had turned yellow.

In 1930, a teenage writer visited St. Catherine’s, dubbed Kherson’s Anti-Religious Museum by the Communists.

He discovered two peculiar displays including the skull and bones of Catherine II’s lover Potemkin. As soon as they were discovered, the bodies were reburied in the crypt.

Officials reopened the cemetery in the 1980s in order to confirm the identify of the remains.

In order to do research for his book, Mr. Montefiore visited St. Catherine’s to see the bones, which he said were still contained in a plain black bag inside the wooden coffin.

It is unknown where they now are and what the Kremlin intends to do with them. Mr. Montefiore is certain that Potemkin’s bones will find their way to Russia, where they may be used in “a chillingly vulgar televised spectacle of ultranationalism.”

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