But the bones of Potemkin, a famed military commander and statesman, have added resonance 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 the pair hold for Mr. Putin and the ultranationalists, as they try to meld “the gilded majesty of the Romanov empire with the grim glory of a Stalinist superpower into a peculiar modern hybrid.”
Russian rulers have not always viewed the legacy of Potemkin and Catherine admiringly — a fact underscored by the story of what has happened to Potemkin’s remains over the centuries.
When Potemkin died in 1791, the grieving empress ordered a grand funeral and had his body brought to Kherson, where it was displayed uncovered in a specially constructed tomb in a crypt, Mr. Montefiore wrote.
By the time Catherine died in 1796, it had become something of a pilgrimage site, infuriating her son and successor, Paul I, who ruled Russia until his assassination in 1801. He ordered that Potemkin be buried in an unmarked grave, with some reports suggesting that he directed a local official to smash and scatter Potemkin’s bones in the nearby Devil’s Gorge.
For years, it was unclear if the orders were carried out.
It was not until 1818 that a search of the crypt established that the remains were still there. In 1859 and again in 1873 the grave was opened again to determine that the remains were indeed those of the great prince. A telltale triangular hole in the skull, left there as part of the embalming process, established that they were.
As the Bolshevik Revolution raged, the crypt at St. Catherine’s was opened yet again and, as Mr. Montefiore noted in his book, there were yellowed photographs of revolutionaries holding up the remains.
In 1930, a young writer visited St. Catherine’s, which the Communists had renamed Kherson’s Anti-Religious Museum.