Prince Grigory Aleksandrovich Potemkin-Tauricheski (1739-1791)

The British Foreign Office had perhaps unrivalled powers of analysis and intelligence at the time – its detached view of the European theatre was the best anywhere on the continent. The trouble was that this calculated objectivity was always designed to lead to a single conclusion: to take any action short of war. This suited Pitt’s own preoccupations with domestic affairs, and in ordinary times was probably the right policy. However, the French Revolution had entirely reshaped the map of Europe to a much greater extent than anyone was aware of at the time.

The Foreign Office analysis, shared by Grenville although his suspicion of the French was much more pronounced than that of his subordinates, was more or less as follows: continental Europe was a patchwork, and an extraordinarily complex one at that, of a kind enormously satisfying to the largely classically educated minds running the Foreign Office. What was needed was to preserve the balance of power through an alliance here, a subsidy there, a nudge somewhere else. The British empire offered scope for bold and imaginative ventures. By contrast Europe was a mass of moving diplomatic pieces and a chessboard on which there were multiple players. Before, and all the more so immediately after, the French Revolution, complacency simply oozed from the diplomatic mandarins: the Revolution had brought low Britain’s greatest rival, a belated revenge for the French support of America in the War of Independence. This, in brief, was their view of the continental quilt.

Towards France, Britain’s oldest antagonist and rival, there was a scarcely disguised contempt. The country had been virtually bankrupted by the Seven Years’ War and then the American War: the events of 1789 appeared to have removed it as a player from the European stage. This was immensely agreeable to the British. Then there was another traditional enemy, Spain. This was in a state of seemingly unstoppable decline. Both of these maritime rivals were on the wane.

The real threats to European stability were at arms’ length: Russia, which was growing steadily more assertive under the initially anti-British court of Catherine the Great; and the newly emergent Prussia which, however, challenged the power of an old British enemy, Austria. Austria had long vied with Britain for control of the Low Countries and traditionally tended to side with France. Finally, Poland and Sweden were two smaller but at the same time somewhat assertive powers in their own right, while the Low Countries, the German states of central Europe, the Italian states and the Balkans were prizes to be argued over. The Ottoman empire in the east was also in decline.

The trouble with this complacent traditional analysis is that it took no account of two sea-changes now occurring: the first was the French Revolution itself; the second was the modernization of the rest of Europe. For Britain and France were not alone in being affected by the new political ideas after the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. Liberalism and reaction were almost at war in Spain and Portugal; the Swedes, Prussians and Poles regarded themselves as newly modernizing societies. Catherine the Great and her ministers considered that they were at the forefront of an enlightened autocracy. Joseph II of Austria had just introduced sweeping reforms across his huge Habsburg possessions.

With commerce and trade spreading exponentially across the continent, all Europe was convulsed – as indeed France had been through the centralizing reforms of the French monarchy and the hostility they had aroused among the nobility. The British believed all they had to do was ensure freedom of commerce for British goods and for navigation; the rest could more or less look after itself. To understand how England blundered its recalcitrant and belated way into war in 1793, a quick look is necessary at the rather modest crisis which preceded it, before returning to continental Europe in which revolutionary France sprang up like a lion in a herd of gazelles.

Pre-revolutionary France, although always treated with a wary eye, was not seen as much of a threat to European peace immediately before the Revolution. By contrast, Russia and Prussia were the new troublemakers, and each was to play a part in the subsequent crisis. As Rosebery pithily wrote of the former:

If there is one point on which history repeats itself, it is this: that at certain fixed intervals the Russian Empire feels a need of expansion; that that necessity is usually gratified at the expense of the Turk; that the other Powers, or some of them, take alarm, and attempt measures for curtailing the operation, with much the same result that the process of pruning produces on a healthy young tree. One of these periods had occurred in 1791.

More than that was happening in Catherine the Great’s Russia. On 6 December 1788 her chief minister, Prince Potemkin, as part of a concerted strategy of Russian advances to the south, had won the greatest victory of his life in securing the huge fortress of Ochakov which controlled the mouths of the strategically crucial Dnieper and Bug rivers. With around 15,000 men, he had attacked in the early morning and slain some 10,000 Turks. As Simon Sebag Montefiore wrote of this strategic triumph:

The Turks were killed in such numbers and in such density that they fell in piles, over which the Comte De Damas [A French adventurer and cousin of Talleyrand who commanded one of Potemkin’s armies] and his men trampled, their legs sinking into bleeding bodies. ‘We found ourselves covered in gore and shattered brains’ – but inside the town. The bodies were so closely packed that Damas had to advance by stepping from body to body until his left foot slipped into a heap of gore, three of four corpses deep, and straight into the mouth of a wounded Turk underneath. The jaws clamped so hard on his heel that they tore away a piece of his boot.

There was so much plunder that soldiers captured handfuls of diamonds, pearls and gold that could be bought round the camp the next day for almost nothing. No one even bothered to steal silver. Potemkin saved an emerald the size of an egg for his Empress. ‘Turkish blood flowed like rivers,’ Russian soldiers sang as they marched into the next century. ‘And the Pasha fell to his knees before Potemkin.’

Massacres are easy to make and hard to clear up. There were so many Turkish bodies that they could not all be buried, even if the ground had been soft enough to do so. The cadavers were piled in carts and taken out to the Liman where they were dumped on the ice. Still moist with gore, they froze there into macabre blood-blackened pyramids. The Russian ladies took their sledges out on to the ice to admire them.

Over the following eleven months Potemkin captured most of the lower Danube and soon there was only the Turkish stronghold of Ismail in his way. This was assailed by 60,000 ‘ursomaniacs’ as the Prussians described the Russians. Ismail assumed the incarnadine horror of a Dantean hell. As the:

‘ursomaniacs’ screamed ‘Hurrah’ and ‘Catherine II’, and the Turks fell back, they were overtaken again by the lust for havoc, a fever of blood madness to kill everything they could find. ‘The most horrible carnage followed,’ Damas recalled, ‘the most unequalled butchery. It is no exaggeration to say that the gutters of the town were dyed with blood. Even women and children fell victims to the rage.’

These spectacular victories were not about to be abandoned by either Catherine or Potemkin easily. However, in later 1790, Pitt, flushed by a minor diplomatic success over a British ship seized by the Spanish, decided to rein in the Russian bear: this was urged upon him by Britain’s unstable treaty ally, Prussia, which was deeply concerned by Russian expansion. The usually cautious Pitt took on Catherine’s Russia, which had proved unco-operative over a settlement in central Germany as well as over trade. Angry at Britain’s alliance with Prussia, Catherine had established relations with the leader of the British opposition, Charles James Fox. The Russians may even have instigated Spain’s seizure of the ship.

Deploying a large fleet of thirty-six big ships to the Baltic, Pitt blatantly threatened Russia, saying that unless Ochakov was restored to the Turks Britain would attack with the aid of 80,000 Prussians, as well as Turks and Poles, with which Russia was already at war. It was an extraordinary threat and one for which the British public was wholly unprepared. Virtually no one had ever heard of Ochakov and most people preferred the Russians to the heathen Turks. A huge outcry against war exploded around the country, and Fox made a withering speech denouncing the whole enterprise. Although Pitt won parliamentary majorities, they were by smaller and smaller margins: his aide Grenville was implacably opposed to the whole misconceived idea. Finally Pitt was forced to revoke the Anglo-Prussian ultimatum – not knowing that Potemkin was trying to persuade Catherine to give way. According to Sebag Montefiore:

Catherine and Potemkin argued for days on end. Catherine wept. Potemkin raged. He bit his nails while the tumult hit Catherine in the bowels. By 22 March, Catherine was ill in bed with ‘spasms and strong colic’. Even when they rowed, they still behaved like an old husband and wife: Potemkin suggested she take medicine for her bowels but she insisted on relying ‘on nature’. The Prince kept up the pressure.

‘How can our recruits fight Englishmen?’ Potemkin asked theatrically. Then news came of the British climb-down, which intensely angered their Prussian allies. A bust of Fox was given a special place of honour in Catherine’s gallery. This diplomatic crisis had nearly caused Pitt’s fall after six years in office. It had been disastrously mishandled from the start.

Why had Pitt undertaken such a risk? The answer was not pressure from the Prussians, but the perception in Whitehall that Russia had become the dangerous man of Europe. Under the dazzling Potemkin and the devious Catherine, it had become a serious danger to European peace both in its own right and as an example, if its expansion went unchecked.

Russia had secured at Ochakov a presence in the Black Sea which would permit it to trade valuable timber and naval supplies, hitherto the prerogative of the British and north Europeans, with France and Spain. Russia was now constructing a port at Kherson and one at Akhtiar, now renamed Sebastopol. Potemkin established Ekaterinoslav (‘Catherine’s Glory’) in the empty steppe which by 1792 consisted of some 550 state buildings and just 2,500 inhabitants, and expanded Odessa.

It seemed that Potemkin’s next ambition was to partition Poland, or even turn it into a satellite to quash its ‘revolution’ – actually the installation of a hereditary monarchy. The possibility of a war between Russia and Prussia never seemed far distant. The Russians had also recently given King Gustavus of Sweden a bloody nose during his abortive war against them.

Catherine detested the French Revolution, which she regarded as a ‘poison’ and ‘a sickness of the mind’ – although there were at this stage no thoughts of intervention against it. But with Potemkin’s huge and lethal Cossack forces in the south and the substantial and militarized Russian army in the north – partly in imitation of the Prussian example – Russia was a force to be reckoned with.

The Russian army, uniquely in Europe, was made up not of mercenaries and impressed men, but of peasants recruited in huge conscription drives, often chained when they were taken away. They lived a spartan, wretched existence under sadistic aristocratic Russian officers or German and French mercenaries, but they were extremely tough, brave and devoted to their homeland. As the Comte de Langeron, a French officer who detested the beatings and forced marches from which around half the soldiers routinely died, wrote of the Russian soldier: ‘He combines all the qualities which go to make a good soldier and hero. He is as abstemious as the Spaniard, as enduring as a Bohemian, as full of national pride as an Englishman and as susceptible to impulse and inspiration as French, Walloons, or Hungarians.’

Catherine herself presided over one of the most glittering, wealthy, intellectually stimulating courts in Europe and was a captivating, benevolent ruler. She was no liberal: she drew up 500 articles or ‘Great Instructions’ which codified the laws of Russia according to some of the principles of Montesquieu. But she refused to abolish serfdom, for fear this would turn the aristocracy against her and upset the established order – although she convened a 500-delegate assembly to have an advisory role. It was this vibrant, aggressive country that Pitt perceived as the greater danger to European peace, not France. Napoleon much later was to conclude the same.