Prince Potemkin and the Benthams: Simon Sebag Montefiore Describes an Unlikely Project to Create an English Village in Belorussia Involving Catherine the Great's Lover and the Philosopher Jeremy Bentham and His Brother

Article excerpt

ON DECEMBER 11TH, 1783, His Most Serene Highness Prince of the Holy Roman Empire, Grigory Alexandrovich Potemkin--Serenissimus as he was known--summoned to his apartments in St Petersburg a young Englishman Samuel Bentham, whose doomed love affair with a beautiful Russian countess had been followed by all society, and offered him a glorious new start. Potemkin's offer led, not only to the most adventurous career in war and peace ever enjoyed by an Englishman in Russia but also to a farce in which an ill-sorted company of Welsh and Geordie artisans were settled on a Belorussian estate, which they were to develop into Potemkin's own industrial trading empire. The episode highlights not only the Prince's boundless dynamism, but the way he used his estates as the arsenal and marketplace of the state, with no boundary between his own money and that of the empire.

Samuel Bentham (1757-1831) was the youngest of seven children--Jeremy (1748-1832) was the eldest--and they were the only two who survived. Their father Jeremiah was a well-connected lawyer whose patron was the future Whig prime minister, the Earl of Shelburne. The Benthams were a close family; they wrote to each other constantly about Samuel's escapades in Russia. The brothers shared a brilliant intelligence, a driving energy and inventiveness but they were opposites: Jeremy, a philosopher and jurist, now almost forty, was shy and scholarly. Samuel, an engineer by profession, polymath and entrepreneur, was sociable and amorous.

Three years previously, in 1780, while Jeremy was at work on his judicial reforms in London, Samuel, aged twenty-three, had journeyed to the Black Sea coast, (observing on his voyage Potemkin's burgeoning new port town Kherson, under construction for the Prince's Black Sea fleet) and thence to St Petersburg where he called on Potemkin. Samuel was hoping to make his fortune in Russia, while Jeremy wanted his brother to propose on his behalf his legal ideas to the Empress. Potemkin was looking for talented engineers, shipbuilders, entrepreneurs and Englishmen: Samuel was all of these things. But he wanted to travel, so in 1781, the Prince dispatched Bentham to Siberia to analyse its industries. While there, Samuel wrote to Jeremy from Irkutsk, boasting about his new contact:

   This man's business is to greater
   amount than any other's I have heard
   of in the Empire. His position at
   Court is also the best on which
   account, as well as that of his riches,
   Governors of course bow down to
   him. His chief affairs lie about the
   Black Sea. He there farms the duties
   on some articles, builds ships for the
   Crown, supplies the army and the
   Crown in general with all necessaries,
   has fabricks of various kinds and is
   clearing the waterfalls of the Dnieper
   at his own private expense. He was
   very anxious to have assistance in his
   undertakings before I left St
   Petersburg.

Back in St Petersburg by mid-1783 Bentham was distracted by something much more alluring. The object of his attention was Countess Sophia Matushkina, the pretty niece and ward of Field-Marshal Prince Alexander Golitsyn, the Governor of St Petersburg. Samuel and the Countess, roughly the same age, met in the Field-Marshal's salon. Their passion was fanned by the operatic intrigues made necessary by the disapproval of old Golitsyn. The Empress Catherine, however, let court know that she was thoroughly enjoying the scandal.

'If you have anything to say to me for or against a Matrimonial Connection' Samuel asked Jeremy, 'let me know'. He was in love with the girl--and her position, for he added disarmingly: 'She is heiress to two Rich People'.It was a wonderful moment to be an Englishman in Petersburg and the impassioned Samuel lived a dizzy social existence. He soon decided that his love affair had caused such interest that it might help him get a job fromthe Empress, a novel sort of curriculum vitae, though one not unknown in Russia:

   I am fully disposed that a desire Her
   Majesty has to assist my Match goes a
   great way in disposing her in my
   favour . …