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Historical Tales: Russian by  Charles Morris


 

 

A MAGICAL TRANSFORMATION SCENE

[220] CATHARINE THE GREAT earned her title cheaply, her patent of greatness being due to the fact that she had the judgment to select great generals and a great minister and the wisdom to cling to them. Russia grew powerful during her reign, largely through the able work of her generals, and she forgave Potemkin a thousand insults and unblushing robberies in view of his successful statesmanship. Potemkin possessed, in addition to his ability as a statesman, the faculty of a spectacular artist, and arranged a show for the empress which stands unrivalled amid the triumphs of the stage. It is the tale of this spectacle which we propose to tell.

Catharine had literary aspirations, one of her admirations being Voltaire, with whom she corresponded, and on whom she depended to chronicle the glory of her reign. The poet had his dreams, in which the woman shared, and between them they contrived a scheme of a modern Utopia, a Russo-Grecian city of whose civilization the empress was to be the source, and which a decree was to raise from the desert and an idea make great. This fancy Potemkin, who stood ready to flatter the empress at any price, undertook to realize, and he built her a city in the fashion in which cities were built in the [221] times of the Arabian Nights, and made it flourish in the same unsubstantial fashion. The magnificent Potemkin never hesitated before any question of cost. Russia was rich, and could bleed freely to please the empress's whim. He therefore ordered a city to be built, with dwellings and edifices of every description common to the cities of that date, stores, palaces; public halls, private residences in profusion. The buildings ready, he sought for citizens, and forcibly drove the people from all quarters to take up a temporary residence within its walls. It was his one purpose to make a spectacle of this theatrical city to enchant the eyes of the empress. So that it had an appearance of prosperity during her visit, he cared not a fig if it fell to pieces and its inhabitants vanished as soon as his supporting hand was removed. He only required that the scenes should be set and the actors in place when the curtain rose.

And the city grew, on the banks of the Dnieper, eighteen million rubles being granted by the empress for its cost,—though much of this clung to the bird-lime of avarice on Potemkin's fingers. It was named Kherson. The desert around it was erected into a province, entitled by the wily minister Catharine's Glory (Slava Ekatarina). Another province, farther north, he named after his imperial mistress Ekatarinoslaf. And thus, by fraud and violence, a city to order was brought into existence. The stage was ready. The next thing to be done was to raise the curtain which hid it from Catharine's eyes.

It was early in the year 1787 that the empress began her journey towards her Utopian city, to receive [222] the homage of its citizens and to exhibit to the world the magnificence of her reign. Great projects were in the air. Poland had just been cut into fragments and distributed among the hungry kingdoms around. The same was to be done with Turkey. Joseph II. of Austria was to meet the empress in Kherson to consult upon this partition of the Turkish empire; while Constantine, grand duke of Russia and grandson of the empress, was to reign at Byzantium, or Constantinople, over the new empire carved from the Turkish realm. Such was the paper programme prepared by Potemkin and the empress, the minister doubtless smiling behind his sleeve, his mistress in solid earnest.

And now we have the story to tell of one of the most marvellous journeys ever undertaken. It was made through a thinly inhabited wilderness, which to the belief of the empress was to be converted into a populous and thriving realm. That the journey might proceed by night as well as by day, great piles of wood were prepared at intervals of fifty perches, whose leaping flames gave to the high-road a brightness like that of day. In six days Smolensk was reached, and in twenty days the old Russian capital of Kief, where the procession halted for a season before proceeding towards its goal.


[Illustration]

THE SCENE OF A RUSSIAN FARM.

As it went on, the whole country became transformed. The deserts were suddenly peopled, palaces awaited the train in the trackless wild, temporary villages hid the nakedness of the plain, and fireworks at night testified to the seeming joy of the populace. Wide roads were opened by the army [223] in advance of the cortege, the mountains were illuminated as it passed, howling wildernesses were made to appear like fertile gardens, and great flocks and herds, gathered from distant pastures, delighted the eyes of the empress with the appearance of thrift and prosperity as her vehicle drove rapidly along the roads. To the charmed eyes of those not "to the manner born" the whole country seemed populous and prosperous, the people joyous, the soil, fertile, the land smiling with abundance. There was no hint to indicate that it was a desert covered for the time being by an enamelled carpet.

The Dnieper reached, the empress and her train passed down that river in fifteen splendid galleys, with the pomp of a triumphal procession. It was now the month of May, and the banks of the river showed the same signs of prosperity as had the sides of the road. At Kaidack the emperor Joseph met the empress, having reached Kherson in advance and gone north to anticipate her coming. He accompanied her down the stream, looking with her on the show of prosperity and populousness which delighted her inexperienced eyes, and smiling covertly at the delusion which Potemkin's magic had raised, well assured that as soon as she had passed silence and desertion would succeed these busy scenes. At a new projected town on the way, of which Catharine had, with much ceremony, laid the first stone, Joseph was asked to lay the second. He did so, afterwards saying of the farcical proceeding, "The Empress of Russia and I have finished a very important business in a single day: she has laid the first stone of a city, [224] and I have laid the last." He had no doubt that, when they had gone, the buildings in which they had slept, the villages which they had seen, the wayside herders and flocks, would vanish like theatrical scenery, and the country present the dismal aspect of a deserted stage.

At length the new city was reached, the magical Kherson. Catharine entered it in grand state, under a noble triumphal arch inscribed in Greek with the words "The Way to Byzantium." It was a busy city in which she found herself. The houses were all inhabited; shops, filled with goods, lined the principal streets; people thronged the sidewalks, spectators of the entry; luxury of every kind awaited the empress in the capital which had arisen for her as by the rubbing of Aladdin's ring, and entertainments of the most lavish character were prepared by the potent genius to whom all she saw was due. Potemkin hesitated at no expense. The journey had cost the empire no less than seven millions of rubles, fourteen thousand of which were expended on the throne built for the empress in what was named the admiralty of Kherson.

Such was the scenery prepared for one of the most theatrical events the world has ever witnessed. It cost the empire dearly, but Potemkin's purpose was achieved. He had charmed the empress by causing the desert to "blossom like the rose." and after the spectators had passed all sank again into silence and emptiness. The new empire of Byzantium remained a dream. Turkey had not been consulted in the project, and was not quite ready to [225] consent to be dismembered to gratify the whim of empress and emperor.

As for the city of Kherson, its site was badly chosen, and its seeming prosperity and populousness during the empress's presence quickly passed away. The city has remained, but its actual growth has been gradual, and it has been thrown into the shade by Odessa, a port founded some years later without a single flourish of trumpets, but which has now grown to be the fourth city of Russia in size and importance. Of late years Kherson has shown some signs of increase, but all we need say further of it here is that it has the honor of being the burial-place of the shrewd Potemkin, under whose fostering band it burst into such premature bloom in its early days.


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