Potemkin’s Homer

Vassily Petrov (1736–1799) rose from obscurity to become a poet laureate, librarian and private reader to Catherine the Great through his knowledge of the Classical literature and feeling for poetic convention. Aiming high and talented (he translated the Aeneis), he was able to set any event of recent history in the marble of a Pindaric ode producing pieces meant for eternity, but saw them crumble shortly after Catherine’s death. On evidence of misquoting, Petrov’s biographers claim that he owed his rise to Grigory Potemkin (1739–1791), who was his peer back in Moscow. While viewed at a distance (which tends to blur chronology) Potemkin will ever be the conqueror for the Crown and the man in the life of the Empress, it was Petrov who actually helped the future favorite to work his way up. They went unacquainted as peers, and their friendship is due, in large part, to Potemkin’s interest in ancient authors which Petrov could comment on. The letter quoted by Petrov’s late 19th century biographer I. A. Shliapkin in support of his vainglorious pretensions proves the opposite: gracefully thanking his victorious friend, Petrov goes on to praise his passion for Classics: “The hand that smote the Turks now solaces me with friendly lines! I see the Great Alexander amongst the din of victorious battle mindful of Homer”. The untrained eye saw Petrov brazen enough to go around calling himself Homer, while the trite allusion was made to the Ilias compiled by Aristotle to follow Alexander in his deeds of valour. Potemkin and Catherine expected Petrov to deliver the first Russian translation of Homer which the poet probably had planned but never accomplished.

 Pozdnev M.M. Potemkin’s Homer