Catherine, Empress of Byzantium.

A passage of linguistic interest from Orlando Figes’s The Crimean War: A History, which I’ve just started:

Encouraged by victory against Turkey, Catherine also pursued a policy of collaboration with the Greeks, whose religious interests she claimed Russia had a treaty right and obligation to protect. Catherine sent military agents into Greece, trained Greek officers in her military schools, invited Greek traders and seamen to settle in her new towns on the Black Sea coast, and encouraged Greeks in their belief that Russia would support their movement for national liberation from the Turks. More than any other Russian ruler, Catherine identified with the Greek cause. Under the growing influence of her most senior military commander, statesman and court favourite Prince Grigory Potemkin, Catherine even dreamed of re-creating the old Byzantine Empire on the ruins of the Ottoman. The French philosopher Voltaire, with whom the Empress corresponded, addressed her as ‘votre majesté impériale de l’église grecque’, while Baron Friedrich Grimm, her favourite German correspondent, referred to her as ‘l’Impératrice des Grecs’. Catherine conceived this Hellenic empire as a vast Orthodox imperium protected by Russia, whose Slavonic tongue had once been the lingua franca of the Byzantine Empire, according (erroneously) to the first great historian of Russia, Vasily Tatishchev. The Empress gave the name of Constantine – after both the first and the final emperor of Byzantium – to her second grandson. To commemorate his birth in 1779, she had minted special silver coins with the image of the great St Sophia church (Hagia Sophia) in Constantinople, cruelly converted into a mosque since the Ottoman conquest. Instead of a minaret, the coin showed an Orthodox cross on the cupola of the former Byzantine basilica. To educate her grandson to become the ruler of this resurrected Eastern Empire, the Russian Empress brought nurses from Naxos to teach him Greek, a language which he spoke with great facility as an adult.

I knew Russia supported the Greeks at that period, but I had no idea it went so deep.


  1. J. W. Brewer says

    Was Konstantin not a commonly-given boys’ name in Russia before this particular princeling’s birth? (Wikipedia identifies a medieval Grand Prince of Vladimir by that name, but he might have been an outlier.) Note that Catherine’s first grandson (this Grand Duke Constantine’s older brother) was named Aleksandr, which is a name with certain historical associations with conquest and the Hellenistic world.

  2. The historian Vasily Tatishchev—he was probably an ancestor of Jacques Tati, no?

  3. JWB, no, the name Konstantin, while relatively common in early Christian Rus’, apparently fell into disuse centuries before Catherine’s reign. It was brought back into circulation with christening of her grandson.

    Of linguistic interest also, the very first “Greeks” whom Prince Potemkin enlisted en masse into Russian service were largely ethnic Albanian Arvanites (in Russian, Arnauts) who resided in today’s Greece and were Orthodox Christians, but still widely used their ancestral “Arberesh” dialect at the time. They were settled in Odessa and Balaklava, Crimea in the 1790s. Russian sources frequently referred to them as “so-called Albanians who should properly be called Greeks”. I guess that for Potemkin, the moment’s political expediency dictated that he must have Greek auxilliaries at his service; Albanian just wasn’t cutting it.

  4. PS: the commemorative 1779 coin is actually known as a medal. Hagia Sophia is depicted with minarets on its sides, but the dome and the minarets are all topped by small crosses.

    The Empress wrote about the occasion, “Меня спрашивали, кто будет его крестным отцом. Я отвечала: только мой друг Абдул Гамид мог бы быть его восприемником. Но так как христианин не может быть крещен турком, то окажем ему, по крайней мере, почет, назвав младенца Константином” (I’ve been asked who is the godfather. I replied that only my friend [the Sultan] Abdul Hamid can be the one. But since a Turk can’t christen a Christian baby, we shall give him the least possible honor by naming the baby Constantin). For the ceremony, Potemkin procured a Greek language choir, and a Greek wet nurse for the baby.

  5. Intriguingly also, none of the crosses on the 1779 Konstantin medal looks Orthodox.

    It’s said that in Warsaw, Konstantin used Greek (peppered with Russian mat) to converse with his Chief of Staff (and former Greek language tutor), Gen. Kuruta, when he didn’t want to be overheard. The memoirs also poke fun at Kuruta’s accented Russian, and awe at his ability to calm down Konstantin’s volatile outbursts.

    Dmitri Kuruta was 9 or 10 years senior to his Tsesarevich boss and also a product of the Greek Project of Catherine II. Born in Istanbul to a Greek Archon family, Kuruta went to Greek military school in St Petersburg (Corps of Foreign Coreligionists, more commonly known as the Greek Gymnasium, established by Catherine in 1775 and abolished by Paul after her death), which he graduated in 1787 with the rank of 2nd Lieutenant and assignment to “continue Greek language education of His Highness”.

  6. John Emerson says

    “Sophia” is now almost the most commonly-given baby-name in the US. Don’t ask me why.

    The Swedish kings during a somewhat earlier period claimed to be kings of the Goths and aspired to rule Russia, Poland, and northern Germany. For them the name “Sophia” seems to have been of Rosicrucian inspiration. I recommend Susanna Akerman’s two books, on Queen Christina and on the Swedish Rosicrucians, if you are interested in learning a lot about once-famous, now-unknown people with bizarre beliefs.


  1. […] Hat notes that Russian Tsarina Catherine the Great was also interested in the Greeks, to the point of being […]

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