Pro-Russian officials have announced that they have removed the bones of the famous 18th-century Russian commander Grigory Potemkin from the occupied Ukrainian city of Kherson.
Potemkin’s bones were removed from St. Catherine’s Cathedral and moved across the Dnieper River and into Russian-controlled territory, along with a statue of the military leader, Vladimir Saldo, the region’s pro-Russian acting governor, told Crimean television.
“We have moved the remains of His Serene Highness Prince Potemkin from St. Catherine’s Church and the monument itself on the left. [east] bank,” Saldo said, according to the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti.
Potemkin played a crucial role in the annexation of Crimea from the Turks in 1783, and his memory is central to those who want to restore the country’s former imperial reach in Russia. Putin relied heavily on his heritage to justify the annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Monuments to naval commander Fyodor Ushakov and commanders Alexander Suvorov and Vasily Margelov were also removed from the church and taken to an unknown location, Saldo said. He added that the relics would be returned when the city was safer.
Prince Grigory Potemkin was an 18th century Russian statesman, army general, lover and adviser of Empress Catherine the Great. His name has been mentioned in the Kremlin several times since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Most recently, in a speech at a ceremony marking the annexation of new territories, Putin cited Potemkin as one of the founders of new cities in eastern Ukraine, referring to an area called Novorossiya, meaning “New Russia.”
Potemkin is believed to be behind the plan to conquer Crimea, which Russia first annexed in 1783 as a result of a peace treaty with the Ottoman Empire. He was then promoted to field marshal and founded the city of Sevastopol in Crimea, making it the main Russian naval base in the Black Sea. Potemkin’s newly built Black Sea Fleet was instrumental in Russia’s success in the Second Turkish War of 1768-1774.
In Russia, Potemkin’s name is most often associated with “Potemkin villages,” a term used to define veiled facades specifically designed to hide an ugly truth and create a false impression of prosperity. The phraseology refers to a debunked historical myth that he put up ostentatious decorations, such as allegedly arranging cardboard villages with painted ships and cannons, to impress Catherine the Great and her foreign entourage during a trip to Crimea after its annexation.
The removal of his remains came as Ukrainian forces attacked the city of Kherson after several successful counter-attacks in the surrounding region.
The situation in the city is “tense” with Russia deploying “a large number of Russian soldiers” there, a city official told Ukrainian television on Friday.
“People in the occupied territories with whom I speak say that there are more Russian soldiers on the streets of the city than local residents,” said Kherson city council member Halina Lukhova.
The UK Ministry of Defense said in its daily intelligence briefing on Friday that “mobilised reservists” were likely to have been sent to reinforce Russian troops in the regional capital and on the west coast.
Over the past two weeks, Kherson’s Kremlin-backed administration has issued dire reports of an impending Ukrainian attempt to retake the city and moved thousands of residents across the Dnipro River deeper into Russian-controlled territory. Ukraine has accused Russia of inciting “hysteria” to force residents to leave.
Moscow has also begun to reduce its occupation footprint in Kherson. Ukrainian officials say the Russians are evacuating wounded people, administrative services and financial institutions from the city while sending more troops to reinforce their positions.
Museums and other cultural organizations in Ukraine have been struggling to save the country’s artifacts and relics since the Russian invasion in February.
In May, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky announced that Russian forces had destroyed hundreds of culturally significant sites.