Pro-Russian officials say they have removed the bones of famed 18th-century Russian commander Grigory Potemkin from the occupied Ukrainian city of Kherson.
Potemkin’s bones were taken from St. Catherine’s Cathedral and moved across the Dnieper River and further into Russian-controlled territory, along with a statue of the military leader, the region’s pro-Russian governor, Vladimir Saldo, told Crimean television.
“We moved the remains of His Royal Highness Prince Potemkin from the Church of St. Catherine and the monument itself to the left [east] bank,” Saldo said, according to Russian state news agency RIA Novosti.
Potemkin played a critical role in the annexation of Crimea by the Turks in 1783, and his memory is central to those in Russia intent on restoring the country’s former imperial reach. Putin drew heavily on his heritage to justify his 2014 annexation of Crimea.
Monuments to naval commander Fyodor Ushakov and commanders Alexander Suvorov and Vasily Margelov were also removed from the church and taken to an undisclosed location, Saldo said. The relics will be returned when the city is safer, he added.
Prince Grigory Potemkin was an 18th-century Russian statesman, army general, and favorite and adviser of Empress Catherine the Great. His name has been mentioned several times in the Kremlin since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. More recently, in his speech at the ceremony of annexing new territories, Putin mentioned Potemkin as one of the founders of new cities in eastern Ukraine, calling the territory Novorossia, meaning “New Russia.”
Potemkin is believed to be behind the plan to conquer Crimea, which was first annexed by Russia in 1783 as a result of a peace agreement with the Ottoman Empire. Subsequently, he received the rank of field marshal and founded the city of Sevastopol in the Crimea, making it the main Russian naval base on 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 describe disguised facades designed specifically to hide an ugly truth and create a false appearance of prosperity. The phraseology harkens back to the debunked historical myth of him organizing ostentatious decorations, such as putting up cardboard villages with painted ships and cannons, to impress Catherine the Great and her foreign companions on a trip to Crimea after its annexation.
The move to remove his remains was made as Ukrainian forces advanced on the city of Kherson after a series of successful counter-offensives in the surrounding region.
The situation in the city is “tense” with Russia deploying “a large number of Russian troops” there, a city official told Ukrainian television on Friday.
“People in the occupied territories with whom I communicate say that there are more Russian soldiers on the streets of the city than local residents,” said Halina Lukhova, a member of the Kherson city council.
The UK Ministry of Defense said in its daily intelligence briefing on Friday that it was “likely” that “mobilised reservists” had been sent to reinforce Russian troops in the regional capital and west coast.
In the past two weeks, Kherson’s Kremlin-backed administration has broadcast dire reports of an imminent Ukrainian attempt to retake the city and moved thousands of residents across the Dnieper River deeper into Russian-controlled territory. Ukraine has accused Russia of creating “hysteria” to force residents to leave.
Moscow has also begun reducing the footprint of its occupation in Kherson. Ukrainian officials say the Russians are moving wounded people, administrative offices and financial institutions out of the city, while sending more troops to reinforce their positions.
Museums and other cultural organizations in Ukraine have been scrambling to save the country’s artifacts and relics since Russia invaded in February.
In May, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Russian forces had destroyed hundreds of cultural sites.