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Following Poland’s final partition of 1795, Seweryn chose to serve in the Russian administration. He played a leading role in the creation of the Universities of Wilno and Kharkov and contributed much to the development of education in the western provinces of the Russian empire. He often intervened on behalf of fellow Poles, obtaining, for example, the release of Tadeusz Kościuszko from tsar Paul I.
Russia’s conquest of southern Ukraine and Crimea resulting from the Russian-Turkish wars of the late 18th century, opened up new commercial and travel opportunities for Polish landowners in neighbouring provinces like Podolia.
Seweryn built a residence in Odessa to house his library and art collection, which was eventually completed by his cousin Olga Potocka, married to Lev Naryshkin. The palace was acquired in 1888 by Odessa’s mayor who donated it to the city, with a view to creating a fine art museum, a function it fulfils to this day.
Seweryn’s son, Leon Potocki, continued in his father footsteps, serving as a Russian diplomat in Naples, London, Vienna. In 1834 he acquired a property on the Crimean shore called Livadia, where he built a summer residence and designed a beautiful park. Livadia would become famous after it was acquired by the Romanovs following Leon’s death. Tsar Alexander II built a summer residence, which was remodelled at great expense in 1911 by his grand-son, Nicolas II. Today it is mostly known for hosting the Yalta Conference in February 1945.
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The name of Yedisan is derived from the Turkish word for “New World”. This territory, jutting the Black Sea coast and extending to the northwest and northeast along the Dniestr and Dniepr rivers, was conquered by Władysław Jagiełło shortly after accessing the throne of Poland in 1386. Poland-Lithuania held on to it for about 100 years until the end of the 15th century, when it became part of the Crimean Khanate which had broken-off from the Mongol Golden Horde and shortly after allied with the Ottomans. The Poles called this province the Ochakov Fields (Pole Oczakowskie), after the coastal fortress of Ochakov/Dzhankerman (today Ochakiv). Set on the northern shore of the narrow Dnieper-Bug Estuary, framed to the south by the Kinburn Spit, Crimea’s westernmost cape, it controlled the entrance to both rivers. Further east, on the northern shores of the Dniepr, lay the Wild Fields (Dzikie Pola), a lawless territory where Poles, Tatars and Turks regularly raided each other’s positions.
Successive Polish-Lithuanian kings and Muscovite princes never abandoned the idea of permanently ousting the Turks from the Black Sea coast, but never were strong enough to do so. The Christian enclave Kaffa in Crimea (originally an ancient Greek settlement known as Theodosia and later a Genoese slave trading counter. Renamed Feodosia by the Russians in the late 18th c.) appealed to the Polish-Lithuanian crown for protection shortly after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, correctly expecting to be next. Jagellonian power could not be projected that far out. A century later, tsar Ivan IV, aka The Terrible, hesitated whether he should march west against the “Germans” on the Baltic or south against the “Infidels” on the Black Sea. He chose the former and eventually lost the Livonian wars. In the mid-17th century, Poland’s King Władysław IV’s ill-fated plan to attack the Ottomans led to the Cossack Wars and irreversibly weakened the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. It would eventually be Russia under Catherine the Great which would seize the prize of Crimea a 130 years later, renaming Yedisan “New Russia”. The Russians founded new cities bearing Greek names (Kherson, Odessa) or renamed others (Evpatoria, Feodosia, Simferopol), claiming continuity with ancient Greece and Byzantium.
Odessa opened the rich Ukrainian hinterland to unhindered maritime commerce, which immediately boosted the new city’s appeal to Polish, Greek, Italian, Jewish and Armenian settlers. The city also benefited from the enlightened administration of European emigres such as the Duke of Richelieu who, after the French Revolution, had taken up service in the Russian army and was eventually appointed governor of New Russia.
The impression of modernity and dynamism of this “new land” was noticed by the American novelist Mark Twain in 1867. Travelling around Europe and the Middle East aboard the Quaker City, writing despatches for the San Francisco daily Alta California, he noted after calling on Odessa: “Look up the street or down the street, this way or that way, we only saw America! There was not one thing to remind us that we were in Russia”.
Seweryn, together with his brother Jan, was educated in the 1770s in Poland, and later in Switzerland, by French speaking Swiss tutors. So was their cousin Stanisław Kostka Potocki. The choice of Switzerland was in part motivated by their clan’s traditional attachment to “Republican” ideals. This concept was understood and practised differently in Poland’s nobiliary Republic than in the tiny, practically administered Helvetic cantons. It is interesting to note that all three Potockis cooperated closely during the four-year assembly (1788-1792) preceding Poland’s final partition, but chose different career paths once Poland disappeared from the map in 1795. The reason can be partly found in material considerations. While Stanisław Kostka was financially dependent on his mother-in-law and Jan exclusively preoccupied with intellectual pursuits, Seweryn was concerned with his considerable family estates in Podolia, bordering New Russia.
He briefly took part in the war against Russia in Lithuania in 1792, but quickly came to terms with the new reality. Seweryn moved to St-Petersburg where he became a trusted adviser to Grand Duke Alexander. The former, after accessing the throne as Tsar Alexander I in 1801, entrusted Seweryn with education reform. He did much – until his resignation in 1817 – for the development of education and cultural life in the former Polish provinces of the Russian empire. His efforts led to the restoration of the old Polish University of Wilno in 1802 (today Vilnius University). From 1804 he oversaw the foundation and development of Kharkov University (today Kharkiv National University.
Like many Polish landowners in southern Ukraine the opening of fast developing Black Sea ports like Cherson – established before the last partition – or Odessa offered exciting new business opportunities. Seweryn acquired 25,000 hectares of land to the north of the city on which he founded a small town named Sewerynówka (Severinivka today). Its location on a busy commercial road leading to Balta quickly attracted settlers. Seweryn built orthodox and catholic churches and devoted much attention to its development.
His holdings also included a limestone quarry which supplied most of the building material used in Odessa, including for his own palace. Started in 1805 its construction was interrupted by the Napoleonic wars. Most probably Seweryn sold it to his cousin Alexander Potocki, who gave it as a dowry to his sister Olga when she married Lev Naryshkin. Francesco Boffo, a prolific architect from Lugano, who designed most of Odessa’s early landmarks, gave it the palace its final neo-classical style, completing it in 1828. It included an underground artificial grotto and waterfall, leading through a set of galleries to a garden gently sloping towards the sea. The palace was eventually sold to the wealthy mayor of Odessa, Grigorios Maraslis, who donated it to the city to serve as a Fine Arts Museum in 1899. To this day, the palace houses the city’s National Fine Arts Museum.
Seweryn married Maria Sapieha (1758-1813) who bore him four daughters and a son Leon Potocki (1796-1860). Leon, brought up in St Petersburg, married Elizaveta Golovina whose mother, Varvara, had been Catherine II lady-in-waiting. Leon pursued a succesful career in diplomacy, being posted to Naples, Vienna, London, Lisbonne and Stockholm.
Looking for a place to retire away from the harsh climate of the imperial capital, Leon acquired a large estate on the southern tip of the Crimean peninsula from general Theodosis Reveliotis, commander of the famous Balaklava Greek regiment.
Leon commissioned a simple two-storey house in the local “Mauresque” style, but greatly developed the landscape around it. With the help of a talented gardener, he created a remarkable park of 40 hectares, blending local trees with subtropical vegetation, rare plants and fragrant flowerbeds, which can be admired to this day. Ancient marbles collected during his time in Italy were artfully scattered around the gardens. Leon also produced excellent white wines from the vineyards his Greek predecessors had planted.
His daughters were not interested in keeping property and sold it to the Russian imperial family shortly after Leon’s death. Alexander II had been looking for a suitable site for a summer residence for his wife, Maria von Hessen, who suffered from a lung ailment. To the circa 250 hectares of Leon’s estate, another 80 were purchased from local Greeks. The couple retained Hippolite Monighetti to design a new, larger residence, but in keeping with the local style. The Romanov residence was completed in 1866 and the imperial family spent many happy, relaxed moments in Crimea. The Tsar came to conduct business from there. The neighbouring village of Yalta quickly developed into a resort town. It was equipped with a modern harbour, where the imperial yacht, also named Livadia and outfitted to Monighetti’s design, could moor. Yalta naturally attracted courtiers who acquired land and built palaces along the coast. At about the same, at the other extreme of Europe, Biarritz experienced a similar development under Napoleon III and Empress Eugenie.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Nicolas II chose to tear down the residence his grandfather had built and where his father, Alexander III, had died. Architect Nikolai Krasnov replaced the old structure with a larger and modern one, built in express time. Completed in 1911, clad in white marble, combining different styles, Livadia was a beautiful, airy and spacious palace. Alas, the last tsar of Russia and his family hardly had the time to visit before the outbreak of WWI. After abdicating in February 1917, Nicolas II asked to retire in Crimea but his wish was not granted. Today, Livadia Palace is better remembered for hosting the Yalta Conference in February 1945 which gave Stalin control over Eastern Europe.
The history of the Black Sea coast is as old as our civilisation, closely connected to ancient Greece and Rome, relating mysteriously to our Indo-European origins. Its northern shore has been a place of exchange between two worlds, where the open steppe and a closed sea collide, forming either a tenuous bridgehead or a narrow window onto a hostile world, too exposed to be held outside of an imperial project. The only lasting one has been one of shared heritage and culture.
There had been numerous Greek and later Byzantine settlements on the Black Sea shores. The first date from the 6th century B.C, such as Theodosia for example. As the Russian empire expanded southward at the expense of Turkey and their Tatar allies at the end of the 18th century, many Pontic Greeks settled on the coast, among whom Odessa’s long time mayor Grigorios Maraslis who purchased the Potocki palace.
More interestingly, the Livadia estate, acquired by Leon Potocki had originally been the property of Lambros Katsonis, who named it after his birthplace in central Greece. Katsonis joined the Russian navy in Livorno to fight the Turks and eventually participated in the first Crimean war (1768-1774). In the second war (1788-1791), Katsonis fought as a privateer on behalf of Russia, hiring volunteers and raising funds among fellow Greeks, harassing the Turkish navy and merchant ships across the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean. Katsonis could not give up the chase despite the peace signed in Jassy between the two powers, and his fleet was eventually sunk near cape Tainaron in the southern Peloponnese. Katsonis returned to Crimea where he was granted an estate as a reward for his services. The Greek navy named several ships after him.
The estate passed on to general Theodosis Reveliotis, commander of the famous Balaklava regiment, composed of Greeks who had volunteered fight the Turks and contributed to ousting them from Crimea. The regiment’s last battles were fought during the Crimean war of 1853-1856 under Lykourgos Katsonis, Lambros’ son.
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