The most controversial figures in Russian history on RT Documentary
Ivy Mike Test of First H-Bomb in 1952.

5 August

On August 5, 1963, the Treaty banning Nuclear Weapon Tests in the Atmosphere, in Outer Space and Underwater, often abbreviated as the Partial Test Ban Treaty, was signed between the Soviet Union, the United States, and Great Britain. …

Go to On this day

Previous day Next day

Peter Carl Faberge

Peter Carl Faberge was a world famous master jeweler and head of the ‘House of Faberge’ in Imperial Russia in the waning days of the Russian Empire.

Go to Foreigners in Russia

Prominent Russians: Grigory Orlov

October 17, 1734 – April 24, 1783

Grigory Orlov was a Russian statesman and favorite of Catherine the Great who organized the coup to place her on the Russian throne and subsequently helped the Empress rule the country.

Family background

Grigory Orlov was born on October 17, 1734, into a Russian noble family which produced several distinguished statesmen, diplomats, and soldiers. Grigory Orlov senior served the Tsar and achieved the rank of State Adviser. In the early 1740’s, he was one of the vice-governors of the city of Novgorod. He married late and his wife was three times his junior.

They had 9 sons, but only 5 of them survived. The five brothers each went on to great service and deeds in the Russian court; Grigory became the paramour of Catherine II, Aleksey would command the Russian fleet in the war against the Turks, Vladimir became a senator, and Fyodor and Ivan were made chamberlains after the coup which enthroned Catherine II while killing her husband, Peter III. 

Catherine’s lover

Grigory started his love affair with Catherine while she was only Grand Duchess. The details of Grigory Orlov’s childhood have escaped history, but it is known he was educated at the cadet corps in St. Petersburg. In 1749, he began his military career in the Seven Years' War  of 1756–1763, a global military conflict that affected a number of countries including Russia.

Orlov was an officer in the artillery division, while two of his brothers, Aleksey and Vladimir, were merely common soldiers in the guards. While serving in the capital as an artillery officer, he caught the fancy of the Empress-to-be Catherine, and led the conspiracy to overthrow and murder her husband Peter III in 1762.

Граф Григорий Григорьевич Орлов (А. И. Черный. Конец 1760-х гг.) Portrait of young Count Grigory Orlov by A. Cherny, end of 1760s

Orlov was a very strong and handsome man, always popular with women. There was one incident involving an affair between Orlov and Princess Kourakina, the mistress of his colleague Pyotr Shuvalov. The conflict between the two men ended in a duel, in which Orlov killed Shuvalov. The whole series of events was followed by a great scandal. 

Rumors of this incident reached the ears of Catherine, and out of curiosity she wished to meet the youth whose great exploits in love were the subject of public conversation. Orlov was secretly introduced to the Grand Duchess, and when they became lovers, she unveiled to him her ambitious plans to take the throne from her husband. Orlov was resolved to make Catherine his sole sovereign and started gathering a team of supporters.

After the coup of 1762

Peter III, Catherine’s husband had been on the throne for a short time and was a failure as a ruler and a husband. One example of his neglect of Catherine was that months after their wedding, she was still a virgin. In her later years, she would more than compensate for this sour beginning of her personal life.

As soon as Empress Catherine II saw herself firmly seated on the throne, she rewarded the participants of the revolt by lavishing titles and money on them. Grigory Orlov was promoted to the rank of Major-General and was awarded the title of count. He was her favorite and first counselor. Apart from his good looks and brevity, Orlov possessed neither the advantages of a noble birth nor a good education.

Orlov’s character and personality

Even according to Catherine II, who had always been more inclined to exaggerate the merits of her lovers, Orlov was poorly educated and his knowledge of French was so limited that he couldn’t read in it and didn’t understand poetry. However, Catherine considered him to be “an amazing creature, endowed with beauty, a wonderful soul and intelligence”.

Орлов Григорий Григорьевич (князь, граф)
Автор: Эриксен Вигилиус (Vigilius Erichsen) Portrait of Count and Prince Grigory Orlov by Vigilius Erichsen

She thought him to be the most handsome man of the time. He surpassed his brothers in beauty, strength, courage, and resolve. He had a warm heart and was recklessly generous. But unfortunately he was occasionally indiscreet, making him appear less sophisticated than he probably was.

Orlov was very witty, had a fairly accurate appreciation of current events, and was a useful and sympathetic counselor during the earlier portion of Catherine's reign. He undertook the issue of improving the lives of serfs and their partial emancipation with great enthusiasm. As the President of the Free Economic Society, he was also their most prominent advocate in the great commission of 1767, though his primary aim was pleasing the Empress, who displayed great liberality in her earlier years.

A science hobby

Orlov had a passion for natural sciences. He enjoyed trying various simple experiments in chemistry and physics and he would fervently describe to the Empress how a glass filled with water would crack after it freezes. He had equipped an observatory with a telescope where he spent hours gazing upon incredible views.

Of course, he was no more than an amateur at science, but it was Orlov who bought and collected documents left behind by Russian scientist Mikhail Lomonosov after his death. He also introduced then unknown inventor Ivan Kulibin and satirical writer Denis Fonvizin to the Empress.

Fighting the Great Plague

Orlov always abstained from taking part in the political life of the country. He only participated in foreign relations at Catherine’s urging, but foreign diplomats never saw him as a reliable partner. Having no particular political stance, he often changed his views. His court life was interrupted by an outbreak of plague in Moscow, where he was sent to deal with the disaster.

The Empress had already sent assistance to stop the spreading disease, but it had no effect. It was necessary that some man of authority should go to Moscow to make them submit to the regulations prescribed, and to the observance of more cleanliness than usual. Grigory Orlov had the courage to go and brave both the pestilence and superstition. Count Orlov, endowed by the Empress with exceptional powers, arrived in the city.

Герб Орловых The Orlov family coat of arms

He set up a preventative executive commission, took measures to ensure the supply of provisions for the population still remaining in the city, and increased the number of quarantine stations and hospitals. He prohibited and prevented all kinds of assemblies. The sick were provided not only with free food, but also with clothing and money. He offered the use of his own home as a hospital; a government-financed orphanage was opened; more than six thousand houses with sick residents were disinfected.

According to his contemporaries, Orlov personally visited hospitals, provided assistance for the infected, appeared among the public, and took part in religious processions. On his instructions, the dead were buried in special cemeteries. The sickness at last yielded to the unceasing attentions of Orlov and the severity of the winter. 

On his return to St. Petersburg, Grigory Orlov found in Catherine a grateful sovereign. He was given a very warm reception. A special medal "For Delivering Moscow from the Plague" was struck in his honor, and triumphal marble gates were erected in the Tsarkoye Selo Gardens with the inscription "Moscow saved from Disaster by Orlov".

It was during this period that Orlov began overextending his prospects, his actions bordering on pretentiousness. He flattered himself on the kind of access he had to the Empress, and although she was annoyed by his arrogant self-confidence, she could not risk an argument with the man who put her on the throne.

In 1762 Catherine gave birth to Aleksey, her and Orlov’s illegitimate son. He was named after the village of Bobriki where he lived, officially beginning the noble line of the Bobrinsky Counts.


Orlov's influence became immense after the discovery of a plot to murder the whole Orlov family. At that time the Empress even thought of marrying her favorite, but the plan was ruined by her influential advisor Nikita Panin.

Though there was no open misunderstanding between Panin and count Grigory Orlov, Panin nevertheless desired Orlov’s downfall. Shrewd, and certainly too timid to openly attack Orlov, he missed no opportunity to attack him on the side. Orlov’s behavior was almost the exact opposite. He never hated anyone, though he was hated by many. His arrogance had gained him a great number of enemies.

Catherine had been, and was still very attached to Orlov. He, on the contrary, had never felt any natural affection for Catherine, but only that which arose from gratitude and ambition. Proud of the favor of his sovereign, he cultivated his success, and as soon as he found he had gained sufficient reputation and authority, his passion began to cool; he assumed a distant air and even started an intrigue with his niece who was also the Empress’s lady-in-waiting. 

The more Catherine wished to renew his affections, the more he seemed inclined to retreat and seek his amusement in the company of other ladies. The Empress could not but resent this ungrateful conduct. However, on account of her fondness for Bobrinsky (Orlov’s child), she did not discard him at once. She privately raised the boy in the suburbs of Saint Petersburg, and often disguised herself when visiting him.

In the meantime, Orlov was informed that the Empress had finally decided to get rid of him. In order to rekindle Catherine's affection, Grigory presented to her one of the greatest diamonds in the world, known ever since as the Orlov Diamond.

He was one of the earliest proponents of the Slavophile idea to emancipate the Christians from the Ottoman yoke. In 1771 he was sent as first Russian plenipotentiary to the peace congress, but he failed in his mission, due to the obstinacy of the Ottomans, and partly - according to Nikita Panin - to his own outrageous insolence.

Latter years and death

On returning without permission to his Marble Palace at St Petersburg, he found himself superseded in the Empress's favor by the younger Potemkin. Orlov became a person of no account at court, and went abroad for a few years.

He returned to Russia a few months prior to his death in Moscow on April, 13 1783. For some time before his death, he suffered from delusions. Later in life he married his niece, Ekaterina Zinovyeva, but their marriage was childless. He was buried in the village of Otradnoye in the Serpukhov district near Moscow.

Written by Olga Prodan, RT

Related personalities: