Grigory Grigoryevich Orlov

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Count Grigory Orlov, by Fyodor Rokotov

Count Grigory Grigoryevich Orlov (1734–1783) was the lover of Empress Catherine the Great of Russia who fathered two of her children.

He was the son of Gregory Orlov, governor of Great Novgorod. He was educated in the corps of cadets at St Petersburg, began his military career in the Seven Years' War, and was wounded at Zorndorf. While serving in the capital as an artillery officer he caught the fancy of the then Grand Duchess Catherine Alekseyevna, and was the leader of the conspiracy which resulted in the dethronement and death of her husband, Emperor Peter III (1762).

After the event, Empress Catherine raised him to the rank of count and made him adjutant-general, director-general of engineers and general-in-chief. They had two illegitimate children, Yelizaveta and Aleksey, who were born in 1761 and 1762 respectively. The son was named after the village of Bobriki where he lived; from him descends the line of Counts Bobrinsky. Orlov's influence became paramount after the discovery of the Khitrovo plot to murder the whole Orlov family. At one time the Empress thought of marrying her favorite, but the plan was frustrated by her influential advisor Nikita Panin.

Orlov was no statesman, but he had a quick wit, a fairly accurate appreciation of current events, and was a useful and sympathetic counsellor during the earlier portion of Catherine's reign. He entered with enthusiasm, both from patriotic and from economical motives, into the question of the improvement of the condition of the serfs and their partial emancipation. As the President of the Free Economic Society, he was also their most prominent advocate in the great commission of 1767, though he aimed primarily at pleasing the empress, who affected great liberality in her earlier years.

He was one of the earliest propagandists of the Slavophile idea of the emancipation of the Christians from Ottoman rule. In the year of 1771 he was sent as first Russian plenipotentiary to the peace congress of Focşani; but he failed in his mission, owing partly to the obstinacy of the Ottomans, and partly (according to Panin) to his own outrageous insolence. On returning without permission to his Marble Palace at St Petersburg, he found himself superseded in the empress's favor by the younger Potemkin.

In order to rekindle Catherine's affection, Grigory presented to her one of the greater diamonds of the world, known ever since as the Orlov Diamond. When Grigory Potemkin, in 1771, superseded Vasil'chikov, Orlov became of no account at court and went abroad for some years. He returned to Russia a few months previously to his death, which took place at Moscow in 1783. For some time before his death he was out of his mind. Late in life he married his niece, Madame Zinovyeva, but left no children by that marriage.