Countess Alexandra Branitskaya née von Engelhardt (Russian: Александра Васильевна Браницкая, Polish: Aleksandra Branicka, 1754 – 15 September 1838), also known as Saneckka and Countess Branicka, was a leading Russian courtier. She was the niece, confidante, and possibly lover, of Grigory Potemkin, and Catherine the Great's favourite lady-in-waiting. She was one of the most notable socialites at the Russian Imperial court during Catherine's reign, and was conspicuously treated as a virtual member of the Imperial family. Through her marriage to Branicki she became administrator of the immense estate of Bila Tserkva in the Kiev Oblast of Ukraine.
|Countess Alexandra Branicka|
|Born||unknown date in 1754|
|Died||15 September 1838|
|Noble family||von Engelhardt|
|Spouse(s)||Franciszek Ksawery Branicki|
|Father||Vasily von Engelhardt or Grigory Potemkin or Sergey Saltykov|
|Mother||Yelena Marfa Potemkin or Princess Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst|
|Occupation||Lady-in-waiting, countess, Landowner, spy for the British|
Officially, she was the daughter of Vasily von Engelhardt and his wife Yelena Marfa, née Potemkin, a sister of Grigory Potemkin, and thus the latter's niece. However, at least one historian has taken a close interest in the gossip swirling around the imperial court at the time of her birth. One theory was that she was the first-born illegitimate child of Catherine with Grigory Potemkin. According to an alternative, marginally less explosive, account she was Catherine's daughter by Count Sergey Saltykov and that on learning of her arrival, tsarina Elizabeth had her swiftly substituted for a handy male neonate of Estonian parentage, who eventually grew up to be Tsar Paul, Catherine's son and heir. Other historians are more dismissive of the gossip. Even as Alexandra was rumoured to be Catherine's own daughter, they nevertheless repeat that it was merely a claim that Alexandra was the first-born who had been switched with the son of a Kalmyk woman on account of her sex, since a male heir was preferred.
Alexandra was introduced to the Russian court with her five sisters and her brother in 1775. They arrived as uneducated and ignorant, but Alexandra was soon given a sophisticated polish and made to be the most favoured woman at the Russian court. She in particular along with her sisters were treated almost as a part of the Imperial family. They were regarded almost as "Grand Duchesses" and "jewels" of the Russian court. Potemkin gave them large dowries and had Catherine appoint them ladies-in-waiting. They were alleged to be the courtisans of their "uncle", which was one of the most riveting and scandalous subjects of gossip of the age. His first mistress from their midst was Varvara. However, after her marriage in 1779, her sister, Alexandra was selected to be her successor.
Alexandra was the eldest of the sisters introduced at court. She was described as ignorant and uneducated, but also as intelligent and willful, and with a magnificent and confident manner and a haughty personality which effectively hid her lack of education.
The British ambassador Harris wrote about her in terms of, "a young, very attractive and well-shaped lady, with a superior talent for creating plots", who spent a great deal of time with Catherine and Potemkin and that: "unless her uncle changed his attitude toward her, she is likely to become the next female confidante" of Catherine. She was described as an influential force at the Russian court. She it was who who exposed the adultery between the favourite of Catherine, Ivan Rimsky-Korsakov, and Catherine's confidante and lady-in-waiting, Praskovja Bruce, thereby bringing about the fall of both Korsakov and Bruce (1779). She was treated as an "unofficial member of the Imperial family", a position which she took for granted until her death. Ambassador Harris reported that she received gifts and presents in exchange for information, and recommended her as a first rate informer. She functioned as an agent for the British, from whom she received financial remuneration.
Marriage and business enterpriseEdit
In 1781 she married the Polish noble, Franciszek Ksawery Branicki. The marriage had been strategically arranged to create a Russian bridgehead into Poland. Her marriage was described as harmonious. While her spouse lacked any sense of financial restraint and frequently amassed huge and ruinous debts, these were never a problem, since Alexandra was by contrast a shrewd businesswoman. She made millions by trading in wheat and timber from her estates, and so was able to meet her husband's endless debts.
Relationship with PotemkinEdit
She was considered the most intimate confidante and friend of Potemkin after Catherine, and his favourite among his nieces. Their alleged sexual relationship ended in 1779, when she was replaced by her sister, Yekaterina, with whom he went on to have an on-and-off relationship for the rest of his life; but the intimate friendship between Aleksandra and Potemkin continued. She acted as Potemkin's official hostess, and any invitation she received from him was a sign of great favour. They also corresponded. She was with him in Ukraine as part of his household on his trips to the south during the 1780s. She often argued with him, which was taken as a sign of their closeness.
In 1791, she expressed the wish that Potemkin should be the next king of Poland. Likewise, for many years, there were rumours in Poland that Potemkin had plans to make her children heirs to the Polish throne. She nursed Potemkin during his final illness. Then Potemkin died in her arms. She is said to have "inherited" the actual marriage certificate of Potemkin and Catherine.
She created a memorial for Potemkin on his estate, that was visited by Alexander I, who later appointed her a Lady of his court. She was made Chief Court Mistress in 1824. In 1816, Wiegel reported how she was kissed on the hand and treated with the same deference as an Imperial Grand Duchess, and that both she and the court seemed to take this for granted.
- (in Polish) Białacerkiew in the Geographical Dictionary of the Kingdom of Poland, volume I (Aa — Dereneczna) published 1880, S. 174. (in Polish)
- (in Polish) Białacerkiew in the Geographical Dictionary of the Kingdom of Poland, volume XV, p. 1 (Abablewo — Januszowo) 1900, S. 122. (in Polish)
- Alexandra's genealogy on Polish website Sejm Wielki
- Henryk Stanisław Mościcki (1936). "Branicka Aleksandra". Polish Biographical Dictionary (in Polish). 2. Kraków: Polish Academy of Learning – Skład Główny w Księgarniach Gebethner i Wolff. pp. 393–396. Reprint: Zakład Narodowy im. Ossolińskich, Kraków 1989, ISBN 8304032910
- The possibility of a mother-daughter relationship would appear to be borne out by the following "evidence": Catherine treated Alexandra and her Branicki "grandchildren" with enormous indulgence and generosity. She had possibly persuaded her erstwhile lover, Stanisław August Poniatowski, King of Poland, to cede the immense and productive estate of Bila Tserkva to the Polish Hetman and Count, Franciszek Ksawery Branicki in 1774 with a view to arrange that Alexandra marry the biddable man and thus come by the property "as her dowry" giving Catherine through her influence over Alexandra, a firm strategic foothold in the rapidly disintegrating Poland and Lithuania. Conversely, Catherine's official descendants, Tsars Paul and Alexander regarded the Branicki progeny as their wayward relatives who had to be ruthlessly kept in check, which later proved to be the case with Count Xavier Branicki.
- Sebag Montefiore, Simon, Potemkin och Katarina den stora: en kejserlig förbindelse, Prisma, Stockholm, 2005
The monument to Alexandra Branitskaya
- Marian Kukiel, Książę Adam, Warszawa 1993.
- Henryk Mościcki, Aleksandra Branicka, w: Polski Słownik Biograficzny, t. II, Kraków 1936