If the imposing half-length uniformed and helmeted portrait on the
92-millimeter bronze medal is any indication, Count Alexei
Grigoryevich Orlov must have been a truly remarkable man. The medal
tells only part of his personal saga, hailing his annihilation at
Chesma of the Ottoman Turkish fleet on July 5 to 7, 1770, between the
western tip of Anatolia and Chios.
Orlov is portrayed in a tall eagle-bedecked helmet with towering
plumes, the uniform of a cavalry general, though he commanded nine
ships of the line and 12 lesser vessels in two squadrons commanded by
British adviser Rear Adm. John Elphinstone and Russian Adm. Grigory
Spiridov. They faced 16 Turkish ships of the line and 57 lesser
vessels under Mandalzade Husameddin Pasha.
The reverse presents a detailed map of the waters and islands and
the positions of the Russian and Ottoman fleets, with an expression of
formal thanks to Orlov and his officers from the Russian Admiralty Collegium.
The medal shown is an original strike from dies by Johann
Balhassar Gass, engraver at the St. Petersburg Mint from 1768 to 1793.
It is known in bronze, as is a careful later copy by P. Utkin. Ten
were struck for presentation, each equivalent to 100 ducats; 10 were
made in silver. It is listed as 153.1 in Mikhail Diakov’s Medals of
the Russian Empire, Volume 2.
This great naval victory was not the launch for Orlov’s career.
This came in 1762 when he and his brother took a leading part in the
overthrow of Emperor Peter III and the elevation of the deposed
monarch’s German-born spouse as Empress Catherine II, later called the
Great. Alexei was given the heavy responsibility of guarding the
ex-monarch’s person in the Orlov country estate of Ropsha.
Realizing that a living Peter would be a perpetual danger to
Catherine, Alexei reportedly used his great strength to personally
strangle his hapless prisoner.
Another bizarre assignment followed the victory of Chesma, the
seduction and kidnapping of Princess Tarakanoff, who claimed to be a
long-lost daughter of the Empress Elisabeth and a danger to Catherine
II. After his successful seduction, Orlov delivered his alleged lover
to Catherine’s agents.
Upon the death of Catherine and the accession of her vindictive,
mentally unstable son, Paul, Orlov left Russia after being forced to
carry the imperial crown in the ghoulish and lavish state funeral
belatedly held for the long-dead Peter II. Orlov returned under
Alexander I and fought actively against Napoleon. His life was a tale
made up of ambition, violence, military heroism, intrigue and survival
with few equals in the violent annals of Russia.
David T. Alexander is a longtime numismatic researcher and author
of American Art Medals, 1909-1995. He can be reached at Alexander.Numismatics@gmail.com.