When Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine in February he referenced Potemkin, who led the colonisation of southern Ukraine, founding Kherson and Odesa as he pushed the frontiers of Russia’s empire west to reach the Black Sea.
In its latest intelligence update, the MoD said the symbolic removal of Potemkin’s remains signals plans to “expedite withdrawal” from the region amid renewed Ukrainian counteroffensives in the east and south.
This comes as more than 70,000 people have now left Kherson city, according to the Russian-appointed governor of the region, Vladimir Saldo.
The MoD said: “On 27 October 2022, the Russian-appointed governor of Ukraine’s occupied Kherson region, Vladimir Saldo, said that more than 70,000 people had now left Kherson city.
“On 26 October 2022, Saldo also claimed that Russia had removed the remains of the well-known 18th century Russian statesman, Prince Grigory Potemkin, from his tomb in Kherson’s cathedral to east of the Dnipro.
“In the Russian national identity, Potemkin is heavily associated with the Russian conquest of Ukrainian lands in the 18th century and highlights the weight Putin almost certainly places on perceived historical justification for the invasion.”
They added that the “symbolic removal of Potemkin and the civilian exodus likely pre-empts Russian intent to expedite withdrawal from the area”.
Potemkin’s remains were kept in a small black bag in his coffin, with the bones carefully numbered.
Footage from Kherson over the weekend showed several statues missing from their plinths in the city centre, including a monument to Potemkin erected in 2003.
Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, earlier this week said Kyiv gives little credence to reports that Russian forces, unlike the residents, are about to retreat from Kherson.
"I don’t see Russians running away from Kherson," he told Italy’s Corriere della Serra.
"This is a ruse to get us to move our troops from other hot spots to here."
Ukrainian police in the Kherson region said on Thursday that Russian soldiers have moved into residential buildings in several towns that have been left vacant after the local puppet government ordered an evacuation.
Elsewhere, Kremlin-installed authorities in Crimea on Saturday reported a drone attack on Sevastopol, the largest city on the peninsula annexed by Russia in 2014.
"The ships of (Russia’s) Black Sea Fleet are repelling a drone attack in the waters of the Sevastopol Bay," the Russia-appointed governor of Sevastopol, Mikhail Razvozhaev, said.