Jakov Alexeevich Potemkin was born in St.Petersburg in a noble family, his father was a major-general. He studied in the Land Forces Military School.
Potemkin began his military career in the Guards and became a colonel in the age of 23 not taking part in any military actions yet. His first big military experience was the battle of Austerlitz in 1805.
He took part in the campaign of 1807 year and distinguished in the action near Lamitten where he could dislodge the French that took the positions in the forest by the bayonet assault.
In the Russian-Swedish war of 1808-1809 Potemkin commanded a not-big detachment in the Corps of General Barclay de Tolly and not far from the town Kuopio he for a long time has been repusling successfully the numerous attacks of the big Swedish forces.
Potemkin's health was not very strong. So after this campaign in 1810 he retired and went abroad for a cure. But when the political situation became more and more serious and the war between France and Russia was going to be started very soon, Potemkin went back to Russia and returned to the military service.
In the beginning of the campaign of 1812 year he commanded an infantry brigade in the Corps of General Baghowut near the western frontier of Russia. Potemkin and his brigade distinguished in the action at Vitebsk, for this fighting Potemkin was promoted to the rank of major-general.
In the battle of Smolensk Potemkin's brigade distinguished again and dislodged the French by the bayonet attack in the Krasnenskoe suburb of Smolensk.
In the Borodino battle Potemkin's regiments fought on the right wing of the Russian army and after it they were in the rear-guard of General Miloradovich.
During the next three months Potemkin took part in the battles of Tarutino, Maloyaroslavets, Viazma, Dorogobuzh and Krasny. On December,12,1812 in Vilno Potemkin was appointed the commander of the one of the two oldest regiments of the Russian army - the Semenovsky Leib-Guard regiment. This regiment consisted of tall, strong and beautiful soldiers and also had the very skilled, intellectual and humane officers, many of them became Decemrists afterwards.
In 1813-1814 Potemkin went through all Europe commanding the Semenovsky regiment. The crack troops of the 1-st Guard Infantry Division usually did not take part in the battles of those years staying in reserve. But after the unsuccessful for Russians and their allies battle of Drezden, just this division got the oreder to repulse the charge of the Corps of General Vandamme that was sent by Napoleon to attack the flank of the Allied forces stretched along the mointain roads. On August,16 and 17 at Peterswalde and Kulm the Guards distinguihed themselves. Under the constant atrillery fire they beat off many enemy attacks. During these two days the losses of the Semenovsky regiment were about 900 men. For this feat of arms at Kulm Potemkin was rewarded with the Order of St.George of the 3-rd class, and the Semenovksy regiment got the honorary banner of St.George.
Until the end of the campaign of 1814 the Semenovsky regiment was in reserve again. In 1814 in Paris Potemkin got the honorary rank of General-Aide-de-Camp, then he accompanied Alexander I in his travel to England. In July-August of 1814 the Russian Foot Guard returned to Russia on the Russian battle ships.
After it the peace service began. During years of peace Potemkin took much care of his subordinates' needs. With his asistance a school was established in the Semenovsky regiments in that soldiers were taught to read and write, slodiers were allowed to go for "free works" that gave additional incomes to the soldiers' salaries. But the Tsar and his retinue did not like these measures at all.
In June of 1819 Prince Michail Pavlovich, Alexander's younger brother was appointed the commander of the brigade in that the Semenovsky regiment was. The Tsar's brother was a fanatic admirer of drill and has never taken part in any battle. He did not like the orders in the regiment and in spring of 1820 he could achieve transferring of General Potemkin said to Alexander that he was "too soft-hearted and is not able to command the regiment properly".
Potemkin was appointed the commander of the 2-nd Guard Infantry Division (the Semenovsky regiment was not in this division), and on his place Colonel Schwarz known by his cruelty to soldiers was appointed. The colonel got the order to "pull up" the regiment. Schwarz put in force corporal punishments even for very small faults, he heaped rude insults on old veterans of the napoleonic campaigns, spat at their faces and made the life in the regiment just a line of "black days". The soldiers driven to despair tried make a complaint to the commander of the Guard Corps. But the complaint was not accepted. Then the first company that consisted only of veterans declared to thier commander that the soldiers ask him to bring their complaint about the cruel treatment of them to the high command. This event was taken as a rebel and the company that did not try to resist was sent to the Petropavlovskaya Fortress. After it the whole battalion was arrested. The frightened command sent two other battalions to the fortresses of Keskholm and Sweaborg.
Potemkin had enough courage and did not cover the favour to his former subordinates, he wore the Semenovsky uniform with proud, and soon he was transferred from St.Petersburg to Riazan to command the 4-th Infantry (Army) Division. Here he served till 1827 when he retired.
But next year the new military actions made him to return to military service. In April of 1828 Potemkin went to the Danube and in July he commanded the detachment that blocked the Turkish fortress Zhurzha.
In summer of 1829 Potemkin took part in military actions in the Caucasus and fought in the battles at Arzrum and Boyburt. In the end of 1830 he retired again, but a short time after was appointed the General-Governor of Volin and Podol, but he was on this post for only two months. He died in Zhitomir on January,25,1831 when he was not 50 yet.