If Catherine’s purpose is to get people interested in Catherine, it’s unclear whether its narrative does the trick.
It’s been a prolific year for serials about Russia and the Soviet Union. This October and November, the production team behind Chernobyl rounded out the year with Catherine the Great, an ambitious miniseries about the last decade of Catherine the Great’s reign. Refreshingly, though it is a historical drama, Catherine doesn’t bill itself as a rigorous treatment of Russian history. It is first and foremost a story — a historically attentive story, but a story nonetheless.
The series distills the last decade of Catherine’s reign into three main subplots. Center stage is Catherine’s relationship with Grigory Potemkin, but the series leaves plenty of time for other clashes. Catherine fights not one but two rebels: the officer Mirovich, a rogue guard of the long-deposed Ivan VI, and the Cossack Pugachev. Moreover, she faces an increasingly resentful rival in the form of her son, Paul, who seeks and is sought out by intriguing courtiers attempting to undermine her rule.
It sounds like a recipe for a gripping four episodes. Helen Mirren’s Catherine is a tour de force. Ruthless and calculating yet affectionate, she rallies the audience to her side with her wit before snapping back with unsettling self-interest. “I know more about politics than you will ever know,” she seethes to Paul. But Catherine is such a powerful presence that nobody, barring Potemkin or Paul, can convincingly challenge her. Moreover, it often feels like notable historical events are being checked off, rather than evolving organically from one to the other. Catherine breaks up with Vasilchikov; then Catherine courts Potemkin; then Catherine hosts the grand cross-dressing ball; then Grishenka shows Catherine his new fleet.
It doesn’t help that of all the series’ storylines, the most intense and emotionally fraught one is not the main plot, Catherine and Potemkin’s romance, but rather Catherine’s relationship with her son. From a storytelling perspective, Paul is a much more potent match for Catherine in their power struggle, if only because he has the law and the memory of Catherine’s coup on his side. There is also a historiographical dimension to their conflict that isn’t present to the same degree as Catherine and Potemkin’s relationship. It’s true that by focusing on Potemkin, the show can humanize Catherine while rectifying the popular misconception of Catherine as primarily sex-crazed. But documents exist that settle with reasonable confidence the nature of Catherine’s romantic relationships. On the other hand, historians still argue over whether Paul really undid his mother’s legacy (which the series claims in the last episode).
As history, Catherine the Great makes no egregious missteps. But as a story, it puts too much focus on Catherine and not enough on the people around her. Unlike its titular character, it is no “great” treatment of Catherine’s reign. Here’s hoping that it at least entices the casual viewer to read more, and more deeply, about Catherine and her deeds.
HBO’s mini-series portrays Catherine the great woman, not Catherine the Great.
“You showed the world what a woman can achieve,” said Countess Bruce to her friend Catherine the Great near the end of HBO’s recent miniseries dedicated to the monarch’s reign. After Catherine’s death, her son Paul I decreed that a woman shall never again rule Russia, solidifying sentiments expressed earlier in the show by multiple characters about how the Russian people think that they should be ruled by a man.
Who doesn’t love a good story of female empowerment, the triumph of a great woman against even greater odds, especially when you throw in sexual liberation and a gender-charged romance? Modern viewers eat up that narrative... which has no basis in history.
HBO’s attention to historical and cultural detail is usually good, from the general political milieu, to the rules of Russian billiards, albeit a nails-on-chalkboard tendency to forgo Russian pronunciation and stress second syllables (it’s bad when English speakers say baBUSHka, and even worse when Catherine calls her lover GriSHENka). However, their decision to play up Catherine’s gender is egregiously ahistorical, and frankly belittling to Catherine.
Russia did not need to be ruled by a man. In fact, it was ruled by women – four of them – for 34 of the 37 years between the death of Peter the Great (who himself had taken over from his elder sister) and the coronation of Catherine the Great. The longest-ruling man in that time period was Peter II. He was twelve years old. After three years, the elite had enough of the child ruler and begged Peter the Great’s niece, Anna Ioannovna, to come back from ruling a region of the Baltics and take the Russian throne. They tried to make her a constitutional monarch, and the first thing she did upon arrival – at the advice of her older sister, Catherine – was rip up the constitution.
The idea of an unconstitutional monarch is crucial to understanding the Russian matriarchs. The exact title Catherine used in her decrees wasn’t tsaritsa or empress, but autocrat (samoderzhtsa). The literal meaning of the word in Russian is to hold (the root derzh) by yourself (sam). Catherine didn’t just rule Russia; she possessed Russia. The autocrat was so far above her subjects that normal gender rules did not apply. Having a female monarch wasn’t liberating for women in Russia. It wasn’t a feminist statement. It was just absolute power, vested in a person, not pronouns.
The HBO mini-series diminished Catherine’s politics by linking them to gender. The series implied that Catherine was in a weaker position because she, a woman, came into power through the help of her lover Orlov, who led a coup against her husband Peter III. Reality was closer to the opposite: in Russia might made right, and she was strong namely because she took power for herself. (Just look at what happened to the son she admonished as weak and entitled: assassinated by his own son, Alexander.) The half-hearted threats to her power in the series were unconvincing because they were exaggerated, and worse, played into the gender stereotype of a woman who needs male protection.
The series also implicitly linked Catherine’s liberal leanings to her gender. The first episode shows Catherine to be much gentler in her policies than her male advisors. Catherine did have ideas for reform of the serf system that slowly were put aside for war and (more importantly, but not depicted as much in the series) keeping the nobles happy. So did every monarch, male and female, for generations before and after Catherine. Even her short-reigned husband Peter III wrote more laws per day than she did. Packaging a woman ruler as an empire-building Amazon on the outside, mother-to-her-people on the inside is appealing to modern viewers. However, it misses the nuance of Catherine’s rule that differentiated her from her predecessors and successors, that caused her to be deemed Great. Not great for a woman, mind you – just straight-up Great.
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