We asked the leading expert on time of Catherine II to give you the lowdown on the new HBO miniseries. Was it a faithful retelling of events? Or did American filmmakers resort to butchering history for the sake of entertainment? Read on to find out.
Russian history seems to be a popular subject these days, with ‘Catherine the Great’ being the second stab at capturing one of its defining eras in 2019 alone.
Having discharged ourselves out of the hospital after recovering from the shame that was Netflix’s ‘The Last Czars’, we sat down to watch the iconic Hellen Mirren do her take on the Russian empress – a grandiose project that was filmed, among other locations, at the historic Russian Royal residences of Tsarskoe Selo, Peterhof, and Gatchina.
We do not intend here to engage in thorough attacks on costumes, the intricacies of court ceremonies and political relationships – the creators spent their budget well on documenting those.
And we’ve got bigger fish to fry. That said, there are moments on the show with the potential to dramatically skew your understanding of Russian history. In order to dissect them, we invited Dr. Aleksandr Kamensky - the director of the Higher School of Economics’ School of History, and one of the leading authorities on Catherine II.
Enter Catherine, please
The movie story begins with Catherine’s visit to a prison in Shlisselburg, where she meets Ivan VI of Russia. The Empress is seen traveling with high risk, without an enormous entourage that one might expect from Royal visit, which we, frankly, cannot confirm either by historical facts.”
Also Catherine would not have been able to encounter lieutenant Mirovich on her visit – he hadn’t occupied the post yet in 1762.
The writers took some liberties with some characters’ life stories. Such as with Prince Potemkin, who is a member of the Imperial Guard here, but in reality had already attained the rank of Kamer-Junker (equivalent to Groom of the Chamber) after the revolution: in other words, he would not have been standing guard with a rifle at the imperial chambers, as shown here.
Richard Roxburgh as Grigory Orlov
Prince Grigory Orlov’s age also raises questions – he would have been 30 years old at the time. But here, he and his younger brother are fully grown men past their prime. This is why Catherine’s affair with Orlov raises some questions. He practically patronizes her, when in fact, he’s hardly five years her junior.
Paul’s increased age, on the other hand, allows him to take part in Lieutenant Mirovich’s conspiracy. According to one version of events, the plot to break Ivan VI out of prison – resulting in his murder, was in fact concocted by Catherine, and not her son.
The details of the killing and the execution are also slightly off. It is a matter of record that Ivan was stabbed in the back, and did not have his throat slit. As for Mirovich, he was sentenced to execution by the Governing Senate – not Catherine. Nor did she bear witness to it.
By the way, Paul’s coming of age was not celebrated nearly as lavishly as shown in the series: Catherine was terrified of the threat to her throne, and wanted to distract the attention as much as possible from her son’s status of the heir.
But even if the party had in fact taken place, Grigory Potemkin would not have been able to display such flagrant disregard for punctuality – royal family members were shown much more respect than that.
And although Potemkin – at the time of the war with the Turkish in 1768 – would have been General (and not Lieutenant), simply showing up to the Empress’s table, saying “I’m sorry” and sitting down like nothing was the matter would have been unthinkable.
Potemkin was one of the central figures in Catherine’s reign. But the writers choose to bestow different accolades on him: in real life, he did not take part in the hunt for Pugachev, least of all in his imprisonment (that was his distant relative, Pavel Sergeevich Potemkin); meanwhile, any mention of the Prince’s solving of the Crimean regional problems and military reform is noticeably absent from the series.
The quelling of the Pugachev rebellion wasn’t really a highlight of Potemkin’s career - and he deserves much more praise for his role on the Turkish front. In the series, it's the victory in the Pugachev coup that opens the door to Catherine’s alcove for Potemkin. In reality, he’d already been Catherine’s favorite by then.
Making Crimea a Russian territory takes center stage in the show. Potemkin refers to it as “no man’s land”. In reality, the peninsula had already been a satellite territory for 10 years by then.
Below: Kevin McNally as Alexei Orlov...
A large portion of the show is devoted to heated political discussions that have little to do with reality, as does the fact that Aleksey Orlov takes an active role in discussing the annexation of Crimea. By the way, in 1768 Aleksey Orlov was 31 years old
Another "haphazardly done story" in the series is that of Paul I and the loss of his wife and child. As Natalya gives birth, the Empress herself is present, looking all ragged and simple, making the whole scene rather “homey”. The drama is amped up when her and Paul are saying their goodbyes to the stillborn child – something that could in no way have happened, given that Natalya got blood poisoning and died as a result of intrauterine fetal demise.
Another scene that caught our attention was Catherine’s order to burn the French books. One might have thought that an ‘enlightened’, educated monarch, French king Louis XV have not participated in such a ritual when The King's Council suppressed the Encyclopédie of Diderot and d'Alembert in 1759 and to burn it
French king Louis XV (right)
(Below) Denis Diderot was a French philosopher, art critic, and writer, best known for serving as co-founder, chief editor, and contributor to the Encyclopédie
(Below): Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778) was a Genevan philosopher, writer and composer. His political philosophy influenced the progress of the Enlightenment throughout Europe, as well as he had strong influence to the French Revolution in 1789
The first to criticize Rousseau were his fellow Philosophes, above all, Francois-Marie Voltaire (below). He was a French Enlightenment writer, historian, and philosopher famous for his wit, his criticism of Christianity, especially the Roman Catholic Church, as well as his advocacy of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and separation of church and state
Famous heartfelt correspondence from the great acerbic wit of the European Enlightenment Francois-Marie Voltaire to the Russian empress Catherine the Great, in which he praises her authoritarian style, called her "a patron of the arts and a philosopher on the throne" and mocks the extravagances and non educated of her French counterparts. In Voltaire's room there was a portrait of Catherine in front of his table"
I reality, Catherine was indeed enraged by the work of Russian revolutionary writers Aleksandr Radischev, Nikolay Novikov and other thinkers of the time. – were printing press without the royal permission – or books printed by Novikov on his own. The same can be said for Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whom Catherine also despised – which is also aptly documented by the show’s writers.
Seemingly in a rush to tie everything up in order to fit with the runtime, the writers resort to greatly exaggerating certain details. When Catherine speaks of the Empire, there is not one mention of Emperor Peter the Great (right), whose lessons and entire model had been a source of inspiration throughout her reign. The Empress never have attributed the creation of the Russian Empire to herself.
Below: Equestrian statue of Peter the Great in the Senate Square in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Commissioned by Catherine the Great
The Empress’s death is reminiscent of that which takes place in Armando Iannucci’s ‘The Death of Stalin’ – the scene resembles some kind of ‘danse macabre"...
Never could the courtiers and dignitaries have been allowed to bear witness to the search or destruction of a paper supposedly signed by young Aleksandr (this is quite insane). Also, although the Empress did, in fact, lay dying practically on the floor (after a brain hemorrhage it would have been dangerous to move her), she would never have been able to regain consciousness, much less speak to anyone at her side.
The pictures: Empress Catherine the Great in 1794
In spite of its huge flaws, this dramatic retelling of history at least tried toshow the era of Catherine the Great. But the result was just a cosmetic resemblance of history with a good actors but with bad casting choices.
Some monumental developments in history are completely left out, as are certain key biographical details from the Empress's life: the Provincial Reform and the work of the Legislative Commission in policy-making; the three partitions of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth and the liquidation of the Zaporozhian Sich, two Turkish campaign of 1768-1791, war with Sweden Finally, Catherine’s great work in education was skipped over, as was her affinity for the sciences and the arts.
The central ambiguity is the apparent disjuncture between the all-powerful empress and the vulnerable woman. Catherine embarked on her 9 romantic relationships, by the way, not so many affairs during all life of modern woman, - with high hopes that were nearly always dashed. It traces her obsessive need for love and approval back to her early childhood without love and her mother’s lack of interest in her.
However, that wasn’t really the mission set by the creators of film to show how Catherine became to be Great Empress.
And there’s plenty here to think about :-)
Left: 'Empress Catherine II before the mirror' by Robert K Massie (1779)