My command of Russian history is limited at best: I have heard of the Romanovs and Anastasia in more recent times and I knew of the two greats, Peter and Catherine. And who can forget Ra-ra-rasputin, lover of the Russian queen, who was poisoned by “they” who put it into his wine, although Boney M may not be renowned as the highest source of information on all things Soviet.
Disco not withstanding, my knowledge of Peter the Great was learnt from a mini-series I seem to remember watching with my mum when I was a lot younger and this may or may not have been historically accurate but I do remember it being gripping.
And Catherine? Well, the story of her, and a horse, and the cause of her demise being a problem whilst said horse was being lowered onto her is the stuff of debunked myth but widespread nonetheless. Beyond that though, I have to admit that my knowledge of her role in Russian history was pretty much non-existent.
If I was expecting The Great on Amazon Prime to enlighten me as to the ambitions and successes of Catherine, it would be fair to admit that this was probably not the most accurate way to learn about her.
Indeed, it does state under the opening title that it is occasionally based on a true story, which is possibly the only accuracy about the whole series but that’s neither here nor there.
What it is is bloody entertaining.
Developed from a play written by Tony McNamara, the series charts the progress of Catherine from a young, naïve and idealistic member of the Austrian nobility to Empress of Russia, where her life at the Russian court is a far cry from her expectations of what it would be like to be Empress.
Firstly, Peter, her husband, is a revelation. Young himself and very assured of the right to be in his position as Emperor, he is played by Nicholas Hoult as a brattish man, petulant, inconsistent and intent on satisfying his every whim with immediacy and without any thought to the people around him. It is fair to say that he doesn’t have a clue and if you needed any proof of the flaws in an hereditary system that passes power from generation to generation purely because of the right of birth, then Peter is the embodiment of that proof.
His abuse of his power is reminiscent of that of the worst of the Roman emperors, Caligula and Nero, where their narcissism was the ruling personality trait; good judgement, empathy and knowledge of their people are completely unacknowledged or even realised. The contempt that he treats his immediate advisors is appalling to watch especially that of Velementov played by Douglas Hodge who he mercilessly bullies, passing it off as playful teasing but it is violent and humiliating and disrespectful to a man who is a seasoned veteran, a tactician, a general but has been reduced by his ruler to a figment of fun. Velementov deals with this by imbibing an awful lot of vodka.
Actually, drinking a lot of vodka is not solely particular to Velementov as the court is pretty prone to drinking copious amounts all the time, along with a shout of “Huzzah!” and the smashing of the glass. And I have to say that “Huzzah!” has become a bit of a catchphrase for me especially in communications with my mum and good friend, Erin who have also watched it. We haven’t moved onto drinking excessive amounts of vodka in the day or smashing glasses yet or, at least, I haven’t – I can’t speak for my mum and Erin.
In fact, indulgence is the order of the day in the court of Emperor Peter the III. This includes, but is not limited to, lots of shagging (sex for those of you not versed in British vernacular) including the wife of your best friend, often infront of him; shooting animals, some of them the pets of other people; drinking continually; eating the finest food. There is not a lot about this life that is high-brow, that’s for sure.
And it is this lack of progression, thought, innovation, education, scientific discovery – all of these things that the enlightened Catherine has been privy to in her European upbringing – that inspires Catherine to open up Russia’s mind by hopefully appealing to Peter.
This is not as easy at it may seem.
Peter has very clear ideas about how things should be and that doesn’t involve change of any sort. When Catherine aims to open a school, shocked that women at court can’t read, she has failed to disclose to Peter that it is to educate women and it is soon shut down in the most dramatic fashion once this fact comes to his attention.
Peter’s limitations come from his arrogance, his inflated position and the power that he wields as a result of it. Knowing that if he is challenged, he can punish, exile, eradicate whoever says anything against him, has led him to believe that he is right and that everybody loves him. There are echoes of the portrayal of Queen Elizabeth by Miranda Richardson in Blackadder II in his petulance and his desire to have all laugh at his jokes and pander to his whims.
You could allow yourself to feel for him a bit but just as you begin to have sympathy, he does an act so brutal or sadistic or selfish that any bonhomie flies out of the window.
He really is despicable.
Catherine has to contend with him on a daily basis and at first, tries to make the best of the situation in which she finds herself, promising to be a good wife and make him fall in love with her. When it is clear that this is not going to be easy and also, bordering on contemptible, she resorts to subversion. She is helped in this by her maid, ostracised former court member Marial and Count Orlo, who both want to see change and both of whom are prepared to help Catherine to obtain power, seeing her progressive outlook as a way for Russia to grow and extricate itself from the frivolous rule of Peter.
The rest of the series concerns itself with Catherine treading a very fine line between keeping Peter reasonably happy and not arousing his suspicions to planning her coup to assume power and make Russia great.
And she does achieve a modicum of success, using her wisdom to help stop the war with Sweden, propelled into action after a visit to see the wounded men, where she and Elizabeth, Peter’s aunt, in a scene biting with satire whilst also managing to be quite moving, dish out macarons in beautiful caskets to mangled men on a muddy battlefield; she gets art brought to court only to have it removed again; she introduces science too, an experiment with a parachute being launched off the palace balcony lightening up Peter’s imagination, especially when he substitutes the parachute’s cargo for something else of the same weight, a small pet dog; she obtains a printing press which is used for satirical purposes and undermines her motive for acquiring it.
Unfortunately, her wins are outweighed by her losses and there is a sense throughout that any progress that she makes with Peter could quite easily change in an instant with no warning; that the established traditions are solidly unyielding, especially if there are benefitting men determined to uphold them; that radical change will have to wait.
Alongside the political machinations, there is also Catherine’s relationship with her lover, Leo who is actually found for her and approved by Peter, as he is keen for his new wife to be happy and so, advises her to have a lover, like he does. They can still meet up to do the perfunctory servicing to produce an heir (the first time that this happens being a particularly funny but excruciatingly embarrassing scene for Catherine) but she should also have enjoyment as long as she doesn’t fall in love with him, because then, of course, Peter would have to kill him.
Leo is sweet and caring and intelligent. Of course, she falls in love with him. But he is also a realist and knows that his position at court is precarious and that he could fall from grace in an instant and that this would mean exile at best, his execution at worst. Leo is very stoical about this as a Russian who has lived in this atmosphere all his life and I think that this is what is most disturbing about their situation – control is not theirs; it belongs to Peter and whilst they can move under his radar to a degree, if Peter’s attention focuses on Leo, or Leo’s relationship with Catherine, and whatever Peter perceives displeases him or makes him insecure or worse, then it will end badly unless he is appeased.
She also has to deal with the ladies at court who are hostile to her, ostensibly because she is a little snooty with them to start as well as showing loyalty to her maid, Marial, in front of them. This is a bad social move by Catherine as, as well as showing her naïvety with the nuances of courtly politics – you should never favour a maid – she also manages to make an enemy of the influential Lady Svenska. Svenska has a lot of influence over the other ladies at court – they are mean girls in posh frocks and Catherine’s education includes having to befriend women who she cannot abide nor relate to easily to ease her days at court.
I think there is a perceived idea that the courts of kings and emperors are pleasure playgrounds but for Catherine, it is a dangerous place and she has to learn how to survive in an overtly hostile environment, the landscape of which can change every single day. It must have been mentally exhausting.
Of course, you’ll have to watch it to find out if it all works out for Catherine and all of her supporters or whether Peter will prevail.
I’ve realised, on rereading my review, that I have painted a very dark picture of this series, whilst also flippantly calling it entertainment. I think this may need some further explanation on my part before I sign off.
It is clear that this is a programme about a totalitarian regime where people are subjected to living in uncertainty at best and terror and fear at worst and all this on a daily basis; usually, the domain of gritty drama.
However, McNamara has chosen to write Catherine’s story as satire; black comedic satire at its finest. It is incredibly funny throughout and I think this is as a result of the no holds barred approach as we are subjected to the worst of humanity without filter; the comedy eases the incredulity at what you are witnessing: the bullying, the total disregard for people’s feelings, the brutality, the absence of reason, the violence, the lack of restraint in everything. The court of Peter is so extreme that to view it without the veil of humour would be depressing, even soul destroying. The thought that this could be a way of life for people is mind-boggling.
What also adds to this sense of watching something which is exaggerated are the characters themselves. They are like caricatures of a type: Peter is the brattish royal; Catherine is the idealist prone to self praise; Velementov, the damaged soldier; Orlo, the timid survivalist and thinker; Elizabeth, the mad aunt who is actually the most astute.
There is a sense that the royalness, the pomp and the power is a gloss for the seaminess of life underneath. These people lack depth and McNamara is showing this in the best way possible – by poking fun at it, by highlighting its ridiculousness.
However, that does not detract from the fact that this is compulsive viewing. It makes you laugh, yes, but there is an undercurrent of unease at every encounter that Catherine has with Peter, especially when advocating for change. There is tension at every turn and real sadness when people are mistreated or scared or pushed to submit to the will of an unhinged ruler.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t sound as far fetched as it should in reality.
But it is satire and powerful satire at that although not totally new.
It reminds me in its extremity of the most bitter satire of Jonathan Swift, comedic suggestion masked as satirical invective, perhaps best displayed in A Modest Proposal where he advises that a hunger crisis can be solved by eating babies. He even suggests cooking methods.
Horrific? Ridiculous? Yes, to both. But also a very strong way to deliver a message and get people thinking.
And whilst The Great got me laughing, it has also got me thinking.