Of all the women in history, I think I can identify with Catherine the Great the most. I read Carolly Erickson’s book many years ago and was really caught by certain similarities. She married at a young age to an abusive man. She had her sons taken from her (for different reasons than I, naturally, but both political). She was a survivor and saw love as a way to redeem the much needed emotional vacancy within herself. She also never remarried (it is possible she married Grigory Potemkin but it is not documented). When I had heard about the Russian TV series Ekaterina (the correct Russian spelling is Yekaterina), I sat down to indulge myself in the two season portrayal of this great monarch.
It is important to watch this if you love women’s history. There have been other versions from different countries, all of which I have seen but they pale in comparison. The fact that this series comes from the country that she reigned over, a place that annihilated their last monarch so that there would never be one again was tempting to me. I had heard that the series was true to life. I was surprised though as I did not think Russia allowed such things to occur. Communism did away with so much from the past, so much that she worked so hard to bring to this country.
Catherine II was not Russian though. Sophia Friederike Auguste was brought from Prussia (which is now Poland) into the country as a bride for the heir presumptive Peter. She spoke German when she came to meet Peter and his Aunt Elizabeth, who was the Empress at that time. Empress Elizabeth was a very strict Roman Catholic and, well, strict is hardly strong enough a word to describe this very disturbing woman. Catherine was modest and intelligent enough to see how to play her cards the minute she stepped food on the royal carpet. She impressed the Empress yet immediately she was forced to give up her culture, speak Russian (which she had been learning) and take the name of Catherine. This is not too unusual when you look at the Native Americans being kidnapped by the Catholics and stripped of their heritage. It is typical in a power play and, for her, better than being brought somewhere as a slave. There are many attributes of Empress Elizabeth that are not played out in Ekaterina, as they focus more on Catherine. They did allude to the fact that she preferred torture over death (for example: skinning alive, branding, and hanging by their arms behind their back).
The show also showed how Empress Elizabeth came to power and this was by taking the infant heir Ivan VI and imprisoning him so that he could not claim the throne. Later, she was obsessed with finding an heir different from her ignorant nephew, Peter, who was the equivalent of an entitled rich kid in today’s society. When Catherine gave birth to their son, the Empress took the child, the moment it was delivered and Catherine could not see her son again, except on very rare occasions. She and her son, Paul I (Pavel Petrovich), never regained a relationship ever again either. This is even after Empress Elizabeth died and Pavel was eight years old by now. From a psychological perspective this makes a lot of sense.
Children who are removed from their parents early on (and have multiple caretakers – which he did, as Elizabeth did more harm then good as a surrogate), generally suffer from attachment disorders. In extreme cases Reactive Attachment Disorder. The mother has a hard time attaching back to the child because it is as if she hardly knows this person and suddenly she is supposed to have maternal feelings. This may sound crude because it sounds easy to just give a child a hug. However, it is an extremely difficult process to re-connect. When you have a child taken from you, at such a young age, it is emotionally wounding. The mother, in order to protect herself, must detach and emotionally protect herself. This is where Catherine began to replace love with men (she hoped to have other children and with someone she loved). You can’t replace the loss of a mother’s love. One love cannot be exchanged for another.
In this series, they did a good job for the most part. The actors reminded me so much of the book I had read. I felt like I was seeing the actual people for the first time. While they did not look alike, as you see above, their ability to portray their characters personality was very accurate. Marina Alexandrova (as Catherine II) was a woman of power. She came across as a very strong, willful, persistent, aggressive woman who started out as a young silly girl, yet bright and grew over the course of the two seasons. Julia Aug (as Empress Elizabeth), while a beautiful woman, came across as a very ugly ogre. Aleksandr Yatsenko, (as Peter III) was very immature and even more stupid than I had imagined in my mind. His performance was so great as he seemed to have an ease with being the court jester. All three seemed at ease yet I think his role was more difficult because he had more behaviors to portray (or facial expressions to personify) rather than just prancing around in skirts.
The only drawbacks from the film, that I found distracting, were some of the publicity stunts. It was portrayed as a “love story,” which almost made me not want to watch it, knowing that it was anything but. Catherine II had a great many lovers and this was used against her as she became the butt of many jokes internationally and throughout the court. The film also made a big deal of her love affair with Grigory Potemkin and even showed a marriage which is only a possibility. They also showed Pavel with a black servant (politically correct nonsense?) From what I can find there was a black family that served Peter the Great but they left the castle once he died and lived out their days on an estate. The second season dulls in comparison to the first season and this is because Catherine II is now in power and so it is more a season of “Which lover shall I choose,” and drama with her teenage son. In other words the second season was just a day in the life of a Queen and the first season was a lot of extreme drama and suspense. I feel they should have ended the series at Season I, which appeared to have initially been the end (they stated in the last episode’s credits that she reigned for 34 years).
One note of interest and I may be wrong about this but I believe the paintings on the wall were the actual paintings of each of the people being portrayed. In the second season there was a scene in the palace where Catherine II leaves the room and the camera angle lingers toward a painting on the wall that I am very sure was the Empress in old age. I found these aspects touching to pay homage for those of us watching who are history buffs. The end of the second season they tried to portray a humbling experience of Catherine II getting in touch with her spiritual side and becoming a more enlightened woman. It came across appropriately but then the show ended so quickly (telling rather than showing). It would have been nice to show the various changes that Catherine II created for her country, in the second season, rather than being so focused on war, teen angst and conquests of men. I don’t really think she came across in such a great light because reading her accomplishments on the screen credits is not the same as showing her love for the arts, philosophy, science, and many other intellectual pursuits. Catherine II was the longest running monarch in Russia.
What the life of Catherine the Great gives us, as women, is a look at a woman’s rise to power. It is insightful to read about her story, even today, as you think and compare her life (minus the castle), with that of a young single parent trying to have a career and even gain an education. Women complain too much in today’s modern society. They whine about what they can and cannot do. It seems to me that they are unable to take responsibility for their own behaviors in the situation in question, they just want to blame. Catherine II’s story also shows us that women are not perfect or the ideal person in power. She was not dominated by a paternal society, she was the matriarch of her kingdom and her word (and Empress Elizabeth’s word during her reign), was the final straw. In actuality, women have accomplished many great things in history and they have done many bad things as well. It is not about what gender or race or culture that is in power but what that person is capable of accomplishing. We are too desperate today to have a woman or a black or a gay in power and this cloud’s our judgement in making choices for who that person should be.