There were only two Russian emperors called The Great: Peter and Catherine. And it’s Catherine who is currently everywhere right now, courtesy of her reincarnation (via Helen Mirren) in new Sky Atlantic series, Catherine the Great.
At the time it takes place, she was the most powerful woman in the world.
So when Mirren turns on her former lover Grigory Orlov (Richard Roxburgh) to ask: “Do you know what I hold in my hand? Absolute power,” she was telling the truth.
Mirren’s other great royal role was playing Queen Elizabeth II, and if there’s something familiar about her regal air here, that’s why.
Yet Elizabeth inherited the throne in her own right, not by virtue of marriage — which was how Catherine came to power, by marrying the future Emperor Peter III.
For just this reason, Catherine’s achievement was more remarkable than even Mirren’s extraordinary performance suggests.
She, who wasn’t even Russian, seized power and maintained it herself — by violence, intrigue, intelligence and good judgment, even though the butchery of her husband that made it possible was done by men around her (she rather skirted over the subject of his untimely death in her five memoirs).
As Mirren has pointed out, Catherine wasn’t the first empress of Russia, though she was the last, and she was unquestionably the greatest.
In a speech to nobles during the first episode we learn from her that “when I first came to Russia I could not even speak Russian”.
Later, she tells her son: “I was only 16 when I married your father and I had no idea that men and women were any different underneath ... if you see what I mean.”
That hints at the dramatic rise of Catherine, a young, ambitious German girl — born Princess Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst — whose relatives arranged her marriage when she was just 15 to a young man she detested, the future Tsar Peter, whose mother was a dominatrix of the old school. Catherine hated his pale complexion and despised his childish ways.
As Countess Bruce (Gina McKee), her intimate friend, reminds her: “He was the ugliest man east of Berlin.”
For nine years the marriage wasn’t consummated. Mirren is 74, though Catherine was in her thirties when this four-part series starts
It doesn’t matter, because the actress has absolute conviction and besides, her age adds gravitas.
Power sits more easily on an older woman and it suits her. But it does mean we’re in danger of forgetting that the original Catherine was young and vulnerable at the start. She was a self-made woman, or at least a self-made Russian.
She made herself learn the language (and nearly caught her death of cold trying to master it by night) and spoke
it well, though she could never get rid of her German accent. She gave up her own name, Sophie, and her Lutheran faith when she was baptised into the Russian Orthodox Church, and was always devout in her religious observance.
She had a plan for power from the start. In one of her memoirs she says flatly that people set far too much importance on the role of Fortune — as in, chance — in the way things turn out.
Rather, she explains, “it is the result of qualities, of character, and of personal conduct.”
Her game plan at 15 was “to please the Grand Duke [her future husband]; to please the Russian people.”
Her role model was the French Henri IV, the supreme opportunist. The great thing about Mirren’s achievement is that she seems completely at home with the elaborate ritual of the Russian court — though it could be bizarre as well as formal.
There’s a hilarious ball in which the hefty Russian courtiers dress as women — Roxburgh’s Orlov has trouble getting his breasts to sit right in his corset — and it was based on the masques that actually took place.
In a way, that cross-dressing was playing out what was happening politically: women were taking on men’s roles, or at least the rulers were, and men were dancing attendance on women.
Much of the series is focused on Mirren’s relationship with Grigory Potemkin, played by Jason Clarke — we only find out at the end about their marriage, which was done in secret and was what is known as a morganatic marriage: one between people of unequal social rank, which prevented the passing on of titles and privileges, which meant there were no dynastic implications.
She leaves him in no doubt who’s boss. She tells him, as she told her other lover, Orlov: “You owe everything to me.”
She makes him kneel in front of her at one banquet. As Countess Bruce remarks to Orlov (in bed), “you don’t seem to have a problem with powerful women.”
In the series, Catherine has no hesitation in overruling Potemkin when it comes to military strategy.
She insists that the Russian army lay siege to a Turkish fortress that it supposed to be impregnable. Potemkin does; the siege succeeds.
She rides out to meet him after his early victories against the Crimean Khan, so as to be seen by the people — wearing military uniform.
The Empress was a great horsewoman — in fact, she would often ride astride a horse, not sidesaddle.
What we don’t get in this series is an idea of the extent of her travels throughout her empire but this was one of the ways she managed to consolidate her territories, which she expanded enormously.
What we do see is the brutality that she deployed to seize and maintain power.
Her son Paul (played by Joseph Quinn) declares savagely that the story she put round about the death of his father was that he’d succumbed to “haemorrhoidal colic ... terminal piles!”
Perfectly true. We also see her agree to the murder of the unfortunate young claimant to the Russian throne, Ivan VI, when a bid to release him from prison fails.
She watches the execution of the peasant rebel leader whom Potemkin brings back to her in a cage. She says, matter of factly, that: “I don’t like violence but sometimes it’s necessary.”
And she completely lacks any womanly maternal qualities; she detests her son, and it’s mutual.
The series gives us a glimpse of another Catherine. At its start, she quotes Voltaire. She is often writing (she told one friend that she couldn’t see a pen without her fingers itching) and during court petitions she agrees to the foundation of a school for girls.
This liberalism at the start was a crucial part of the way Catherine saw herself: as a friend of the Enlightenment, and an enlightened despot that the French political reformers hoped for.
She read widely, including Montesquiou and her penfriend Voltaire. She gave refuge to philosopher Denis Diderot in 1773 and 1774, she wrote plays and she edited journals (though we don’t see that here).
Even so, in the show at the end, when the Frencu Revolution is happening offstage, Catherine is seen presiding over the burning of dangerous French books.
The series ends — spoiler alert — with Catherine in her coffin with her unlovely son Paul declaring that Russia would never again be ruled by a woman. It wasn’t.
But the Empress had the last laugh. Five years after taking the throne, Paul was assassinated and dethroned by his own son. Catherine remains the Great. You could say the same about Helen Mirren.
Catherine The Great airs at 9pm on Thursdays on Sky Atlantic. All four episodes are available on Now TV.