Tag Archives: Ekaterina

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie

Catherine the Great.jpg

After seeing all episodes of Ekaterina available on Prime, I re-read Robert K. Massey’s marvellous Catherine the Great, which I’d read when it first came out. There were things in it that either didn’t make an impression then but do now or that I’d forgotten. The scandal of Catherine wasn’t that she had so many lovers — she was a very romantic person and it was a kind of serial monogamy with her — but that the ones she took in her later life were so much younger than herself, the men twenty-odd to her 50-odd. That Potemkin bedded his three nieces one after the other when they were in their teens garnered no censure. That Orlov seduced a thirteen year-old relative was used as an excuse to break up with him but no other problemo. And of course, John Paul Jones, the founder of the US navy was tried for having raped a 12-year old and this led to his leaving the Russian navy. I’d also forgotten that though serfs in theory were tied to the land, in practice their lot was one of slavery and they were bought and sold with no regard for kinship ties as African-American slaves were in the US. Serfs were emancipated in 1861. Slaves were freed in the US in 63. It also struck me that Catherine lived then as many gay men do now, with former lovers adding up to an extended family and support network.

Robert K. Massie’s book is a truly great popular biography, history as page turner, all 656 pages of it and i re-read it in what felt like one huge gulp. Her dangerous beginnings, the murder of her husband, Russian expansion into Poland and the Crimea, her correspondence with Voltaire and Diderot, her art collection, her palace building, her faiIure to free the serfs even as she vaunted the liberty of men, are all clearly written, based on enormous learning, and streamlined into a drama in which the central protagonist is made knowable and admirable. I highly recommend.


José Arroyo

A quick note on Ekaterina (TV Series, Russia, 2014-)


Those of you who are interested in historical drama might be interested in Ekaterina, a dramatisation of the transformation of a young and unimportant German Princess into Catherine the Great,  on Prime. It covers the same story and period as Von Sternberg’s The Scarlett Empress. It’s got excellent production and a charismatic cast with Empress Elizabeth (Julia Aug) foregrounded here much more than in other narratives. What made it so interesting for me is that it’s Russian; it was ostensibly a big hit there and much talked about. It’s interesting to see the story of Catherine the Great’s seizing of the Russian throne from a Russian point-of-view and difficult to see some of the faults outside that context; the patriotism is tied to a particular rough type of masculinity; the villain of the piece is Fredrick the Great (Hartmut Kurg), made villainous through his sodomy and his love of culture; likewise Peter III (Alexandr Yatsenko) is seen to be too interested in the arts, too unpatriotic and not masculine enough to inherit the throne. So all the homophobia etc of the culture is subtly evident throughout the work, but very glamorous and enjoyable to see in spite of that; and certainly informative.Marina Alexandrova gives a great star performance as Ekaterina: charismatic, beautiful, glamorous but also capable of conveying subtle, wide-ranging and even simultaneous and contradictory registers of emotion. She’s great.

The series is directed by Alexandr Baranov and  Ramil Sabitóv; and written by Arif Eliev and Elena Palmer

José Arroyo