What did it take for a woman to rule the ruthless world of Russia in the eighteenth century? In Ekaterina, a Russian-made miniseries, we see the journey of the young and naive German princess Friederike as she is forged into the strong and savvy woman who would rule Russia as Catherine the Great.
As the story begins, the Russian Empress Elizabeth (Yelizabeta Petrovna) is searching for an heir to carry on the legacy of her father, Peter the Great. She has named her nephew, Peter (Pyotr Fyodorovich) to follow her, but the odd (and semi-half-witted?) young man needs a fertile wife to continue the dynasty. Friederike, because of her connections to the Prussian duke, is sent to Russia as a possible candidate for Peter’s wife. The opening scene shows Friederike riding through the bitter snow in a closed carriage with her petulant mother, capsizing before reaching their destination, and rescued by a Russian prince. Naively, Friedrike assumes that this handsome prince is her intended, but the fairy tale is shattered when he reveals he is only the prince’s chamberlain, come to meet the carriage and bring Friedrike back to a very unenthusiastic suitor.
As the episodes unfold, Friedrike is made to suffer every indignity at the Russian court. Her mother is deported as a Prussian spy, the halfwit Peter is obviously repulsed by her, and the Empress humiliates her in multifarious ways, changing the girl’s name to Ekaterina as she converts her to the Russian Orthodox faith.
For seven years, Ekaterina endures a sham marriage with Peter, with her main purpose of producing an heir to the Russian throne beyond her power to achieve. As Empress Elizabeth’s health worsens, she encourages Ekaterina to take a lover, and Ekaterina finds herself pregnant at last. The Empress forcibly seizes the child to raise as her own, leaving Ekaterina to realize afresh just how powerless she is in the hands of the master puppeteer. Meanwhile, Russia goes into a bitter war with Prussia, and Ekaterina in the midst of her pain must choose which motherland she will be loyal to.
When the long awaited event of Elizabeth’s death finally arrives, an ecstatic Peter confirms everyone’s low opinion of him by making an unconditional peace with Prussia and invalidating the sacrifices so many Russian soldiers have made. His attempts to change the devoutly Orthodox country to Lutheranism angers the populace even further. When he initiates a divorce against Ekaterina, the army rallies behind her, overthrowing Peter in a coup that will place Ekaterina on the throne.
This miniseries was a fantastic character study. In the beginning Ekaterina has ideals. She attempts to love and respect Peter, claiming that history will know her as Ekaterina the Faithful. She refuses to be involved in any of the internecine struggles in the Russian court, claiming that she will have no blood on her hands. But the vicissitudes of life transform her. By the end, she has had three children by as many lovers, and for the sake of saving her own life and the life of her son, she engages in a coup that brings about Peter’s death.
Some of the horrors throughout the story are the glimpses we catch of “the secret prisoner” that Empress Elizabeth keeps contained in a fortress, away from the eyes of the world. Known as Ivan VI, he had been proclaimed emperor while still an infant. Within a few months, Elizabeth had usurped the position, however, relegating the hapless child to life imprisonment, with instructions that he not be taught his name or even taught to speak. Throughout the story, we are told that Ekaterina is “kind,” and indeed, she seems much kinder than Elizabeth. In the final episode, she visits the secret prisoner, and the question arises: will she remedy the injustice Elizabeth did and set him free? Or has Ekaterina grown too much like the woman she hates? Can an empress ever truly be kind to a possible rival?
Elizabeth (and Ekaterina, as she matured) reminded me of Lewis’ character Orual in Till We Have Faces. Their devouring love, which was always predicated on self love, consumed those around them. Empress Elizabeth, especially, was like Shelob from The Lord of the Rings, snaring everyone inside her court with her secrets, her spies, and her calculated cruelty.
The way that Elizabeth exerted control through naming is a theme in the story, a theme that carries on to Elizabeth’s true successor, Ekaterina. In one telling scene, Ekaterina informs her lover Grigory that she has named their child Alexei. He balks at this, wishing he had been consulted. He has desires too about how the child should be named. But just like Empress Elizabeth, Ekaterina overrides him. Her wishes are paramount, and now that she is free from Elizabeth’s web, her children will bear the names that she ordains.
In some ways, this story was a triumph–the survival of Catherine the Great against all odds. In other ways, it was a tragedy–the transformation of a sweet soul into a Machiavellian victor in the Hunger Games of the Russian court.
One scene that stays with me is when Ivan, the secret prisoner, reveals that his nanny in the prison, contravening all orders, taught him to speak and to read. He knows most of the Bible by heart, to recite in his cell when he is alone. “Will you set me free?” he asks Ekaterina. “Yes,” she says, although the answer is a lie. “I will pray for you every day,” he says, as the door swings shut against him, little knowing that prayers are of far lesser concern to Catherine the Great than the security of the Russian throne.
Note: Although this series had far less explicit sexuality than American shows like The Tudors, there was still some nudity.