The Great What?

The Great is a series on Channel Four about Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia. Some people think it is a great travesty of history, whilst others enjoy it. Controversy seldom does a TV series any harm and many features of this one make for controversy.

What’s controversial about The Great?

Here are some starters.

  • ¬†Characters talk about sex openly and crudely.
  • Sadistic violence often occurs.
  • The dialogue if full of four-letter words.

Then there’s the way the writers have rewritten history!

Are these faults so great?

I have no idea how people spoke at the Russian Court in the 18th century. However, I believe they lacked refinement. Anyway, let’s face it, people have probably talked about sex everywhere for most of history, but sometimes they have spoken of it more circumspectly. Most historians say the Russian Tsars and the nobility were all cruel and violent, because they could get away with it. From a dramatic point of view, you might argue that these features contribute to the shock and the dark humour of the series.¬† They also bring out the contrast between the Russia Catherine discovered and the enlightened country she wanted to create.

How inaccurate is The Great?

Quite a lot! Here are a few clangers.

  • Catherine and Peter were married for several years before he became Tsar.
  • They lived in Germany in those early years.
  • The dowager empress, Elizabeth, was still alive for many years into this period and played a very active role in Russian politics.
  • Her husband was Peter III not Peter II and was the grandson, not son, of Peter I, the Great.

On the other hand the series got a few things right.

  • Catherine was more educated and sophisticated than most Russian women – and most Russian men!
  • Most historians say Peter was immature and selfish, quite unfit to rule.
  • There were lots of plots against Peter, and Catherine played a role in some.
  • Catherine probably had sex with men to get her own way (how unusual!).

One great caveat.

Who writes history? The winners! I don’t think you will find a contemporary account that shows Peter as a good man or a victim. Perhaps he was as bad as we think, but we can’t be sure.

A quill pen.  Scribes were and are seldom unbiassed.

A quill pen. Scribes were and are seldom unbiassed.

My great hope!

For all its faults, I hope this series encourages a few people to take an interest in Russian history. Most of us focus too much on our own story and ignore the rest of the world. I have written before about Black History and said that we all would benefit from knowing more about each other’s stories. Even after Brexit (perhaps especially now?) we should not ignore the rest of the world but rather should try to understand it.