Tuesday, December 27, 2005

a sexy chick, German or Russian, take your pick

Last night, Sarah, Catherine and I watched The Rise of Catherine the Great, which Catherine’s boyfriend bought for her as a joke. Turned out an excellent movie, lavishly made in 1934 by London Films, and about as historically accurate as a Shakespeare history play, no doubt. Catherine (Elisabeth Bergner) is a scion of the German aristocracy, brought to the Russian court to marry the Count Peter (Douglas Fairbanks looking very fetching), nephew of the Empress Elizabeth (the magnificent Flora Robson). I wondered at this Elizabeth who'd somehow attained this exalted position without my having heard of her.

Well Elizabeth Petrovna was Tzar of Russia for 21 years. She was the youngest daughter of Peter the Great and Catherine I. Previously regarded as a transitional figure between Peter and Catherine the Great, she's recently received more prominence as an important figure in her own right.

Seems the eighteenth century was a biggie for female political leaders in Russia. Rather astonishingly, the first eighteenth century woman to achieve the supreme power was Catherine I, widow of Peter the Great. She was of Lithuanian peasant stock and couldn’t read or write, though apparently she was highly intelligent. Clearly a great beauty in her younger years, she’d been passed from man to man as a spoil of war before Peter cast his eyes upon her. There’s some confusion, at least to my mind, about whether he actually married her, but she was in enough favour to be accepted as supremo upon Peter’s death. Not that this Catherine was the first woman to wield supreme power in Russia. Sofia, the half-sister of Peter the Great, was appointed regent in the 1680s, though she was guided by her male advisers. Catherine too was an ineffectual ruler, and was succeeded by Peter’s grandson, Peter II, a child of twelve who died well before his fifteenth birthday. At his death Anna Ivanova or Anna of Courland became Tsar. She was the niece of Peter the Great, and the daughter of Ivan V, the Tsar between 1682 and 1696. Although not German herself, Anna surrounded herself with German advisers, a trend which was reversed by Elizabeth. Anna died in 1740, naming her nephew Ivan as her successor. He was only two months old at the time, and his mother Anna Leopoldovna was appointed regent. Another woman. A year later, a coup was staged in favour of Elizabeth, who then ruled until the end of 1761. Six months after her death, Catherine the Great ascended the throne after a successful coup was staged against her much-detested husband, Peter.

So Catherine the Great ruled Russia for 34 years, and, all told, women were in the pre-eminent position for two-thirds of the century.

Catherine was born Sophia the daughter of a minor German aristocrat, but she also happened to be the niece of Karl August, who had been engaged to the Empress Elizabeth before his sudden death in 1727. It seems he’d been the love of Elizabeth’s life, and she remained close to his family ever afterwards, so when Sophia came of age, Elizabeth invited her over to become the husband of her nephew and heir, Peter. The young pair married, but hated each other, and it’s quite likely that Elizabeth, who had no illusions about her nephew, was grooming Sophia, now Catherine, as the eventual ruler.

Okay, no more historical background, please, the film should be looked at on its own terms. In it, Catherine is presented as young, beautiful, naïve but a quick learner, disappointed in and hungry for love. There’s no hint of amorality about her (in spite of her invention of seventeen lovers, and a bit of flirtation with the regiment), she accepts the necessity of deposing her husband but insists that not a hair of his head be touched. Peter’s murder is presented off-stage, and we don’t know who did it. The shadowy figure of Orlov, presented in the film as a mild-mannered, devoted servant of Catherine who in the end admits to having been secretly in love with her from the first, is not really presented as the perp, but we get the impression he knows about it and doesn’t disapprove. In fact, in a distinctly unhistorical touch, Peter reveals his admiration for his ‘little Catherine’ before entering the carriage that takes him to exile and death. Everybody loves Catherine, it seems, though she herself is deeply anxious about how she'll be received by the people. She wins them over with a stirring speech, representing herself as the mother of her people, and is rapturously cheered by all. The end. Lots of sumptuous gowns and interiors, though I thought little Catherine looked most delicious in her military uniform, naturally.


At 2:02 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...

A fascinating look at feminine political power in past history, naturally toned down by male historians, wouldn't do to have the little woman get too uppity, she might start behaving like Catherine the Great.


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