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Catherine the Great

Helen Mirren in HBO’s Catherine the Great

The sets and costumes and colors are lavish. Helen Mirren is, as always, a remarkable actress. But one episode of Catherine the Great was all I can take.

Just as every story with a classical structure needs a villain, so every story needs at least one decent human being. In this story, there aren’t any. There’s no one to like, including Catherine the Great. It’s all debauchery and treachery and cruelty, all the time.

It has never mattered to me whether a story is “true to life.” I prefer the opposite, actually, because to me stories are about escape and imagination. Life itself is true to life, and that’s enough. HBO’s mini-series about Catherine the Great may be true to life, and true to history, for all I know. If I cared enough, I’d read a history. But, as a story, there was no one in it worth caring about — except, maybe, the Russian people, who, at least in episode 1, never appear.

Recently I wrote a book review here on the history of tyrants. Of the three types of tyrants that Waller Newell describes, Catherine the Great was a “reforming tyrant.” She did Russia proud. Is there something about the Russian people that they can be led only by tyrants? Or is it that tyrants are all the Russian people have ever known? I don’t know enough Russian history to try to answer the question. But I think I’m glad that I’m not Russian.


  1. Chenda wrote:

    I’ve heard it said that Russia was just too big to ever be normal. Did you watch the Chernobyl series ? I liked the dark scandia – drama vibe but I think they played a little loose with some of the facts.

    Wednesday, October 23, 2019 at 2:25 pm | Permalink
  2. daltoni wrote:

    I did watch the Chernobyl series, which was very good. I do hope it was reasonably factual. I hope it reminded people that the world is by no means safe today from radiation emergencies, whether it’s a Chernobyl or Fukushima or an intentional or accidental detonation of a military device.

    Wednesday, October 23, 2019 at 2:32 pm | Permalink
  3. Chenda wrote:

    Indeed. I think the substance of narrative was correct but apparently it puts too much blame on the chief engineer, who insists on doing the safety test against the advice of his subordinates. It was more of a collective managerial failure, at least according to something I read in the NYT.

    Wednesday, October 23, 2019 at 2:40 pm | Permalink
  4. Henry wrote:

    Thanks for the review of Episode 1 re CTG. Now I don’t need to watch. I was thinking about when you say “Russia can only be ruled by tyrants”, almost or all their existence how weirdly true that is. The Russian people must know this but can’t, won’t do anything about it. Similarly the Trump supporters disassociate themselves even when the truth is laid out before them. I have stopped watching all the news relating to the “idiot”, the Impeachment and the Talking Heads. I will read only books about fishing. Best to you. H

    Thursday, October 24, 2019 at 4:44 pm | Permalink
  5. daltoni wrote:

    Hi Henry: We’ll let you know when it’s over! 🙂

    Thursday, October 24, 2019 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

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