Of all the female monarchs in European history, few are so maligned as Catherine the Great. The Prussian princess, born Sophie von Anhalt-Zerbst, became Empress of Russia after successfully dethroning her husband, Peter III, in 1762. Hoping to bring the Enlightenment to her adopted land, Catherine ushered in an era of cultural renaissance and geographical expansion, establishing Russia as one of the central powers in Europe. Unfortunately, being a strong woman in the 18th century often proved unpopular, and Catherine became the focus of vicious rumors about her sexuality, including a persistent lie that she died while making love to a horse.
Hoping to combat this derisive legacy, “Catherine the Great” is a dramatized account of the empress’ life reconstructed largely from her correspondence with friends, lovers, and various contemporaries. The four-part HBO miniseries stars Helen Mirren and follows Catherine from 1764, two years after her ascension to the throne, to her death in 1796. Mirren hoped to rewrite the narrative about this impressive historical figure, telling Bustle, “History doesn’t like very successful, very powerful women. And it is terrible the way history has judged Catherine.” Like Mary, Queen of Scots, Catherine the Great was a woman punished for daring to assert power in a time of rampant patriarchal oppression. Though occasionally overshadowed by its lavish costumes and set decor, “Catherine the Great” adds depth and humanity to an inspirational but frequently mocked historical figure.