Movie Review:  She Was Smart And Powerful And Guys Were Afraid Of Her

Broadcast date:  2005movie larger

Review, short version:  All thumbs up.

Review, long version:

I remember as a kid repeating something I’d heard somewhere:

“Catherine the Great of Russia died after she had sex with a horse!”

At the time I thought this sounded very adult, and daring, though I didn’t have the slightest understanding of sex, of women having sex, or of the mechanics involved in a woman having sex with a horse.

And I barely knew what Russia was; I certainly didn’t know who Catherine the Great was.

But I’d heard it, and it was fun to say it for shock value, and being the bearer of such an adult, probably dirty, and maybe true event made me – momentarily – feel like the Queen of the Playground.

catherine young
Catherine:  From obscure German princess to Grand Duchess and wife of the heir of the Russian throne.

This is why propaganda thrives.

Ignorant people – like me – hear it and repeat it.

The story about Catherine the Great having sex with a horse was propaganda, and it wasn’t the first time the spin masters who manufactured it had turned their attention to her.

And why the propaganda campaign against her?  According to PBS’ excellent documentary, Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia:

“France and England, fearful of Catherine’s success in southern Europe, began a propaganda war, concentrating on her sexuality with cartoons, portraying her as a nymphomaniac to subvert her reputation for success.”

And that success was extensive.  One of the commentators in the film spoke of Catherine’s “Massive status as a statesman and as a woman,” and called her the “greatest of Russia’s rulers, including all the great empire builders.”

But guys in power didn’t like her, as illustrated in this 1791 political cartoon.  A colossal figure of Catherine steps from “Russia,” a rocky mound on the extreme left, to “Constantinople,” her toe resting on the horn of a crescent which surmounts a spire on a group of buildings, with a dome and a minaret.  Her head is turned in profile to the right; in her left hand is an orb, in her right she holds out a scepter over Constantinople, at which she looks with a determined frown:

Image cropped

Beneath Catherine’s petticoats, and strung out between “Russia” and “Constantinople,” are the heads and shoulders of seven sovereigns, gazing up at her.  On the extreme left is a man wearing the cap of the Doge of Venice, saying, “To what a length Power may be carried.”  Next is the Pope wearing his triple crown, saying, “I shall never forget it.”

Next is the King of Spain saying, “By Saint Jago, I’ll strip her of her Fur!”  Louis XVI says, “Never saw anything like it.”  George III says “What!  What!  What!  What a prodigious expansion!”  The Emperor says, “Wonderful elevation.”  The Sultan says, “The whole Turkish Army wouldn’t satisfy her.”  Below the design is inscribed “European Powers.”

These guys really didn’t like her.

Jealous, perhaps?  Afraid, perhaps?

Grand Duke Peter and Grand Duchess Catherine; Peter became emperor in 1762 and was assassinated six months later.

Catherine the Great lived from 1729 to 1796, and she reigned as Empress from 1762 until her death.  She’s been the subject of numerous books, both non-fiction and novels, as well as feature films and TV miniseries.

So this film’s two hours couldn’t begin to cover all the highlights of Catherine’s life, but it does a great job with her overall story, beginning with her arrival in Russia as an obscure, young German princess who transformed herself into an Empress, and reigned for 34 years.

You’ll see how Catherine strengthened Russia’s standing in Europe; how she sought to modernize Russia’s culture through progressive views on arts and education; that she had an astute intellect; and was able to survive dozens of uprisings and court intrigues to keep her crown.

Catherine also chose her lovers, and there were many.  And she decided the hows and wheres, and when it was time to move on.

I can assure you that none of those lovers was a horse.

This 1762 portrait, “Catherine in Front of a Mirror” by Vigilius Erichsen, shows the two sides of Catherine’s character – the imperious monarch and the sensitive woman.

But that didn’t stop the propagandists from perpetuating lies, even after her death.

I recently read, “When myths and stereotypes predominate, facts, logic and evidence lose out.”  That’s why the myth of Catherine and the horse survived all those years to reach my ears.  And just like the fools who believed and spread the lie back in the 1700s, I believed and spread it, too.

And that story is still out there.  A google search brought me 84,000,000 results.

I recommend skipping the lies and propaganda and watching Catherine the Great.  It’s informative and entertaining, and made me want to learn more about her.

And it’s a great film about the “greatest of Russia’s rulers.”

catherine 50s
The “greatest of Russia’s rulers”:  Portrait of Catherine in her 50s, by Johann Baptist van Lampi the Elder.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: