This is a four-part Russian TV series about the last two years in the life of the most important Russian tsar, Peter the Great, or Big Pete as I like to call him. Actually, I like to call him Peter the Great by Russian Standards, a qualification which annoys the hell out of my Russian relatives. Based on a semi-historical novel by the venerable Daniil Granin, this series centers around Peter's relationship with Maria Cantemir, a beautiful and well educated young Moldavian princess who became Peter's last mistress and possibly his greatest love, at least if you believe the screenplay. According to the novel and this series, Cantemir become pregnant with Peter's child, whereupon Empress Catherine conspired with Cantemir's physician to abort the pregnancy before Peter could name the child as his heir.

    (NOTE: The English Wikipedia page linked above offers minimal info about Cantemir. If you want some detail about her, switch to the Russian version of her Wikipedia page, then translate it into English.)

    The story presented here is essentially a collection of all the most lurid tidbits of gossip from the Russian court in that era. I believe it is a fair analogy to say that this story bears the same relationship to history as the famous BBC series "I, Claudius," in that the basic outline of the story does not contradict what we know to be true, but the screenplay embellishes the facts and fills in the details in the juiciest possible way. Just as with the Suetonius version of ancient Rome presented by "I, Claudius," we aren't even very sure that what we "know to be true" about Peter's era is actually true, because it was not any wiser for a contemporary to print something unfavorable about Peter the Great than it was to do so about Caligula. Most historians and journalists prefer the fashion statement they can make with their heads attached to their bodies. So it was in tsarist Russia, as it was in imperial Rome, that many events were never recorded by an objective contemporary observer. This TV series recounts, for example, the heroic tale of how Peter the Great died from an illness he incurred by his nearly superhuman effort to save some common sailors from icy water. Although that story is widely believed, many historians feel that it was entirely concocted. Similarly, very little is really known about Maria Cantemir's relationship with the Tsar, which was conducted away from prying eyes because he was married to another woman at the time. It is possible that the empress ordered Peter's mistress to be poisoned, but it is also possible that no such order ever existed. Some historians claim that the child was born, but died in early infancy, unremarkably, as so many children did in those days. (Peter and Catherine had eleven children over a 19-year period, of which only one lived past her 21st birthday. That one became empress of Russia some 16 years after her father died, and ruled for more than twenty years.)

The show is not without humor. It is a running theme in the film, that people are constantly being punished and executed in the public square for some crimes against God or Russia or both. As they execute a seemingly endless parade of local governors and mayors, the ceremonial executioners are perpetually reading aloud from long lists of crimes both grand and petty. I don't know enough about the Russian sense of humor to know whether this interminable droning of details, specifying events of wildly contrasting gravity (like "conspiring to assassinate the Tsar and chewing gum in church"), was actually supposed to be funny, but these scenes closely resemble the Tuco execution scenes in The Good the Bad and the Ugly, and I found this to be an amusing backdrop to the story.

Anyway, I guess that a Russian version of "I, Claudius" is not such a bad idea. As presented here, the machinations of the courtiers are entertaining and often funny, Peter's mistress looks great with her clothes off and on, and some of the revenge plots shown here would not be out of place in a Quentin Tarantino movie. You may well enjoy this if you value sensationalized mass entertainment over scrupulous historical accuracy.




*    In Russian, with optional English sub-titles, no features.







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    Elizabeta Boyarskaya looks and sounds fantastic as Maria Cantemir. (She has a great speaking voice, ala Kathleen Turner.)

    Irina Rozanova. Frankly, you can skip this one. She played the elderly empress. 'Nuff said.

    Some random woman got whipped while she was topless. 



Our Grade:

If you are not familiar with our grading system, you need to read the explanation, because the grading is not linear. For example, by our definition, a C is solid and a C+ is a VERY good movie. There are very few Bs and As. Based on our descriptive system, this film is a:


Not historically reliable, but lurid enough to be entertaining.