'Catherine the Great' on HBO: The Story of the Empress of Russia Played by Helen Mirren

Helen Mirren may be known for playing English queens like Elizabeths I and II, but in a new HBO series she takes on the role of Catherine the Great, the one-time ruler of Russia.

In his biography of the monarch titled Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, historian Robert K. Massie says of Catherine: "Born into a minor noble family, Catherine transformed herself into empress of Russia by sheer determination. For thirty-four years, the government, foreign policy, cultural development and welfare of the Russian people were in her hands. She dealt with domestic rebellion, foreign wars and the tidal wave of political change and violence churned up by the French Revolution."

The HBO show begins with the Prussian-born Catherine having taken the throne in 1762, following a military coup that seized power away from her husband Emperor Peter III who, as the title card at the start of Catherine the Great details, "died soon after—in mysterious circumstances."

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Helen Mirren as Catherine the Great. HBO

On July 6 of that year, the imprisoned Peter was invited to eat with a number of Russian noblemen, and after a night of drinking, he ended up strangled by a scarf. As Massie notes: "Whether Peter's death was accidental, the result of a drunken scuffle after dinner that got out of control, or a deliberate, premeditated murder will never be known."

With her husband gone, Catherine began her three-decade rule in earnest. Across that time, she would modernize and westernize Russia, reorganize the nation's law codes and expand its territory with areas like the Crimea and large areas of Poland, a region she made one of her old lovers the king of.

The HBO show details much of this, but also has a focus on her relationship with Grigori Potemkin (played by Jason Clarke), the one-eyed Russian army officer and former lover of the Russian queen, who he would consummate his relationship with in 1774. However, he was far from her only lover⁠—according to History.co.uk, Catherine was famed for how she "used sex as a tool to garner and broaden her political power."

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Jason Clarke as Grigori Potemkin and Helen Mirren as Catherine the Great. HBO

Among her achievements were the 1762 secularization of clergy land, a victory against Turkey in 1774, the quashing of a huge rebellion against her that same year and the annexation of western Ukraine in 1792.

The queen died four years later of a stroke. Some time previously, she wrote her own epitaph following the death of Potemkin, which according to the translation in Massie's book read in part: "When she came to the throne of Russia she wished to do what was good for her country and tried to bring happiness, liberty, and prosperity to her subjects. She forgave easily and hated no one. She was good-natured, easy-going, tolerant, understanding, and of a happy disposition. She had a republican spirit and a kind heart."

This piece of writing from Catherine the Great is just some of the thousands of words that the prolific letter writer left historians. Speaking to Newsweek, Mirren said of Catherine's letters: "She was a prodigious and wonderful writer. A beautiful writer, very, very accessible, funny, smart, this great writer. You find her humanity in her letters."

Catherine the Great airs Mondays at 10 p.m. on HBO.

'Catherine the Great' on HBO: The Story of the Empress of Russia Played by Helen Mirren | Culture