Helen says Catherine the Great made an ‘extraordinary’ effort to survive and rule Russian empire – though her legacy was besmirched
History can be cruel and few leaders have had a harsher press than Russia’s Catherine the Great. The empress, played by Helen Mirren in a new series, was a woman of great passions and abilities. She overthrew her drunken husband, Tsar Peter III, but revitalised and enlarged Russia, turning it into a great power of Europe. Yet she made many enemies, including her son and successor Paul I. Her legacy was in his hands and one notorious myth follows the highly-sexed queen to this day. They claim she was crushed to death while having sex with a horse. But if anyone has the pedigree to set the record straight it’s Helen.
She has played Queen Charlotte in 1994’s The Madness of King George, Elizabeth I in 2005 and in 2006 was Elizabeth II in The Queen, which won her an Oscar. Helen, 74, who herself has Russian heritage, was intrigued by controversial Catherine, who ruled for 34 years, from 1762 to 1796. Helen said: “She knew how to charm people, but also manipulate and blackmail them. What she did to survive was extraordinary.” Catherine proved her military might by conquering vast swathes of land. She kept power by killing any rivals and never taking a second husband to replace Peter, who died in 1762. She continued to have many lovers – as she had during her marriage – most of them far younger. The heart of Sky Atlantic’s four-part period drama is Catherine’s enduring love of Grigory Pokemkin, played by Jason Clarke, 50. Potemkin commanded her armies, won wars in her name and, some historians claim, actually married Catherine in secret. Helen said: “It was love at first sight. It absolutely overwhelmed her physically and mentally and she was besotted with him. “I think it’s one of the great love stories of our history.
“But they were very much oil and water. They could never settle down comfortably together. He went off to conquer Turkey and the Crimea, so was always off on military expeditions in the name of the empire and expansion.” The passionate couple would send each other several love letters a day. In one she said she was thrilled to have found a man she considered her equal to share her bedroom. She wrote: “My darling, the time I spend with you is so happy. We pass four hours, boredom vanishes and I don’t want to part from you. “My dearest friend, I LOVE YOU SO MUCH, you are handsome, clever, jovial and funny; when I am with you, I attach no importance to the world. “I have never been so happy. Very often I want to keep my feelings from you but my heart just blabs out my passion.”
Catherine was so infatuated that despite being a great queen she once waited in freezing temperatures outside his empty bedroom for two hours, hoping to make love with her hero. Catherine had a huge array of pet names for Potemkin. Soppier terms included “my darling soul”, “my heart” and “dearest dove”. Her more passionate names for him, thought to refer to his stamina in the bedroom and the impressive manhood, included “Lion of the Jungle”, “Golden Cockerel” and “Wolf”. Catherine was said to have had a cast made of Potemkin’s enormous manhood to console herself when he was away on military campaigns. Potemkin’s moods were legendary and their relationship tumultuous. Actor Jason believes their intellectual connection was as important as their physical one. He said: “I guess the age difference was also a factor. They formed a kind of teacher-student relationship in the beginning with Catherine seeing in Potemkin a man that was capable of learning and taking a seat next to her to build the empire together.” Potemkin had had a sexual relationship with the queen’s confidante Lady Bruce, played by Gina McKee, who then stepped aside in favour of Catherine.
Speaking about her sex scenes, Gina said: “Catherine and certainly Countess Bruce have a great appetite for sex.” However, Potemkin still had to see off Catherine’s lover Alexander Vasilchikov. He was sent off from the Winter Palace, but not without the usual compensation that she paid her discarded toyboys. Vasilchikov received a fully-decorated mansion, 50,000 roubles for setting up the house, 5,000 roubles a year as a pension, villages, tableware, linen and a 20-place silver service. Another ex-lover, Stanislaw Poniatowski did very well too – she made him King of Poland. Catherine and Potemkin eventually decided to take other lovers as long as these flings did not interfere with their own deep political and spiritual connection. Potemkin, now a Prince, left to annex the Crimea while back at Court, Catherine began a relationship with her secretary Zavadovsky and later Platon Zubov, 22. But when Potemkin died aged 52 in 1791, heartbroken Catherine fainted at the news.
She never recovered from losing her soulmate. Despite her great depression, she made one last effort to thwart her son Paul I’s attempts to ascend the throne.She persuaded her grandson Alexander to sign a document saying he would succeed her but after her death in 1796, Paul destroyed the document.
Catherine The Great, Sky Atlantic and NOW TV, October 3, 9pm