These past 104 years – since the Bolshevik revolution – the United States has viewed Russia as its enemy almost the entire time.
This is largely due to a big misunderstanding. American foreign policy gurus expect Russians to think like us. But they never do.
Americans fight a new war wherever we think there is a moral cause or economic interest – the further away from the United States the better. From their perspective, Russians have been fighting the same war around its borders for a millennium: a perpetual existential battle against the twin enemies of expansive Sunni Islam from the south and decadent non-Orthodox Christianity from the west.
By American standards, the Russian lack of respect for human life is barbaric. In fact, the only four years when we were allies was when Russia was focusing its disregard for life toward Nazi soldiers. By Russian standards, our curious respect for life and liberty is soft and dangerous.
“The Great” is a gloriously entertaining comedy that explores the eccentricity and brutality of mid-18th Century Russia.
The story is (very loosely) based on real history. It begins with a young German royal named Catherine moving to Russia to marry Czar Peter III.
The first season is an epic clash of cultures. It is a war of ideas between the conservative, medieval Russians and the western-leaning, secular reformers.
Show-creator and writer Tony McNamara refuses to make “The Great” a good vs. evil story. The show is way too cynical for that.
The magic of “The Great” is that there are no bad guys. All the major characters are good-hearted. They’re just all stuck living in a backward, violent, absurd time and place.
Catherine (Elle Fanning) makes some small progress in introducing art and science to the Russian court. But along the way, she is corrupted by the Russian values of cut-throat power plays and the thrill of violence.
Catherine doesn’t just become Empress of Russia, she becomes Russian.
On the face of it, Czar Peter (Nicolas Hoult) is childish, capricious, and brutal. But he really does mean well.
When Catherine arrives at court, she is miserable. Czar Peter wants to help so he tracks down a famed young lothario and gives him to Catherine as a present. It turns out to be a splendid, selfless idea; having a lover does help her settle in.
And by Russian standards, Peter isn’t all that bad a leader.
There is a darkly brilliant scene where a joyous Peter gives his first speech at court since recovering from a nearly fatal poisoning. With an open heart, Peter announces that he wants to be a better man. Meanwhile, the bodies of five men hang from the ceiling: serfs that the Czar wrongly thinks were behind the poisoning.
Without even meaning to, Peter is perfectly Machiavellian. He wants to be loved and feared, but he instinctively leans toward fear. Nicolas Hoult helps us understand and even root for a man who – by western standards – is grotesquely backward and evil.
Peter is a sweet, forgiving, good-natured teddy bear and a mass murderer. And this is not a contradiction; it’s Russian.
In contrast, Catherine is driven by Enlightenment idealism, but is not a natural leader. In her first speech on the cusp of power, she boldly calls for an immediate end to the war with Sweden and the emancipation of all of the serfs. The noblemen and clergy chuckle at her ignorance; Catherine does not yet understand the unique economic and cultural realities of Russia.
There’s a timeless lesson here. The buffoons in Washington are futilely trying to get Russians to conform to western rules and western values. They never have. We need to stop telling Russia what to do and stop arming its adversaries. We should simply thank heavens that we are far, far away from Russia.