Friday, April 13, 2018

Binge-Watching Muscovy

I’ve mentioned before that Pinterest is my favorite among the social media sites, for several reasons. First, I’m an intensely visual person and thus an intensely visual writer. To “get” directions I have to see the map in my head, and to “get” my characters I must see them too, preferably on screen as I’m writing. So the first thing I do when starting a new story is to collect images of my characters and settings, which I update as needed as my sense of them strengthens.

Second, I write about a time and places that are almost entirely unfamiliar to my American and West European readers. I would love someday to see my Legends and Songs novels translated into Russian, where the cultural context even five hundred years after the fact is so much more familiar. But until that happens, my Pinterest boards are the best way to find ideas for myself and convey a sense of the world I have adopted as my own to others.

So you can imagine how delighted I was when images from a Russian television series about Sophia Palaiologina—the niece of the last Byzantine emperor and the wife of Ivan III “the Great” of Russia, thus the grandmother of Ivan IV “the Terrible”—began showing up on my Pinterest feed. I suppose even then I could have gone to YouTube to look for it—although it’s a commercial production, so I might not have found it. But I didn’t: much as I love Russian history, especially medieval Russian history, and despite decades of speaking and reading Russian, I have to admit that in my down time I want to watch movies and TV in English.



Then Sophia showed up at Amazon.com. The episode summaries must have been translated by Google, for they are hilarious, but the subtitles are pretty accurate. The actors are true to type, their performances excellent, the settings and costumes are perfect, and the whole first season is riveting historical fiction. Think the BBC’s Victoria, but with way more furs, poison, and treachery. 

Look at this wedding ceremony, for example: can’t you just see Daniil and Nasan or Alexei and Maria in this setting?

I was hooked. Right now, Season 1 is still available for free on Amazon Prime, but I shelled out $12.99 (total) for the first eight episodes so that I could continue watching even if it disappears from the free collection, as things tend to do on Amazon Prime. As I said, I’m hooked. I watched the full set in three days, and I can’t wait for Season 2.

Note that I also said riveting historical fiction. Alas, considerable liberties have been taken with basic plot points. The Muscovites were, so far as we know, not resistant, as they are depicted here, but delighted to have scored a dynastic connection with the emperor of Constantinople, whose defeat by the Ottoman army had left Muscovy (at least in the minds of its own rulers and government) as the last bastion of Orthodox Christianity in a troubled world. Which is not to say that they expressed this realization in the “Moscow as Third Rome” phrasing that opens the series, but the realization itself does seem to have existed. I could go on, but you get the point.

So don’t treat it as a televised history lesson, except in the sense that the general depiction of the place and its court are accurate. (Hint: Victoria is not 100% historically accurate either.) What we do have is a full cast of delightfully fictional characters: the strong-willed bride, her wiser but still somewhat impetuous husband, his determined but not unkind mother, enemies of various sorts (modern-day Russian nationalism especially affects the portrayal of the enemies—Tatars [pictured here], Novgorodians, Lithuanians—so take these portrayals in particular with a large grain of salt), the naive but charming son and the treacherous daughter-in-law, and a whole host of scheming Italians and boyars. It’s tremendous fun, and if you ever wanted to get past imagining the world I portray in my Legends novels and actually see how it looked, this is the perfect place to start.

And if you do get hooked and need more binge-watching material before the 2018 season arrives, try Ekaterina: The Rise of Catherine the Great. It has two seasons available, with twenty-two episodes. It’s even more fictional than Sophia, not least because I think it draws heavily on Catherine’s own memoirs, which are self-serving in the extreme, as well as most of the extensive scuttlebutt that surrounded Catherine’s rise to power and reign, much of it disseminated by her far-from-loving son. But if you don’t take these series too seriously, they will certainly entertain!

Images: Screen captures from Sophia.

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