TV Series Review: Sophia

by Steve Lancaster1/2/18
In 15th Century Russia, the last Byzantium Princess, Sophia Palaiologina, moves from Rome to distant Moscow to marry Czar Ivan III. Destined to become the first influential female figure of the Russian Empire, Sophia overcomes court intrigue and betrayals, and helps Ivan consolidate the fragmented country, push Mongolian invaders out, and build the Kremlin, the most magnificent symbol of Russia.

This is the description on Amazon of Sophia. It is a Russian production subtitled for English. It is produced by the Russian Federation Defense Ministry, so it is a form of propaganda. However, don’t let that keep you away from this series. There is a lot to learn from it about modern Russia. I have finished two episodes. The acting is very good, production values are of the best Hollywood standards. The history is often a little, no a lot, questionable and says more about modern Russia and Czar Vladimir then it does about Ivan III. A recurring theme applied to today’s events is Ivan’s focus on all the Russ must be ruled from Moscow. Apply that to the occupation of Ukraine. Today’s politics cannot be separated from yesterday’s reality.

The first episode deals with fall of Byzantium and the remains of the royal family seeking refuge in Rome. Sophia is basically a ward of Pope Sixtus. The pope is seeking to marry her off and use influence to change the Russ from Orthodoxy to the Roman church, hint it does not work. The trip from Rome to Moscow takes 7 months. Sophia is accompanied by a Papal Legate who schemes to murder Sophia if she won’t convert Ivan. Sophia marries Ivan over the objections of his mother and promptly becomes pregnant. By the end of the second episode Ivan is beset with problems internally and externally with war with the Tartars in the offing.

More later after 3 and 4. • (2851 views)

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69 Responses to TV Series Review: Sophia

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    The title to this series sort of looks like the Coors beer logo. I see that season one is available on Amazon Prime. Using my “JustWatch” app, I can’t find this playing anywhere else. Let’s hope it holds up after two episodes. I was slightly enthused by the heist series, “La casa de papel,” which is a Netflix original and streaming there now.

    I got through five episodes and just hit a wall. They’re stretching things out way too far. It became little more than a bunch of soap-opera sidelines. Had they made this a crisp 4-parter and concentrated on the main story, they would have had something. But it’s just become extremely boring. Had to give it up.

    I’ve since moved onto the heist movie now playing on Netflix called “Getaway Plan.” And I’m halfway through it and it’s pretty good so far.

    And anyone who likes “Bright” just can’t be my friend because you’d have to have something seriously wrong with you in order to like that one.

    • Steve Lancaster says:

      I made the mistake of watching Bright. I thought it might have the potential to be Men in Black; without Tommy Lee Jones, the attempt at humor just falls short of being nonsense. I give it a D, for originality, C, for production quality, and F, for wasting my time.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        Then there’s Ice Pirates, a movie so weird we’ve never figured out for sure if it’s a nice comedy or was so bad that it was funny. I’m inclined to think the former, but I’m still not quite sure. It’s sort of like the question of whether Total Recall is about an induced dream of spying, or “really happened”. In the former case, you have the company giving Schwarzenegger’s character the impression that his wife and the company itself tried to kill him — a very bad idea, and one no company seeking repeat business (or even word-of-mouth sales) would do. But in the latter case, you have a lot of horrendously bad science. In Hollywood, either is possible.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        I made the mistake of watching Bright. I thought it might have the potential to be Men in Black

        Okay, Steve. We can still be friends. And certainly it had potential to be sort of Men-in-Blackish. That’s what I was hoping for.

        Timothy, I do love “Ice Pirates.” It’s meant to be self-consciously campy and I think it pulls it off very well. I just love how dumb those robots are, for instance. It’s light humor. For every fifty attempts at offbeat humor may one movie succeeds.

        “Total Recall” works because of the great stars in it and a pretty good script (if you don’t look too closely at it). Another movie with truly excellent bad guys.

        • Timothy Lane says:

          Oh, I enjoyed it, and I enjoyed Ice Pirates. There are just those questions. This is relevant, especially for Total Recall, because it determines what really happened in the movie. I’m inclined to think it was supposed to have really happened, since scientific illiteracy is so prevalent there. But even a Hollywooder might understand why the company that uses dreams to manufacture fake memories wouldn’t want to make themselves villains even if they didn’t care what they did to someone’s marriage.

          • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

            That memory implant business sure seemed a bit dicey. Many plot elements were a little sketchy. Thankfully, the characters and individual scenes are good enough that the whole works despite itself sometimes. That corny scene at the very end of Schwarzenegger’s eyes bulging when he’s grasping for air is right out of a comic book. It looked like typical Spielbergian excess.

            And the whole plot line of Douglas Quaid actually being Cohaagen’s friend, Hauser — well, I’m still not sure I understand how all that was supposed to work. But as a movie, it worked.

            Many films fall apart because of internal inconsistencies. This is especially so for films absent engaging characters and really good individual scenes. (“Consider that a divorce.” I mean, does it get any better than that? Who cares about the rest of the movie?) So in lesser movies when things don’t make sense, when there are internal inconsistencies, I think they stand out more and can ruin a picture.

            I think one of the best moments of “Total Recall” (1990, not the remake trash) was when Cohaagen finally gives the overzealous Richter permission to take out Quaid/Hauser. Richter responds: “It’s about goddamn time.”

            There’s snap, crackle, and pop in much of the dialogue. And some of it is a bit corny but mostly it works. But probably none of this works without Ronny Cox and Michael Ironside as the straight-man villains. They keep it from becoming too corny. And, of course, Sharon Stone is as hot as a pistol in this one.

            One reviewer at IMDB referred to “Verhoeven’s classic shallowness” but “his movies will at least be entertaining.” I don’t know about this other movies, but his “Total Recall” sure was that…sort of shallow in parts but definitely entertaining. And the shallowness is sort of an inside-joke campy feature rather than a bug. This is a Schwarzenegger movie first and foremost, after all.

  2. Timothy Lane says:

    I’m afraid my knowledge of Russian history before Ivan the Terrible (which, as the second Night of the Museum movie noted, is actually more like Ivan the Awe-Inspiring) is very limited. I’m more familiar with the Mongol history in that era, though that does interact heavily with Muscovy.

  3. Steve Lancaster says:

    Sophia 3 and 4.
    This is taking a decidedly ominous tone. Twice in episode 3 the city Pskov is mentioned, harkening back to Alexander Nevsky and his conflicts with the golden hoard. Sophia and Ivan’s first child dies and by the beginning of episode 4 another is on the way. Russian nationalism is on full display, 16th century and 21st century. All that is missing is the Prokofiev score calling the Russian people to war. As Churchill said, ” Russia is an riddle, wrapped inside a mystery inside an enigma”.

    Ivan refuses to pay tribute to the Kahn and starts a war in which his brothers may side against him. The language when talking about the Tartars is singularly specific. There is little doubt in my mind that the 16th century Tartars are the same as 21st century Isis.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Sounds interesting, Steve. I hope to get a start on this by the weekend.

      At the moment (well…not right now…I do work occasionally) I’m watching season one of “Broadchurch.” I don’t know if the story arc for season one continues into subsequent seasons. I would be disappointed if it did. But I think perhaps it does.

      It’s a gritty, realistic (emotionally realistic) story about a boy who’s been murdered in a small, quiet town where nothing worse than parking violations typically happens. An investigator (with his own obscure and scandalous history) is brought in from the outside. He starts digging and soon he uncovers several nasty things in this quiet little seaside village. If any of them are connected with the murder, we don’t know yet through episode three. But the dead kid was involved in something nefarious, and at least in league with his friend (one of the investigating cop’s kids). The cop’s kid, upon finding out his friend was dead, erases a whole bunch of stuff off his phone and the computer. The dead kid was also seen having an argument with a postman.

      A stash of cocaine is found in the dead brother’s sister’s room. And in the dead brother’s room a substantial roll of bills is found. Oh…and the father is lying about where he was that night. (I have a suspicion.)

      I’ve passed over this series several times on the “Judging a Book by its Cover” principle. Yes, very often you can do so quite successfully. It took me about 3 minutes to read the cover of the idiotic series, “Bright.” But the judgment on this series came even quicker than that. The principle actors are, frankly, not very appealing looking. With so much out there to watch and read, you have to filter. But for some reason I decided to give it a go last night.

      This is by no means a documentary. Nor does it ape one. But most crime dramas gloss over the human tragedy. In this one you see the impact on the family in a realistic and hard-to-watch way. Some series or movies can have a couple dozen deaths and it means nothing. Your eyes just glaze over. In this one there is just one death but they make it have maximum impact. In that respect, anyway, this is very well done and almost unique.

      I expect they’ll stretch this out at too slow of a pace. But we’ll see.

      • Steve Lancaster says:

        I finished Sophia episodes 5-8. It got a little repetitive, but that seems true of most series movies. Sophia is accused of murdering Ivan’s son by his first wife. He locks Sophia up and large parts of the next 4 hours is consumed with Ivan as an unhappy brooding Russian, go figure a brooding Russian.

        However, Ivan reconciles with his brothers, defeats the Tartars and turns back the Lithuanians and by the last episode brings Sophia back. Those who conspired against her are executed and the Russ begin their march to unity later completed under Ivan III grandson Ivan IV, AKA The Terrible.

        Sounds like a soap and it kinda is. What makes Sophia interesting are the ties to modern Russia. The movie makes a big point of the Orthodox faith, something you would not see in Soviet era movies. More importantly as Sophia is a Byzantine princess it draws to the Russian claim that Moscow is the home of the 3rd Rome, thus the Czar, Russian for Caesar. There is also animosity to the Roman church and the Popes. In 1492 Rodrigo Borgia/Alexander 6th sits on the Papal throne. Its not hard to read Russian hatred of the Turks into the series, and subsequently to Islam.

        The Russian claim to the Baltic nations dates from the time of Ivan III. Casmier of Lithuania is a noted opponent. This belief of the subservience of the Baltic nations and Poland has some historical facts. There are several references to Pskov, harkening back to Alexander Nevsky. The propaganda aspects of the movie are evident in light of modern Russian claims on the Baltics and Ukraine. But the movie is not in any way heavy handed, it is not Triumph of the Will.

        Keep in mind that 80 years of modern Russian history are pointedly ignored. The double headed eagle is proudly displayed both in the movie and in the credits. It is unashamedly nationalist and presents Ivan III and Sophia as sympathetic rulers. The production values are good, the acting is much better than expected and the costuming is magnificent. The Russian love of furs is enough to drive PETA nuts. I did find the subtitles to run by a little fast, but that is a problem with subtitles in any language.

        It is worth some time. The first three episodes and maybe the last two are enough to get the full effect. Pay attention to the propaganda aspects for extra entertainment.

        • Timothy Lane says:

          Note that the German Kaiser and the Bulgarian Tsar are also variants of Caesar. It’s a popular title east of the Rhine.

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          That’s an articulate and compelling wrap-up, Steve. So much so that I just watched the first 16 minutes of it. It would seem to have the production of quality of an HBO series. I wouldn’t have expected that from the Russians.

          Yes, subtitles can be difficult. Basically I watch subtitled movies vie peripheral vision with my eyes on the subtitle dialogue. It’s what you have to do. You can look up when they’re not talking but there’s been almost nothing but talking in this one.

          An interesting idea of Moscow as The Third Rome. It makes some sense. However one feels about Putin, some of his words make him sound much more like a defender of the faith than the fake pope, Francis. Isn’t Putin’s position still one of atheism and he’s just using religion as a means?

          Wouldn’t be the first to do that. Anyway, I’ve gotten as far as Grand Prince Ivan III agreeing to may the chick, Zoe, that Pope Sixtus IV offered up. Ivan’s court doesn’t like it at all. She’s seen as an outsider from a primitive people (the same way those back in Rome think of those in Moscow). Ivan reiterates that his purpose is to unite Russia and strengthen the throne. What both parties expect to get out of this isn’t immediately clear.

          And that’s where I’ve left off. Soap opera? Yes, they all are. But maybe life looks this way, and is this way, especially when you condense things down necessarily to the major events and personalities.

          • Timothy Lane says:

            I definitely encountered the idea of Russia as the third Rome when I was younger, probably in my high school text for the course in Modern European History. Putin presumably is just faking his religion, but who knows? He certainly does a good job of it — as you say, better than the Peron Pope.

            • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

              Some *really* don’t want Zoe to be married to Ivan. One of the head guys (the head of the religious order, I think) want’s Ivan’s sword-bearer to make sure Zoe doesn’t make it to Moscow, she from the land of “the beardless ones.”

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          And oh, man, LOL — PETA would have a heart attack watching this series.

  4. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I just finished the first episode. It’s a quality production. The characters are good (although Ivan III seems a little weak….I was expecting someone more ferocious). Zoe is okay and is showing her political acumen. Her handmaiden is the true babe her, but that’s not to say that Zoe isn’t a looker.

    It’s funny that (whatever Church they call themselves) the Russians hate the Catholics even more than Protestants and Jews do. Zoe’s escort comes riding into Moscow lead by one of them carrying a big cross. That’s a no-no. Kissing icons and making some kind of swirling blessing motion is in. Crosses and other practices of Rome are out.

    A few brave fellows bar her way. Zoe is not accepted by the religious order but Zoe does agree to Ivan’s demand that she be re-baptized or sent packing. This may smooth things over. We’ll see in episode two, I’m sure.

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      Zoe does agree to Ivan’s demand that she be re-baptized or sent packing.

      This type of thing was common throughout history. It would seem people were quite willing to change denominations for a crown.

      After the Reformation, until the French Revolution, I believe every country in Europe with the exception of the Swiss Confederation, had a state religion and the king or prince was of that denomination. The Swiss Cantons also divided along Protestant and Catholic lines.

      One of the main reasons the Stuarts irrevocably lost the British throne was James II’s Catholic tendencies/belief.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        Henry IV of France, the Protestant leader there, switched to Catholicism to become the King, allegedly saying, “Paris is well worth a mass.” He did issue the Edict of Nantes, giving the Protestants far more rights. It was later partly revoked by Cardinal Richeliu, and then completely revoked by Louis XIV.

        The Hohenzollerns ruled a mostly Lutheran country, but were Calvinists themselves (as was East Prussia). Over time they began to acquire lands (such as Silesia) that were at least partly Catholic.

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          Think of what a bastard Henry VIII was, a plague on his country and traditions. Sort of like Obama. I really despise that king. For his own narrow, twisted, and selfish motives he upended his society. When anyone pleads the supposed divine right or origin of kings, I just point to this jerk, for unless god is a real bastard, no way are many of these monarchs divine in any way except their own opinion of themselves.

          Say what you will about the reality of Jesus, but if God did come down to earth and assume human form, the idea of a humble king, and not one who fights with a sword, is a ridiculous thought but one believable in terms of divine origin in that it totally overthrows our mere and stupid human norms. And so he was indeed ridiculed. And human beings have been chasing the power and prestige of kinghood before and since.

          • Steve Lancaster says:

            Yep, most of the Henry’s in English history were at the best less than stellar. I think Henry II was a class act for his time and Henry V at Agincourt. To lessor extent Henry VII paved the way for a modern England by encouraging specialization in textiles, however this required the enclosure laws which threw hundreds of thousands of peasants off the land and into the cities. Of course, as soon as the means was available these peasants packed their bags, grabbed up grandma, grandpa their Protestant religion and headed to the new world.

            Karma is a bitch, not to mention the law of unintended consequences. On second thought they are the same.

            A few of the Louis in France were ok, but by in large if you were a French monarch named Louis; your an excuse for incompetence.

            • Timothy Lane says:

              Well, Louis XIV was competent, though not very nice. Perhaps the best of them was Louix XI, the Spider King. The worst of the English Henrys was Henry VI. As it happens, I saw The Lion in Winter tonight on TCM.

              I will also note that historical novelist Sharon Kay Penman wrote a series on Henry II and his sons. She also did a series on a man who works for Eleanor as she tries to pay Richard’s ransom, a series on the conquest of Wales, and a novel on the Wars of the Roses (The Sunne in Splendour, taking the title from Edward IV’s personal coat of arms).

              • Steve Lancaster says:

                Lion in Winter is one of my favorite movies and plays. From the beginning to end there are so many great lines.

                Henry-“How was your crossing, did the channel part for you?”

                Elenore-“It went flat when I told it to. I didn’t think to ask for more”

                I read the Penman book several years ago it just did not capture my impression of either Eleanor or Henry; perhaps my view was tainted by the impressions from Lion in Winter.

                One of the most fascinating men of the time was William Marshal first Earl of Pembroke. He served Henry II, his son Henry III, Richard and John. In an age of shifting loyalties he remained steadfast in his loyalty to the English throne and to the Plantagents. The very example of chivalry.

              • Timothy Lane says:

                Another good line came when Henry told his mistress that his sons were aging with his wine.

                Henry III was the son of John, not Henry II. (He did have a son named Henry, Jr., but he was dead by the time of the movie.)

            • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

              You all remind me not to bluff knowing more history than I actually do. You all are pretty sharp and well read.

              I just know there are lots of bodacious tatas in the Showtimes series, “The Tudors,” which is all about Henry VIII. If that is historical accuracy then we’ll just have to suffer through it.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        This type of thing was common throughout history. It would seem people were quite willing to change denominations for a crown.

        There is the schtick of protecting “the one true faith” that pops up in this. The head Russian religious guy even puts his head on the chopping block in the public square in protest of the marriage.

        It was by no means the cynical side of me that said: All faith, to a great extent, is about the building-blocks of cultural cohesion, quite regardless of what is ultimately true.

        We all know that Zoe will somehow forever change Russian faith/religion (or at least it seems obvious) and then ten years from then some other fellow will volunteer his neck up to protect “the one, true religion.” Rinse and repeat. So was anything true other than necessary (or at least understandable) inertia to new ideas?

        Still, it’s odd to find my own sympathies laying with the Ruskies. Steve did note that this is a propaganda film. But is that really fair to call it that? Would we say the same about a slightly mythologized movie on the life of George Washington?

        And it has come to light why the Pope is so interested in pimping a royal daughter of the blue-bloods to Ivan III. Part of the deal is that Ivan must attack the northern border of the Turks. Whether he does so or not is to be seen. This deal was made by his representatives at the last minute. At the moment, Ivan is out of that useful stuff called “gold” with which to wage a war. And I don’t recall, offhand, why Ivan is interested in this marriage. Perhaps it’s just the prestige of the connection to the Pope (and presumable his money).

        Slight spoiler here, but I thought the scene odd. If it’s historically true, then fine. Just before leaving Rome, Zoe’s brother (who still hopes to pimp his sister off to a friend in order to have that friend pay his debts) attacks (with the help of a couple cohorts) Zoe’s escort while presumably on the grounds of the Vatican. They have hoods over their heads. Zoe was talking at the time to what presumably was her real true love at the time. He gets his throat slit and they put a bag over Zoe’s head. However, palace guards thwart the attempt. In the scuffle, the bag comes off the head of the kidnappers and we (and Zoe) see that it is Zoe’s brother. At the moment, she has not ratted on him.

        I find that scene odd because, if true…well…I guess you just can’t make this stuff up. It seems very Shakespearean in its approach.

        • Steve Lancaster says:

          Where do you think the Bard got his ideas. Look at how many of his plays deal with Italians.

          • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

            Must be so, Steve.

          • Timothy Lane says:

            Robert de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, is the current favorite alternative in the Shakespeare question. One reason for this is his visit to Italy, in which he may have encountered the obscure Italian story that inspired Othello as well as the original source of “The Murder of Gonzago”, the play within the play in Hamlet. He also became familiar with many of the cities that feature in the Italian plays.

            • Steve Lancaster says:

              According to RAH(Robert Hineline)
              Shakespeare was one of the immortals. He left his second best bed to his wife, find out what happened to his best bed and you find the real Bard.

              • Timothy Lane says:

                I checked wikipedia’s entry on Shakespeare’s will, and it pointed out that all the remaining property (presumably including his best bed, which wasn’t specifically given to anybody) went to his daughter Susanna.

  5. Steve Lancaster says:

    Ah, Tim your taking the serendipity from the whole thing, but then its from wikipedia so it may be info inserted by ALGORE. 🙂

  6. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    It’s interesting that the Russian word for “Rome” is “Pnm” with a backward “n”…whatever you call that. I call that the “Toys-R-Us” N.

    The budget for this series is obviously not unlimited but the production values — particularly the camera work — are good. Some very nice pans, etc., and very little (that I can recall) annoying camera shake that every idiot director feels he must use to add zest or action to his static shots. But it’s just annoying. Put down you Jolt cola, little director man (or woman), and act like an adult. Hold the camera still.

    Through three episodes, I don’t yet see why this series is not called “Ivan III” instead of “Sophia.” Whatever the case may be, I find neither are particularly compelling characters. But the Shakespearian web of lies, murder, treachery, collusion, treason, and rebellion continues to be spun. There is a lot going on.

    I don’t know what the end goal is for this series, but it seems in a hurry to move on. We jump forward from events instead of watching their consequences unfold. Someone is (accidentally or intentionally) poisoned and we don’t really see the aftermath. Ivan’s forces are besieging a rebel castle, but we have no idea how much time has gone by. It just fast-forwards to the prince of the castle meeting with Ivan for terms of surrender.

    Ivan and Sophia’s child has died and I’m right at the point where it is presented that the way out of Sophia’s overwhelming grief will be to build the Saint Basil’s Cathedral. At least I think that’s the one they have in mind. And if this is a propaganda film, it’s alarming and disconcerting to note that this church is still no longer a church but merely a museum. Wiki says, “As part of the program of state atheism, the church was confiscated from the Russian Orthodox community as part of the Soviet Union’s anti-theist campaigns and has operated as a division of the State Historical Museum since 1928.”

    Maybe state atheism, as it is in Europe, is all the rage and no pangs of nostalgia by the Russia people who watch this series will turn against their monsters/masters who have rubbed out their history and replaced it with little more than HBO-style propaganda films, seemingly as small bribes or distractions. I’m watching this and thinking, “You’d damn well better turn that building back into a church in real life after watching all this or else I know this production is but a piece of propaganda.” But maybe that’s just me. I don’t live in that land. I don’t know the dynamics firsthand.

    But, first and foremost, this is interesting to watch. There is quite a story unfolding (however much it may be fictionalized). And all of it is pretty much new to me.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      So you don’t care for Ivan III as portrayed? Well, remember, he’s Ivan the Great to Ivan IV’s Ivan the Terrible. Of course, there often isn’t too much difference between a “great” and a “terrible” ruler. Herod of the Massacre of the Innocents was Herod the Great as well. Peter the Great and Catherine the Great weren’t nice people either. (Catherine became Tsarina by arranging the murder of Peter III, her husband. In fairness, she was more of a man than he was. Her son and heir, Paul, was probably not his son and thus probably not legitimate tsar — in which case neither were any of his successors down to Nicholas II.)

      The backward N is an e-sound, so they evidently call Rome “Reem”.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        So you don’t care for Ivan III as portrayed?

        I have no idea how Ivan was in real life. But this character has very little charisma. Ivan may start to do Great things later. But his character is rather milquetoast, neither menacing nor inspiring loyalty. Oh, I’m quite sure his character will go through the motions of conquest, etc., but I think it will seem more like these events have been pasted onto him.

        And right now I’m in the corner of the head religious guy, what’s-his-name. I don’t think Zoe was a good thing for Russia either. But we shall see. The series is named for her. She must do things greater than the little Gilmore Girl she seems to be.

        Hmm. Thanks for the info on the backward-N. Interesting alphabet they have.

      • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

        The backward N is an e-sound, so they evidently call Rome “Reem”.

        Makes me think of Inspector Clouseau asking for a “room” in that hotel.

  7. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I’ve started episode four.

    Zoe’s trailer-trash brother has accompanied the Italian architects who have come to design and build the replacement for the church that was destroyed in an earthquake. He want’s something. I forget what.

    Representatives of The Horde — who apparently control the fate of most, if not all, of the various provinces and city-states of Russia — have come to Moscow to demand an updated tribute. I like that way that Ivan handles diplomats. There’s something Trumpian about him in this regard. We need someone to confront the shit-hole representatives of the various shit-hole states (such as the Palestinians) instead of giving them millions of dollars.

    So I’m warming to Ivan a bit, although I’m not convinced they found the best actor for the part.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      Moscow first revolted against the Golden Horde about a century earlier, which was of considerable benefit to Tamerlane in his struggles against them (which ended in a 3-day battle decided by Tamerlane bribing Khan Toktamish’s flag-bearer to drop the banner at a key moment). This may have led to them paying lower tributes afterward, but I don’t know the precise amounts. (The Golden Horde was the last of the Khanates set up be Jenghiz, and under its separate Khanates would last another century. It was a Golden Horde force that had launched dead horses into the Crimean port of Kaffa when they were unable to take it, sending the Black Death on its way into Europe.)

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      I like that way that Ivan handles diplomats.

      Are you talking about the case in which the tsar secured a diplomat’s hat to that man’s head by a spike?

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        Ivan whacked his arm off with his sword.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        You have to judge your enemy carefully if you do that sort of thing. The ruler of the empire of Khwarizmia, faced with a Mongol embassy protesting the governor of Otrar’s seizure of a Mongol caravan, had them executed. Genghiz proceed to invade and conquer the country and sent 20,000 to pursue the emperor wherever he went. He died shortly after, virtually alone and impoverished, on an island in the Caspian.

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          Yes, killing diplomats is a provocative action. You could unleash a Trump-like shit-storm from some shit-hole country (but one with lots of soldiers).

          In “Sophia,” the current khan of The Great Horde decides he’s going to burn Moscow and kill everyone. Last time this happened was 100 years ago. Long story short (and it depends upon whether you get your story from this series or Wiki), khan is on one side of the river. Ivan is on the other in a face-off. Neither will make an all-out rush.

          Khan is waiting for his Lithuanian allies. They don’t come because one of Ivan’s allies (another spin-off mini-horde from the old Golden Horde, I believe) attacks them. Then things diverge wildly in accounts. According to Wiki, kahn is worried about his enemies attacking at home because he has been away so long. There basically then is no battle and khan returns home. The account according to this series is that khan wakes up one morning, walks outside his tent and finds that his entire horde has retreated from the field leaving him all alone, nothing but smoldering campfires. Khan is shown on his knees pounding sand at the end.

          I think the chances of that ever happening are probably nil. Russian propagandists I presume are settling some old scores here with this portrayal. And I understand that some events are condensed down for the sake of telling the story. Apparently it took several weeks for the brothers of Ivan to make peace with him. Even then, I’m not sure they ever met personally. But they do meet personally in this series and settle their differences. It works cinematically to condense the events down to this moment.

          But having khan walk out of his tent and see that his horde has abandoned him is just silly. It doesn’t work cinematically. You wouldn’t have a horde in the first place if they were that disloyal. Neither does it work when they show Ivan returning khan’s kidnapped son. Ivan has one of his men float him in a boat between the truce meeting of these two parties on each side of the river. Ivan says, “This is the only thing you’ll receive from us in payment.” Khan, having seen his son in the river, tears off his armor and rushes out in quite undignified fashion (a hysterical fashion, really) to regain his son. That didn’t seem to ring true either. Again, I suspect the Russian propagandists are getting their digs in.

          But as a story, yeah, it’s okay. A few eyerolls because of this. I’m still not impressed with the actress playing Sophia. I think the best character by far is the one playing Ivan’s mother. She is one tough old bird. I can see why they refer to it as “Mother Russia.” While the men were out drinking too much vodka, it’s likely it was tough women such as this that held much of their society together. And she’s starting to warm to Sophia because (at least according to this series…and all bets are off now regarding accuracy) she helped bring her sons together by taking a letter she had written to them. The mother herself was too ill to travel.

          • Timothy Lane says:

            I checked wikipedia on the Golden Horde, and it turns out they did simply face off across a river (unlike a century earlier, when Dmitry Donskoy crossed the Don and defeated the Horde at Kulikovo — only to see the Horde, when reunified under Tokhtamish, take its revenge on him). Ivan waited for his reinforcements, since the Khan wasn’t going to be getting any.

            In the end, Ivan retired to winter quarters and the Khan to his own base. The Khan of the Crimea attacked the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. He also later overthrew the Great Khanate (whose Khan was killed shortly after the confrontation with Ivan, and possibly because of his failure there).

            According to wikipedia, it only took 4 days to get the brothers to unite — but nearly 3 weeks more to get all their forces to join Ivan from wherever they were. And I saw no mention at all of the Khan’s son.

            The Khanate of the Crimea would survive as a vassal of the Ottomons until the 1760s, but the other khanates formed from the Golden Horde went a lot faster, with Ivan IV Grosny taking out 3 (Kazan, Astrakhan, and Sibir) in the span of a decade or so.

            • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

              Putin’s goal is power. And he likely has a grand ideology of reforming all the bits of the Soviet Union…if not more. I don’t trust the man as anything but a Stalin-like dictator living in more modern times where the methods must necessarily be a little less openly forceful.

              Still, watching this series about The Third Rome and Ivan kicking the asses of the Horde, you can’t help get the feeling that the Russians are our natural allies in the war to maintain Western (and Eastern) civilization. Its two greatest threats are The Islamic Horde and The Leftist Snowflake Horde, and historically we in the West have opposed those forces.

              • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

                I think Putin’s model is older than the old Soviet Union. I believe it is the old Russian Empire. This goal is compatible with the religious/mystic strain in the Russian soul.

                And as you know, I agree that the Russians should be our natural allies against the Islamic and Snowflake Hordes.

              • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

                Roger Wilco, Mr. Kung. That makes more sense. I certainly haven’t heard that Putin pines for Communism’s return. It was our evil former president who wanted that.

  8. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    Episode 6 was the best episode yet, although it admittedly builds on earlier ones. This had nice pacing and thick plot implications. And because most of the scenes were interpersonal (aka, no running military battles), you get none of that odd and conspicuous not showing of battles and instead getting one or two horses running around.

    Granted, I understand budget limitations. But episode six worked much like the best (and I don’t think the best lasted all that long) of “The Tudors.” Court intrigue.

    Ivan’s son has married the little tramp from Moldavia. She’s in some kind of anti-clerical cult and possibly is into things much worse. But she’s gorgeous and the heir to the throne easily falls for her. Grandmother likes her because she’s not one of those “Latin” heretics. But a good guess is that she’s gonna love Sophia by the time the Moldavian tramp gets her schemes exposed, assuming they are.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      Do you know she actually has such schemes, or merely surmise it? Just curious.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        For those playing the home version of this game, there is probably: What that wanna-be Grand Duchess (Elena Voloshanka, wife of Ivan the Younger) has actually done; What has been recorded in history that she has done; What this series says the wanna-be Grand Duchess has done.

        Strangely, the IMDB entry for this series has very little information. This Wiki article has a much fuller cast list. And there I discovered that Sofia Nikitchuk, who plays Elena Voloshanka, is Miss Russia 2015. If Communism was about putting one of those in every pot, sign me up. She’s got a gorgeous face and looks ever so charming in a fur hat although I can’t find a photo of that.

        But she is portrayed as a black widow spider. Here’s what she’s doing in episode 6:

        1) Practicing some kind of voodoo ritual along with her three babe-ettes whereby she is applying a curse to Sophia using a neckless they stole from her. Sophia has coincidentally missed a couple of state functions because of illness. Whatever one thinks of the effectiveness of the curse, if it was discovered that she had done so she would be in hot water.

        2) She attended a meeting of a heretical nature where she and a group of men (men who generally oppose Ivan III) sit around and read subversive texts and claim they are for “improvement,” not revolution. Yeah. Sure. You bet.

        3) She is making a deal with Ivan Fryazin (one of the head subversives) to overthrow Ivan III. He would be rewarded. An early reward includes having two of the three babe-ettes showing up at his door to butter him up a bit. They are a risk worth losing one’s head over.

        So if all this plays out as expected, the Grand Duchess of Moscow (Ivan III’s mother) is perhaps not going to be so contemptuous of the Latin outsider, Sophia. But we’ll just have to wait and see what happens. If this be treason, it is babe-a-licious treason.

        • Steve Lancaster says:

          I took it that she was a witch and her companions were the rest of her coven. Moldavia has a long record with paganism. Additionally, it is right next to Wallachia the home of Vlad the impaler whose relations with the Turks could be said as stressed. The legacy of Vlad would be fresh in everyones minds as he died in the 1470s.

          • Timothy Lane says:

            I checked the details in wikipedia, and it turns out that Vlad Tepes aka Vlad Dracula died a couple of years before the big confrontation with the Mongols. This was itself just a few years after he was released from Hungarian captivity at the request of Stephen III of Moldavia, who ruled until 1504. Since Ivan III was effectively allied with the Ottomans (the Khanate of the Crimea being an Ottoman vassal), he would not have been aligned with Vlad Dracula, and probably not Stephen III either.

            • Steve Lancaster says:

              Tim, I wasn’t asserting that Ivan was allied with Vlad only that his reputation would surely be known to the Russian court.

              • Timothy Lane says:

                And I was linking that to their probable relations with Moldavia. Vlad’s nickname of Dracula wasn’t sinister in that era (it comes from his father’s membership in the Hungarian anti-Ottoman Order of the Dragon, and the sobriquet is actually a diminutive meaning son of the dragon).

                But his penchant for impalement was, and soon led to the first best-sellers — German books about his atrocities (many of them against the Germans of the Transylvanian cities of Hermannstadt aka Sibiu and Kronstadt aka Brasov).

          • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

            I took it that she was a witch and her companions were the rest of her coven.

            Yeah, I think that’s a fair description, Steve.

            A beggar begs a coin in the street from one of the Babe-ettes as their party is passing by. He puts the coin in his hand and says that it’s burning. And then pronounces the giver a witch. In drama, they call that little bit of a clue “foreshadowing.” We might call that “foreshadowing with a sledgehammer.” But it still was a good scene.

            The Babe-ettes and their mistress are clearly up to no good. Miss Russia 2015 is supposed to be the “good, traditional girl” unlike the Latin throwback, Zoe. It might be fun to see the Grand Duchess of Moscow have to eat a few of her words.

            Big spoiler, so no one should read on if they haven’t watched episode 6. The Pope, unable to get Zoe/Sophia to further the Vatican’s influence in Russia now wants to kill Sophia. Sophia’s lady-in-waiting, Laura, who herself is a real beauty, is being coerced by Vatican agents to poison Sophia. She almost did so once. Almost then again. Now she’s fallen in love with one of the assistants to the Italian architects who are building the new church — and he’s in on the Vatican’s plot.

            An aside: Boris Tokareve plays Aristotele Fioravanti, the chief Italian architect. In this photo he’s not shown in costume. But they have just nailed the stereotypical look of an Italian master. Bravo. Ever watch a mob movie and see some of the great characters that Hollywood has cast as a mobsters? I’m sure you can all name a few of the greats. Well, this guy is the equivalent of that for an Italian architect.

            Anyway, Sophia’s lady-in-waiting, Laura, has fallen in love with the head architect’s assistant. You just know things will go wrong. You know that Laura is star-crossed as this drama continues to be very Shakespearean. The Vatican’s grip over Laura is Laura’s child who is being held by others against her wishes. She can get her daughter back if only she kills Sophia.

            Well, Laura learns a few secrets about her lover that aren’t flattering. He returns the favor and reveals that he knows about Laura’s child. And her Italian lover tells her that they must both leave town immediately because someone with dirt on this Italian lover has come to town. He insists that she finish her job of killing Sophia so that they may both return to Rome.

            They are up in the bell tower of a church while discussing this, a place where they first met. There’s a mild argument, he becomes more insistent, threatening, it seems, to toss her off the tower. Laura, certainly now having some sympathy for Sophia and knowing that she herself will eventually give in to the coercion and kill her, grabs her Italian lover and throws them both off the tower.

            That’s moving the plot along, baby. Again, very Shakespearean.

            • Timothy Lane says:

              Falling from a bell tower — maybe they’ve seen Vertigo, which features two such deaths (in two different scenes, one of them being at the end of the movie). Something of the sort also happened at the climax of High Anxiety (which, after all, is a parody/homage to Alfred Hitchock, including Vertigo).

              • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

                Maybe not only Shakespearean but Hitchcockian. Anyway, #6 was a good episode clicking on all Ivanic cylinders.

  9. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    Looking at the credits, it still strikes me what an interesting alphabet those Russians use.

    I just got done watching Episode 7. All hell breaks loose. This is perhaps the most plot-driven episode so I can’t say much about it. I wonder if this series ends at Episode 8 (and thus wraps things up) or continues to other seasons. I can’t see how they could wrap things up in just one episode but you never know.

  10. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I finished the first season. It looks like the next season (if there is one) will pick up with Ivan’s grandson.

    Maybe the Russians have a different sense of good endings but I found the ending of this to be mostly unsatisfying. Sophia is shown as a complete merciful dolt. And maybe that’s how she was. And no one around Ivan III seems to have any fear of getting caught plotting against him. Why anyone would trust Ivan the Young’s c-word wife is beyond me.

    But they make it out like the core group of conspirators were in some kind of cult. Maybe this is how it all was in history. But they had changed other things in the series for dramatic effect. I’m not sure why the didn’t bother with a better ending here. And then at the very end of the episode they steal the ending from Star Wars VI, showing all the principals from the series all lined up. At least they weren’t glowing.

    But overall it was a good series. I stand by my pronouncement that not only is the woman who plays Sophia a weak actor but the character herself is mostly unrealized. This series is named after her but she’s fleshed out little better than if she were a piece of cardboard.

    The best scenes generally involve The Neapolitan. Why they named their top religious guy after a type of ice cream, I’ll never know. But the series had gravitas when The Neapolitan was dispensing his succinct and definitely non-girly-man wisdom. The same goes for Ivan’s mother who stole every scene she was in (and you can see she likely was trying to do so in that Star Wars ending if you look close and know what scene-stealing is all about).

    Another really vapid part of the last couple of episodes was the idiot ex-friend (ex lover?) of Sophia. They had a big thing for each other before Zoe had to move to Moscow. And a spoiler alert, but it’s of no consequence. He’s the guy whose throat is slit in the earlier foiled kidnap attempt of Zoe in Rome. Well, he didn’t die. He makes his way to Moscow with the other Italian craftsman who are going to build the church. And right there in front of Ivan they practically are flirting with each other.

    Then this dumb-ass is suitably framed (caught up in the plans of Ivan the Young’s witchy wife) with a forged love letter to Sophia. Ivan has him suitably tortured as well. But then later the head architect pleads for the release of his assistant and Ivan gives in. What does the assistant then do? He goes looking for Sophia. Talk about a glutton for punish. In some way it’s all supposed to play out noble and heroic (later he does save Sophia’s life) but it comes across as dramatically starved of believability.

    Although neither Sophia nor Ivan III are stellar performers, I did find Ivan the Young to be very good in his part of the pampered Grand-Prince-to-be who is all wide-eyed and enthusiastic and maintains a likable and innocent charm. Should have looked before you married, Ivan. Yikes. But then, she was Miss Russia 2015. Can’t blame the guy.

    And thank you, Steve, for bringing this series to our attention.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      Note that Ivan IV was Ivan the Terrible (Ivan Grosny), not the son of Ivan III. He died before his father did.

      Neapolitan (from the Greek Neapolis) refers to people and things from Naples and its environs. Al Capone had a Neapolitan background, not a Sicilian one.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        In this series Ivan the Young is killed. That would leave Ivan’s son via Sophia as next in line. So at some point, you’re saying, this son dies as well and it then devolves to….the son of Miss Russia 2015 and the murdered Ivan the Young?

        For all his gruff exterior, The Neapolitan (Rocky Road is another great flavor) is a man of humility, honesty, and reverence to the Christian virtues. Yeah, he did not like the idea (if I remember correctly) of that outsider, Sophia, marrying Ivan. But little more was made of it. And that’s the sad part of this series is that you don’t get enough fine-grained playing out of relationships. There was too much focus on the plotting by characters who didn’t seem real.

        But it is what it is. Surely it’s meant to be a grand propaganda film. But even so, apart from Ivan kicking The Great Horde’s asses (if only by default), it was certainly not a great piece of propaganda, at least to an outsider. I don’t expect deconstruction nor glorious hagiographies. But there’s just something about both Sophia and Ivan III where they hover above being fleshed-out characters. I can’t relate to either one of them.

        On the other hand, Ivan the Young, The Spumoni, Ivan’s mother, and Ivan’s righthand man (the baldish guy, if you ever watch this) are characters brought to life beyond mere figure pieces. So you get this mix and it’s a little frustrating because this could have, and should have, been better.

        • Timothy Lane says:

          Ivan was succeeded by Vasili III, his son by Sophia. It seems his marriage to her was intended to raise the status of the grand principality of Moscow; after he married her he began to follow a lot of Byzantine court ritual and took the title of Tsar.

          Rocky road is indeed a very nice flavor. I also especially like butter pecan and chocolate mint; they might be my favorite ice cream flavors.

          • Steve Lancaster says:

            I favor Cherry Lime, but butter pecan and black walnut are close seconds.

            • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

              I particularly like Cherry Miss Russia 2015. Black walnut sounds good too. Throw in a little kahlua and vodka and we could make it a Black Russian Walnut ice cream.

          • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

            Oh, okay. Then it was the son by Sophia. I guess from watching this series (although it’s not the boy’s fault), it would have been an injustice for the son of Ivan the Young and his witch-wife to become Grand Prince of Moscow. Or maybe this would have been a fine tribute to Ivan III’s fallen favored son.

            It seems his marriage to her was intended to raise the status of the grand principality of Moscow

            You must surely be correct. In this series, the motivation of the Pope for the marriage was to spread the Vatican’s influence (and its faith) wider. And, as part of the deal, Ivan III was supposed to make war on the Turks on their northern border. At least in this series, that never happened, neither did the spreading of the Vatican’s influence — so much so that a good part of the latter part of the season involved plots by the Pope’s minions to have Sophia killed.

            According to Wiki, rocky road ice cream (comprised of chocolate ice cream, nuts, and whole or diced marshmallows) was created in March 1929 buy William Dreyer in Oakland, California. Initially walnuts, they were replaced by toasted almonds. Interestingly, the name derives from an attempt “to give folks something to smile about in the midst of the Great Depression.”

            Here’s a do-it-yourself recipe that used pecans. I assume that the name, “rocky road,” was never patented.

            I’m also a fan of chocolate chip mint. Some people say it’s like eating toothpaste. Well, I will agree that there are inferior brands of chocolate chip mint that are a little like that. A good strawberry ice cream (and I mean a really good one) is also a favorite. I was toying with buying an ice cream maker such as this one but figured I didn’t really need a way to boost my calories. Still, maybe someday. Staying on-topic here, I could use it to make Russian Plombir.

            Check out this charming photo essay titled Why ‘milky’ Soviet ice cream was the absolute best. In particular, scroll down a bit and check out that poster of the penguin carrying a platter of ice cream. I’d love to have that framed on my wall.

            • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

              Check out this charming photo essay titled Why ‘milky’ Soviet ice cream was the absolute best.

              I think Italian Gelatto is the best ice cream, regardless the flavor, and there are many. But although it has been over 30 years since my last visit to Moscow, I still recall how good the Russian ice cream was. So, I have to agree that Russian ice cream is great. It reminded me of Gelatto, which was a surprise.

            • Timothy Lane says:

              Churchill once said that he knew the Russians were indomitable when he saw Muscovites queuing up for ice cream — in the middle of winter.

              • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

                LOL. Here’s a short 2011 essay about Russia that includes that event. And I like this quote as well:

                Russians are simply tired of struggling, if you ask me. The foreigners love the dynamism of Russia and the opportunity it presents, as it stands in sharp contrast to the ossified social hierarchy of home

                As the West lives down to the expectations of the old Soviet Union (who can say now that we are not decadent?), I find myself engendering at least a small appreciation for Russia.

            • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

              The Soviet Union didn’t have much worth consuming, but they did have a few, which I was lucky enough to consume when they were very cheap.


              This was very cheap when I studied in Vienna. I believe it was something between US$1-2 a bottle. It was semi-sweet and just the thing for a special occasion. Something a poor student could afford.



              I bought a fair amount of this in Vietnam when the Soviets were all over the place in the 1980’s. I can’t recall whether a kilo or half-kilo tin was US$100. That was too much for me to eat, but I did take a lot of the smaller jars back to Hong Kong for a Christmas party in which we served only champagne.

              • Timothy Lane says:

                I’ve had caviar on a few occasions. On at least one occasion when we were in Greece, we attended a large party in which caviar wa available. In addition, I occasionally bought large variety boxes from Wisconsin Cheeseman, some of which included a small amount of caviar. I also recall that in the movie Sleuth, the mystery writer (played by Lawrence Olivier) is having some caviar when Inspector Doppler (actually, Michael Caine’s character in disguise) comes by. He doesn’t care for caviar, saying it tastes like fish eggs.

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