In the last several decades of the fifteenth century, a Byzantine princess is sent to Moscow to marry its’ Grand Prince Ivan III. Rome hopes that with her influence, the people of Russia will turn from their Orthodox faith to Catholicism. Instead the Princess Zoe changes her name to Sophia, and adopts the Russian language, faith and culture as her own.
As the wife of the man who history will name Ivan the Great, she is not entirely trusted by her adopted homeland. Those in power fear her foreign origins and influence over her husband. She becomes a point of conflict in the Russian court and the focus of court distrust and intrigues.
While Ivan and Sophia deal with these internal conflicts, there are also external ones which demand Ivan’s attention. Among these are issues of diplomacy and war among rival nations. The most dangerous of these is war against the Golden Horde led by the Grand Khan. Closer to home is the conflict with the Russian Republic of Novrogod who resist Ivan’s attempts to unify the various Russian principalities under the throne of Moscow.
This is now my third experience with a Russian television series. Once again, I am not only impressed, but entertained. The production values have been excellent, the acting and costuming well done and the historical narrative intriguing. I’ve made no secret of my fascination with Russian history and culture. But this interest has not extended back so far as to be overly familiar with Ivan and Sophia and this time period in Russia. So going in to this series, I had no expectations of how this historical story would play out.
One of the things I appreciate about historical programming is that regardless of how closely it does or doesn’t adhere to the facts, it always piques my interest enough to push me into doing my own research. I have learned so much about historical figures and events this way, that might not otherwise be brought to my attention. Such is the case with Sophia.
Based on my limited research, liberties have been taken with the facts. Ivan and Sophia are portrayed as heroes with only Russia’s good motivating their actions. Of course, history paints a more complex picture of these two, but I realize for the sake of good television it always helps to have a clear hero and heroine acting against villains and evil plots.
I was fascinated by the portrayal of Russian life in this time period. In some regards it still appeared very medieval, particularly for the common people. However the focus of the show remains on the court of Ivan and the wealthy boyars who support and finance his ambitions.
Of great interest to me also is the intersection of the religious life with political concerns and daily living. The head of the Russian Orthodox Church seemed to carry great influence not only with the Royal family but also with the people. Ivan and his court are shown as being sincerely faithful to their religion even when their actions don’t always line up with that faith. Later episodes show how clearly the people accept divine or supernatural manifestations with demons and the end of the world named as realistic fears. The infiltration of a religious heretic group brings these beliefs to the forefront of the story line.
This may be the first series I’ve seen where the men’s costuming is as elaborate or even more so than the women’s. Many layers are worn both by the men and the women from head to toe. Moscow’s often cold, wintry climate is offset by the warmer interior decorative colors of the palace as well as in the robes and furs worn by the wealthy. It really makes for some gorgeous cinematography and art direction.
The cast does an excellent job portraying the various historical figures. Mariya Andreyeva’s depiction of Sophia as a loyal, faithful, innocent wife may not exactly match history but is inspiring and touching. Also impressive is Nadezhda Markina as Ivan’s mother whose influence over her son is somewhat lessened by his new wife’s arrival. I found myself wanting to know more about her. Giuliano Di Capua as the cagey Ivan Fryazin who brings Sophia to Moscow surprised me in a good way. But I was most impressed with Yevgeny Tsyganov who plays Ivan III. There is something magnetic about his performance. He takes a difficult task portraying a complex man with incredibly complex challenges and makes it look easy. I’ve never seen him act before, but you can be sure I will be looking for other programming he might appear in. I was also happy to see a familiar face playing a small role as Ivan’s younger brother Andrey. Sergey Marin appeared in a larger role in the more recent Ekaterina based on the life of Catherine the Great.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed Sophia and highly recommend it. I loved being introduced to a time in history of which I have been ignorant. But even if this series had no historical basis I still would have stayed captivated by the quality of the story, acting, costuming and technical aspects. Sophia is currently available on Amazon Prime and TubiTV. The translation of Russian to English captions were almost perfect. I continue to be impressed with Russian television programming and will definitely be looking for more series like this one.