Hulu’s “The Great” is one of my favorite shows to come out during quarantine. The show is a comedic and fictional take on the early years of Catherine the Great, and it’s a masterpiece.
The Great stars Elle Fanning (who was also an executive producer) as Catherine the Great and Nicholas Hoult as Tsar Peter III. Even though the show is fictional, it focuses on real, historical elements: Catherine’s crazy relationship with Peter, the coup that ended Peter’s reign and began her own reign, and some of her lovers. While the show is nothing short of entertaining, the true story behind Catherine the Great is even more fascinating.
The writers of The Great took plenty of creative liberties, so it’s important to establish the real timeline to understand the true events. First off, while the show makes it look like these events occurred in a short period of time, they really occurred over a span of 17 years.
Catherine and Peter were married in 1745 when she was 16 and he was 17. In the show, Peter is already the Tsar when they get married. In reality, he was the heir to the throne under the leadership of Peter’s aunt Tsarina Elizabeth. Peter did not become Tsar until Elizabeth’s death in January 1762, almost 17 years after his wedding to Catherine. The infamous coup d'état that resulted in the coronation of Catherine occurred in July 1762.
Peter III Was Arguably Worse in Real Life
The Great portrays Peter as an incompetent ruler, a bumbling idiot, and a bit of a sociopath. All of these traits are a true likeness of the real Peter III, but the real Peter was worse. In the show, a lot of Peter’s madness can be attributed to him wanting to live up to his father, Peter the Great. In reality, Peter III was the grandson of Peter the Great and was the appointed heir by his aunt, Tsarina Elizabeth. He wasn’t even born in Russia (he was born in Germany), and he despised Russian culture (the aristocracy spoke French as the “educated” language). Since there was nothing motivating Peter’s violent behavior in real life, I think it’s safe to say that the real Peter was even more messed up than the TV version.
Peter and Catherine’s marriage was a royal nightmare. Many of the horror stories come from Catherine’s own memoirs, as Barbara Maranzani of Biography writes, “Her letters and memoirs are filled with tales of his boorish, drunken, and frequently cruel behavior (she would later allege that he had forced her to watch him hang and “execute” a mouse he found in their apartments). He abandoned her on their wedding night to party with friends and things went downhill from there.”
Maranzani continues, “An increasingly unhappy Catherine turned to reading, consuming books by Enlightenment authors like Voltaire. Unlike Peter (who remained steadfastly true to his non-Russian roots), she relished the language and religion of her adopted homeland, quickly becoming fluent in Russian. Peter, meanwhile, spent his time with soldiers — both toy and real — forming guards’ units that he ceaselessly trained.”
Some accounts even say that Peter enjoyed making Catherine play with his toy soldiers in bed, as well as forced her to dress up as a toy soldier for his own entertainment. He was also violent towards his soldiers (and probably Catherine herself) for his own amusement. It’s pretty safe to say Peter was the worst, and it’s understandable why Catherine wanted to take the throne away from him.
The Truth behind the Coup
Tsar Peter III’s six-month-long reign was a disaster from the start. His policies angered the Russian aristocracy, especially withdrawing from war with Prussia and making peace with one of Russia’s greatest enemies at the time. One of the most prominent nobles who was angered by Peter’s actions was Count Grigori Orlov (possibly the inspiration behind Count Orlov on the show), a military officer and Catherine’s lover at the time.
After putting up with Peter for 17 years, Catherine had had enough and asked Orlov to help her organize a coup to dethrone Peter and take the crown for herself. The coup started bloodlessly as Catherine helped lead 14,000 soldiers into the palace to overthrow Peter. After forcing him to abdicate the throne, she declared herself Tsarina Catherine II of Russia.
A week later, Peter was murdered by Count Alexei Orlov, brother to Grigori Orlov. To this day, it’s unclear as to whether or not Catherine ordered the murder or knew anything about it.
Catherine’s True Love
Catherine had many lovers throughout her life (no horses were involved, though the part in the show when all the female courtiers neighed at her was hysterical), but her most famous lover, Grigori Potemkin, doesn’t appear on the show. Although Catherine has been cited as treating her lovers well, it can be argued that Potemkin was her one true love.
Potemkin was one of the many soldiers who helped her in the coup to dethrone Peter and became her lover in 1774. Historian Sebag Montefiore writes, “Catherine and Potemkin were suddenly inseparable. When they were not together, even when they were just in their own apartments, a few yards apart, they wrote to each other manically.”
Potemkin was also one of Catherine’s top advisors and shared her interests in politics. They were together for 17 years It’s also rumored that they married in secret. Even after they both took new lovers, she remained in contact with Potemkin until his death in 1791.
If you’re looking for a funny show to binge as quarantine continues, The Great is the perfect choice. However, I also encourage you to learn the true story behind Catherine the Great because she’s one of the most fascinating and overlooked figures in history.