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The other day I decided to watch The Great on Hulu after, well, hearing that it exists. I generally enjoy historical dramas, and you really can’t mess up with Catherine the Great’s story. A woman ruler in Russia? Seriously awesome. Russia has apparently always been crazy, and everything about her story defies belief.
So the supreme irony of this series is that it takes a lot of dramatic license…A LOT…to tell a story that almost defies believe even if you stick to the exact, verifiable facts.
“Go big or go home” is one of my favorite expressions, and when Tony McNamara and the show’s other creators decided to mess with Catherine the Great’s story, they REALLY messed with it. They make no bones about it, which I appreciate: It makes its intentions clear right there on the opening credits: “An occasionally true story”. I mean, all the people who think they are learning history from historical fiction are in enough trouble, we can’t have media blatantly messing around with works flying under the “nonfiction” flag.
As soon as I realized what this series is doing, I thought of The Favourite, the film about Queen Anne, which is also quite liberal with the truth. It turns out that McNamara was a writer for that.
And I have to say, after having watched two episodes of The Great, I am immensely enjoying the series and plan to continue watching it. It’s a lot of fun, and the core truths that Princess Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst (in present day Germany) took the medium-good cards life dealt her and played them to the hilt, and she also did a lot of good for her adopted country are maintained.
Historians have recently demonstrated that her husband, Peter III, was not as bad a ruler as he has previously been considered, but hey, if you’re clueless enough to let your wife grab your crown six months into your reign, you have to accept that she’s going to rip you apart in the history. That’s how it goes.
I say that Sophie’s (Catherine’s) cards were medium good because ok, she was a princess, but her father’s principality was small and poor. Being a poor princess is still better than the cards most people are dealt, no question. Either way, the family needed her to make a good marriage. Most people in her position would have considered her nabbing the role as the Empress of Russia as hitting the jackpot, but Princess Sophie (renamed Catherine at her Orthodox baptism) was not content to be the “seed catcher” of an at best, unstable spouse and spend her days in splendid isolation. Oh no.
So watch The Great and have fun with it. But do take the time to find out about Catherine the Great’s real life because it’s just as good a story, if not better.
One of my biggest disappointments in The Great is the disservice the series does to Empress Elizabeth, who was the actual ruler of Russia before Peter III, who actually only ruled for 6 months AFTER he and Catherine had been married 18 years.
Empress Elizabeth also took the throne from her cousin, Ivan VI, and ruled alone for years. Peter III, who is depicted at the son of Peter the Great in The Great was actually his grandson, and he barely knew his own mother: I don’t know what that grotesque corpse of his mother in The Great is supposed to be about. I’ve traveled a lot over the years, and I have seen preserved corpses, they were always accidentally preserved. I have never heard or seen any member of the royalty in any country, preserved that way. People “lie in state” after the die but then they are buried. The Russians were all Russian Orthodox, and being buried is a Christian thing, so I don’t get it at all, and I can’t find any information about that particular tidbit’s origin. I wonder about it because it’s just gross, and anyway it does a great disservice to a women who did almost as much for Russia as did Catherine the Great.
Learning about the real Catherine the Great
There is plenty to tell about Catherine the Great, and her story has been told plenty of times. You do want to go for reliable sources because there are also a lot of nasty, and untrue, stories about her, and you don’t want to bother with sources that rely on those.
There are plenty of not so nice and true stories to stick with.
The preeminent scholar and biographer of all the Romanovs is Robert K. Massie. I’ve read his book on Catherine and most of his book on Peter the Great. I don’t usually read about male monarchs too much, but I liked this one and made it through most of it; I eventually got bogged down in the woods somewhere during a battle (metaphorically). I tried. My appetite for following battles is limited.
I read and enjoyed Catherine the Great very much even though I was already familiar with her early life from the 1992 miniseries.
Robert K. Massie wrote two other books on the Russian imperial family. Nicholas and Alexandra is the basis for the classic film by the same name. He also wrote The Romanovs, the Final Chapter, that answers questions left until the fall of the Soviets about what really happened to the family.
Catherine the Great on the Screen
The miniseries Young Catherine came out in 1992, which was meant that the series was actually shot on location in Russia, which was a new thing after the fall of the Soviets in 1989. A young Julia Ormond played young Catherine. You may not know who she is, but you might recognize many of the other actors, including Christopher Plummer (The Sound of Music)and Vanessa Redgrave, who played Empress Elizabeth as a powerful figure, much as she likely was.
I very rarely recorded anything from TV back in the days when we all had VHS players, but I recorded Young Catherine and watched it numerous times. It’s mostly accurate, but it’s also soooo romantic, another way that The Great does a great disservice to the true story.
One of the biggest changes is the conflation of at least two and possibly more of Catherine’s lovers into Grigory Orlov, but you won’t care…keeping all of her lovers straight is too confusing, and Orlov was one of the top two most significant ones. My favorite part of the movie is when he salutes her from afar during the coronation. She’s getting the crown; he’s got her back.
As of this writing, you can purchase the series on Amazon Prime for $10, but you never know, they might include it with membership at some point.
In 2019 a version starring Helen Mirren was released by HBO. I haven’t watched it yet, but from the reviews I’ve read, you will enjoy it for its (more accurate than The Great’s) depiction of Catherine the Great’s reign, but squint your eyes at the beginning when Helen Mirren crowned Empress; Catherine was actually in her early 30’s.
It sounds like Young Catherine and Mirren’s Catherine the Great would pair well together.
More about Russian Empresses
If you have figured out how much fun reading about the Russians is, here’s one more for you. The collective biography is about three other women who ruled Russia in addition to Elizabeth and Catherine.
For more on female rulers, see She Wolves and Witches: What Happens to Women Who Try to Rule (Medieval Edition)