How Much of Hulu's The Great Is Real History, and How Much Is Totally Fictional?
If you've watched Hulu's The Great, you can probably guess that it's not a painstakingly accurate series. But how much of The Great is based on real history, and how much is fiction? The lushly costumed historical dark comedy technically follows the early years of Catherine, the future empress Catherine the Great of Russia, as she marries the temperamental Peter III and struggles to find her own voice at court. Although Catherine and Peter — and a couple of supporting characters — are real figures from history, the show takes major liberties with real events, constructing a hilarious version of events that cares more about the spirit of the characters than the minutiae of history.
We're breaking down which parts of The Great are based on a true story, as described in the nonfiction history of the Romanovs, The Romanovs, by Simon Sebag Montefiore. Keep reading to learn the true story of Catherine, Peter, and the intrigues of their court!
Catherine the Great
Yes, Catherine the Great was a real person and was one of the most famous rulers in Russian history. The Great covers the basic facts of her biography pretty accurately. She was born Princess Sophie von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg, a member of a minor German royal family, and was selected to be the wife of the Russian emperor, Peter III. Some of the details in The Great, such as her interest in reading philosophical texts by Enlightenment writers, are also true to life.
The major plot arc of The Great is also accurate. Frustrated with her inept husband's rule, Catherine did, in fact, lead a conspiracy to overthrow Peter, which happened in 1762. Catherine went on to rule Russia as empress until her death from a stroke in 1796. Her rule did implement many of the reforms she longed for (including the first institute of higher learning for women), bringing Russia into a more modern world alongside the rest of Europe, but it wasn't all sunshine and philosophers: her reign also included conflict over serfdom and anti-Jewish policies, among other controversies.
Was Peter III a finicky man-child with a violent streak? Probably not, but The Great certainly wasn't far off the mark in depicting the emperor's unpopularity, as Montefiore describes. Peter came to the throne in 1762, following the death of his aunt, the Empress Elizaveta (we'll get to her in a moment). He was the grandson of the popular Peter the Great but had been raised largely by his German family and was strongly pro-German in his policies. He only reigned for about six months before his wife, Catherine, deposed him in a coup.
Peter was unpopular, but The Great does exaggerate some historical details to make him a delightfully monstrous antagonist. He did attempt to make movements toward modernizing the Russian military and abolished the infamously violent branch of secret police. He also was a proponent of education and religious freedom. Still, his taste for brutal "jokes" and "pranks," as well as his self-proclaimed temper, are historical record as well. He was deposed and ultimately died soon after the coup; whether he died in a drunken brawl or was outright assassinated remains a question among historians.
Peter and Catherine's Relationship
The Great portrays the marriage between Catherine and Peter as a fraught arranged marriage, and in that regard, it's fairly accurate. Many of the details, though, have been intentionally fictionalized to tell a different kind of story. Most notably: in the show, Catherine arrives, meets Peter for the first time, and marries him after he's already the established emperor.
In real life, the couple — who were second cousins — met as children and did not get along then. They married as teenagers (she was 16; he was 17) while Peter's aunt Elizaveta still ruled, and they spent nearly 17 years together before Peter became emperor. Their marriage was not a faithful one on either side, and both took multiple lovers, a detail that The Great borrows as well. Catherine was thoroughly unimpressed by Peter, historian Virginia Rounding told Time. "She trained herself, learning and beginning to form the idea that she could do better than her husband."
Count Orlo is one of the few characters on The Great who is explicitly based on a real-life figure. The real Catherine heavily relied on Count Grigory Orlov, just as the fictionalized Catherine trusts Orlo among her closest confidants and friends as she plans her coup. That's where the similarities end, though.
The real Orlov was a military man, not a scholar, and was a few years younger than Catherine, not older. In The Great, Catherine humorously attempts to seduce Orlo to win him to her side, but their actual relationship remains close but firmly platonic. That wasn't the case with the real Orlov and Catherine, as History points out: he was the first of her "favorites" and was her lover and partner for several years before and after her coup. They even had an illegitimate son born the year of the coup. Their romance came to an end some years into Catherine's reign, and Orlov lost much of his power and influence. Still, when he died in 1783, Catherine wrote in her personal papers about her intense grief.
The Great gives Catherine a designated lover in the form of sweet, seemingly perfect Leo Voronsky. While Leo himself was not a real person, he's loosely based on the real story of Catherine's life. Even early on in her marriage to Peter, Catherine took lovers (as did Peter), according to History. Her first lover was Sergei Saltykov, a popular young officer who seems to be the closest inspiration for the character of Leo. In her own memoirs, Catherine later implied heavily that her son and successor Paul was actually Saltykov's son, not Peter III's; historians disagree as to whether or not she was telling the truth.
The Great takes some major liberties with the historical character of Elizaveta. In the show, she's the promiscuous, aging "party aunt," but in reality, she was an empress in her own right and, more importantly, was not alive during Peter's reign because he succeeded her to the throne. Elizaveta was a daughter of Peter the Great who took the throne in a largely bloodless coup in 1741, overthrowing her infant cousin Ivan VI and his mother, the regent Anna.
Montefiore describes how Elizaveta's reign was remembered kindly for her refusal to sentence anyone to death and her popular domestic reforms, although she also was something of a luxurious spendthrift. She left the throne to her nephew Peter III, who was her sister Anna's son (a different Anna than the regent she overthrew), and died in 1762.
Catherine's Inner Circle
Most of the characters at court are fictional and created just for The Great, although they're based on types of people who would have been at Peter and Catherine's court. Catherine's maidservant and best friend, Marial, is a complete invention, as are the courtiers who surround them. The court was filled with Russian nobility, all striving to be favored by the rulers, and it's likely that there was every bit as much intrigue as The Great depicts.