Created by Australian playwright-turned-scriptwriter Tony McNamara, The Great mixes historical fact with plenty of fiction to dramatise the story of Catherine The Great’s rise to power.
Following the show’s first two critically acclaimed seasons, we’ve seen Elle Fanning’s Catherine reluctantly marry Nicholas Hoult’s childish Peter III of Russia, start a coup, get pregnant and then try to kill her new hubby.
However, with season three arriving on Lionsgate+ from 14 July, McNamara’s historical satire is blending even more fiction with historical fact - but what was the true story of Catherine the Great’s rise to becoming the Empress of Russia?
Let’s take a look.
The true story of Catherine The Great
Catherine II was born Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst in 1729 and ultimately went on to become known as Catherine The Great and the Empress of Russia.
She reigned between 1762 and 1796 after overthrowing her husband Peter III Fyodorovich who is played by Hoult in The Great. It’s this real-life story arc that the series uses to frame much of its action.
In real life, Catherine first met Peter — who was also her second cousin — when she was 10 years old and wasn’t a big fan. According to reports, she found him detestable, didn’t like his fondness for alcohol and made sure to spend her time at the opposite side of the castle whenever he was around.
Her eventual marriage to Peter came via an attempt to strengthen the bonds between Russia and Prussia and to weaken the growth of Austria which had grown under the watch of former Russian Empress Elizabeth Petrovna, played in the series by Belinda Bromilow.
The marriage was almost derailed by Catherine’s fame-hungry mother, Joanna Elisabeth of Holstein-Gottorp, who is played in The Great by guest star Gillian Anderson.
Excited at the prospect that her daughter could one day be a ruler, she soon began to irritate current Empress Elizabeth but thankfully she looked more fondly on her daughter and the marriage to Peter ultimately went ahead.
When did Catherine The Great become Empress of Russia?
Sophie adopted the name Catherine in 1744 when she became part of the Russian Orthodox Church and a year later she was finally married to Peter not long after she had turned 16.
Despite becoming man and wife, their marriage was not immediately consummated due to Peter’s apparent childlike immaturity which put a strain on their relationship.
To compensate for this, Catherine became close with her advisors, including Prince Grigory Grigoryevich Orlov, who appears in The Great as Sacha Dhawan’s Orlo. She also lost herself in French literature, becoming enamoured with Age of Enlightenment authors such as Voltaire, another real-life figure who appears briefly in the series, played by Dustin Demri-Burns.
Much like Catherine in The Great, Catherine in reality did have a son by Peter. After Elizabeth’s death, Peter took the throne but his relationship with Catherine became strained as his time as Emperor became more erratic.
Eventually, this led to a coup which saw Catherine become Empress of Russia, forcing her husband to sign a document of abdication.
How did Catherine The Great change Russia?
Under Catherine The Great’s reign, Russia experienced a period of hopeful growth and ultimately became one of the most formidable and advanced powers in Europe.
Under Catherine’s watch, many new universities, theatres and cities were founded, while culture and science boomed. She extended Russian borders and forged treaties and relationships with many foreign nations, from England to Japan.
Catherine also focused on financial reform and public health, relying on her knowledge of enlightened writers to position herself as an enlightened ruler.
Towards the end of her life, Catherine’s thoughts turned towards her successor however she died from a stroke in 1796 before she could make any formal announcement. She was 67 years old.
Shortly after her death, a crude rumour began circulating that Catherine had died after having sex with a horse but this is widely considered to be anti-Russian propaganda shared by opposition outlets.
The Great season 3 is streaming on Lionsgate+.