I’ll need to start by making a couple of disclaimers. One, I’m in no way a historian nor do I have any expert knowledge on Catherine the Great, and two, I might hate joy. I bring both of these things up because I watched the raved about Hulu series The Great over the weekend, and I hated it. I understand the appeal of the show and enjoyed parts of it, but the overall impression is most similar to an unsatisfying argument with a loved one where days later you find yourself randomly interjecting, “And another thing!” What’s that? That’s just me? Only I do that? OK, three disclaimers.
It’s not that the show isn’t effective in what it’s trying to accomplish (again, it’s pretty funny at times, especially in the first episode), it’s that I don’t exactly like what it’s trying to accomplish. Much like The Favourite, The Great is a satirical look at royalty and the inner workings of their court with some modernizing touches to add humor and familiarity. The show also removes the idea that old-timey folks were somehow more polite and sophisticated than people nowadays. Everyone’s kind of an asshole, but usually they’re funny assholes. That should be my jam. And it probably would have been if not for one big issue: did they have to f**k with Catherine?
It’s not that I hate all historical adaptations or that I’m going to get picky about condensing historical facts in order to streamline storytelling. It’s that the show took a female protagonist, named her Catherine, and then just did whatever the hell they wanted to do. It’s not just that the details of the story are inaccurate, it’s that the fundamental characteristics of Catherine’s whole thing have been misrepresented. Let’s go to the tape:
1) If Catherine Were Naive And Idealistic, It Was When She Was Fourteen
Again, I am not a historian, I mostly just have a girl crush and access to the library. But a quick Wikipedia or YouTube search would reveal that the timeline on The Great is suspect at best. Catherine’s mom was an old-school pimp in the worst ways and was angling to get Catherine married off as quickly as possible. This means she first met Peter III (sidenote for later: that’s Peter The Great’s grandson, not son) when she as ten. They got married when she was fifteen, and she was active in the Russian court for eighteen full years before becoming Empress. So maybe the show is just attempting to capture Catherine’s adjustment to the Russian court? Condensing twenty or so years of hanging with the ladies in waiting into a few scenes isn’t the worst thing a show could do, right? No, but pretending that Catherine would have a hard time fitting in would be.
Catherine threw herself into being Russian, and not just with a faked birthmark on her thigh. She converted to Eastern Orthodoxy even though it pissed her dad off so much he refused to come to her wedding. She spent so much time mastering the Russian language that she caught pneumonia. And when pleuritis nearly killed her, she requested a Russian priest instead of a Lutheran one. Meaning that either her love of Russia and the Russian people was so strong that on her possible deathbed she clung to them, or bitch is savvy enough to, again on her deathbed through her fevered dreams, still be playing the long-game and know how impressive that shit would be.
It’s the same reason that Catherine’s difficulty with the ladies of the court didn’t land right. Having Catherine as an unwelcome outsider, one who isn’t able to navigate the politics of the court, doesn’t fit with any of the things we actually know about her. In fact, one of the few stories about her having trouble at court is that her bitch-ass mom got her into trouble. Her mom, being a bitch-ass, was acting like a bitch-ass, and nearly got herself and Catherine tossed from the country. Except that Catherine, being exceedingly politically cunning and endearing was able to convince Empress Elizabeth (that’s right, the butterfly lady) to let them both stay. And about Empress Elizabeth?
2) The Russians Weren’t Opposed to A Female Leader
I could maybe write a whole other one of these where I just bitched at how badly the show screwed up Peter III, but I’ll stick to just being angry that in their characterization of Peter III, they completely dicked over Elizabeth. Because remember how Peter III wasn’t Peter the Great’s son but grandson? That means he didn’t inherit the throne from his dad but from his Aunt Elizabeth. Again, the woman the show turned into a butterfly-obsessed flake. Elizabeth (1741 - 1762) herself actually took the throne by coup from tiny baby Emperor Ivan IV (depicted in the show as a ten-year-old secret child), who was in charge for just over a year when he was literally a year old. Before him was Empress Anna (1730 - 1740), before that was Peter II (1727 - 1730), and before that was Catherine I (1725 - 1727). In fact in the seventy years after Peter the Great’s rule, men controlled the throne for about four years. Russia had had a woman in power before, and whatever obstacles Catherine the Great faced, it wasn’t that a woman in power was unheard of.
And that’s not to say that Catherine didn’t face issues of sexism. It’s that she didn’t face this issue of sexism. There’s a very good reason why Catherine (who was well known for her various lovers) is mostly known today for f**king a horse. But copying and pasting any possible sexist issue isn’t the same as actually examining the sexist issues she dealt with. Adapting and condensing Catherine’s real problems into order to tell a cohesive narrative is one thing; changing what those problems are in order to tell the narrative you want to tell is another. Namely, it’s another sh*tty thing. Which brings us to …
3) Catherine Didn’t Need To Convince Anyone To Make Her Empress
So that line might be a slight embellishment. Catherine didn’t need to convince anyone to start a coup in order to make her sole ruler because Peter III was such a wild f*ck up that basically everyone in court, the military, and the church agreed he needed to be tossed out. Peter’s problem in real life wasn’t that he was a bloodthirsty asshole who would stop at nothing to secure Russia’s victory in war. It was that he mostly still saw himself as a Prussian who ended Russian’s mostly successful war with Prussia and gave them back all of the land that they claimed. And when he wasn’t pretending to be in charge by having fake soldiers march around his bedroom, he was just straight up not doing his job. Catherine’s main advantage over Peter wasn’t that she was a well-read, progressive follower of the Enlightenment (although she was), but that she actually showed up to do the goddamn job.
This is why the ending of The Great made me so punchy. It’s not just that it’s historically inaccurate to portray Catherine’s ascension as a haphazard declaration of civil war against an uncontested ruler. It’s that’s Catherine’s shit was so much tighter than that. She spent twenty years endearing herself to the people of Russia, forming political relationships, being smart and savvy, and, yes, well-read so she could create allies she’d need when shit when south. And when shit went south, she’d been kicking ass for so long that everyone basically agreed, “yeah, she’s in charge, right? We really should put her in charge?” Think about it this way, Peter III was such a fuck up, his entire reign lasted six months. Six months. He spent thirty years getting ready to do one job and did it so poorly they had to kill him afterward. And part of the reason they got to do that is that Catherine was right there to step in and get shit done.
So no, no historical drama can or even should be one-hundred-percent faithful to real-life events because that would be impossible and boring. But if you’re going to name your story after an actual person, the very least you can do is to make sure that the spirit of the story reflects that person’s choices and agency. Or, think about this way instead. That story about Catherine fucking the horse? It wasn’t a rumor while she was the Duchess or Empress. It started decades after her death. And it happened because we collectively thought that it was funnier or more entertaining to ignore a real woman’s actual actions and accomplishments because it fit better with the story we wanted to tell than the one that happened.
Header Image Source: Hulu