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pugachev.jpg

What 'The Great' Gets Right and Wrong About the Real-Life Pugachev Rebellion

By Dustin Rowles | TV | June 6, 2023 |

By Dustin Rowles | TV | June 6, 2023 |


pugachev.jpg

Spoilers for the third season of The Great

The major arc of the third season of Hulu’s series The Great, featuring Catherine II (Elle Fanning), revolves around the Pugachev Rebellion. This rebellion is loosely based on the actual Pugachev rebellion that occurred in Russia during 1773-1774. While The Great takes creative liberties with the facts to serve its own storylines, the real-life Pugachev Rebellion is fascinating, possibly even more intriguing than its depiction in the series.

In The Great, Pugachev (also played by Nicholas Hoult) is introduced in the first season as a decoy for Peter III. This twist is amusing if you’re aware of Pugachev’s true historical identity: a Cossack who incited a massive rebellion by impersonating Peter III. Throughout the first two seasons of The Great, Pugachev mostly serves as comic relief, engaging in petty theft from the palace. At the end of season two, he becomes the target of Catherine’s mistaken stabbing when she intends to kill her husband (and immediately regrets it).

In the series, Pugachev survives being stabbed in the back five times and, in the third season, initiates a rebellion by exploiting conspiracy theories surrounding Peter III’s death. Assuming the role of Peter III, he leads a peasant revolution that captures Moscow. However, Catherine’s army eventually apprehends him and brings him back to the palace with the intent of forcing him to publicly admit his true identity and quell the rebellion. Before that can happen, Pugachev is shot in the head by a child. Catherine then devises an alternative plan to suppress the rebellion, utilizing the existence of Halley’s Comet (in reality, Halley’s Comet did not appear during Catherine’s reign).

In actual history, Yemelyan Pugachev never sets foot in the palace, engages in relations with noblewomen, or is shot in the head by a child. Nonetheless, certain aspects remain accurate. Pugachev, a Cossack who served in the Russian army for many years, deserted in 1770. He assumed the persona of Peter III after someone suggested a resemblance, exploiting the fact that few people in the 18th century actually knew what Peter III looked like. This made it relatively easy to convince those who were inclined to believe he was Peter III (call it an 18th-century misinformation campaign).

Although Catherine the Great had granted some limited freedoms to peasants and serfs, their lives were still marked by hardship and suffering. For instance, approximately 100,000 serfs died during the construction of St. Petersburg for Peter the Great. Pugachev capitalized on their grievances, portraying himself as Peter III and promising to alleviate their burdens. He successfully unified various demographics, including peasants, Cossacks, and Old Believers, creating a substantial army and establishing an alternative bureaucracy—an impressive achievement for someone who was illiterate.

Initially, the rebellion enjoyed success due to Catherine’s underestimation of its threat. However, contrary to the series, Pugachev does not capture Moscow but he does seize several outposts. As the rebellion progresses, his power diminishes when his wife and children surface, forcing him to acknowledge them and undermining claims of his identity as Peter III. After several military defeats and a decline in his standing, Pugachev’s closest men betray him and hand him over to the tsarist authorities.

Pugachev does face a trial, although it is a foregone conclusion that he will be found guilty. Subsequently, he is executed by decapitation and subjected to drawing and quartering, with his body parts displayed as a warning throughout Russia. According to one account, Catherine insisted on his decapitation first to spare him further torture. Enlightenment!

What the series does get right in the end is that, after pressing for better conditions for the serfs, after the Pugachev Rebellion, Catherine clamps back down, meaning the rebellion ultimately had the opposite of its desired effect.