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How Much of Hulu’s The Great Actually Happened?

Like Catherine the Great on her wedding night, viewers’ expectations of Hulu’s The Great will look quite different from historical truth. The off-kilter series from The Favourite’s Tony McNamara stars Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult as real-life Russian rulers Catherine the Great and Peter III. However, this isn’t your grandmother’s historical drama—and it doesn’t purport to be.

At the beginning of each of its 10 splashy episodes, The Great brands itself an “occasionally true story,” freed from period accuracy and the corseted constraints that come along with most costume dramas. In fact, as the series hurdles towards Catherine’s coup to overthrow her inept husband, the show seems to take pleasure in subverting our expectations.

Nearly every invented aspect of The Great flies in the face of what we know about the time. Several characters are fictional (Phoebe Fox’s maid Marial, Adam Godley’s religious adviser Archie, and Sacha Dhawan’s bureaucrat Orlo, to start). The show was filmed on an elaborate soundstage in East London, not an 18th century Russian estate. And every character—from German to Russian—speaks in a blatantly British accent. “It’s not a history lesson; it’s a show,” McNamara told Vulture of the series, adapted from his 2008 play of the same name.

Like AppleTV’s Dickinson or Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, the inaccuracies fade in favor of capturing our central heroine’s essence. Ahead, answers to 11 historical questions at the center of The Great’s satire.

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Spoilers for The Great below.

Were Catherine and Peter III actually married?

Yes. Catherine, born Princess Sophia August Fredrica on May 2, 1729, was 14 years old (not 19, as depicted on the show) when she was selected to marry the man who would become Emperor Peter III. Per TIME, the Russian Orthodox Church renamed the new bride Catherine. Catherine and Peter reportedly first met when they were 10 years old and she found him “repulsive” from the start. “She trained herself, learning and beginning to form the idea that she could do better than her husband,” historian Virgina Rounding told TIME when fact-checking the more historically sound HBO miniseries Catherine the Great.

In the show, Peter is already Emperor of Russia and Catherine plans to overthrow him immediately following their vodka-soaked wedding and anti-climactic consummation. In reality, the couple married in 1745 and Peter would not become Emperor until 1762. That means she had to endure 17 years in a “loveless” marriage before overthrowing him on June 28, 1762—six months into Peter’s reign.

Fanning and Hoult as Catherine and Peter.

Ollie Upton

Did the couple have children together?

Yes! In the series, Peter tells Catherine, “You will bear my heirs. There is no higher use (for you).” Most of the couple’s lackluster lovemaking is only out of duty—to create the next in line to the throne. That squares away with the real dynamic between the newlyweds. In 1754, the couple welcomed their first child, Paul I, followed by Anna in 1757, Alexei in 1762, and Elizabeth in 1775. Although the youngest child is the only one of Catherine’s offspring born after Peter’s death, the paternity of all four children has been called into question. On The Great, Catherine’s only other lover, Leo (Sebastian de Souza), is sterile—so Paul is unequivocally Peter’s.

Was the Emperor just as insufferable in real life as Hoult’s portrayal?

As far as mercurial rulers go, Peter is a bit of a mixed bag in the show. At one moment he’s killing a bear he gifted Catherine. The next, he’s oddly tender, wearing the pearls of his deceased mother. While there’s no historical record of the gifted bear, nor mummified mother, Peter’s brutish behavior is well documented. Catherine’s own diaries at the time describe Peter as a “drunkard,” “good-for-nothing” and an “idiot.” Historian Hilde Hoogenboom tells the New York Times that Peter was unattractive and struggled with erectile dysfunction. But Hoult’s portrayal places the ruler as a desired man-child who has no (physical) problems in the bedroom. “Don’t tell me that handsome guy is Peter,” Carol Leonard, an emeritus fellow at St. Antony’s College at Oxford University, told the Times of her reaction to Hoult as the Emperor.

Hoult as Peter.

Ollie Upton

Was Catherine’s assigned lover Leo a real person?

No—but that doesn’t mean Catherine was unfamiliar with the concept. While the forbidden love between Leo and Catherine never happened, she did take several lovers during her marriage. According to TIME, Catherine the Great had about a dozen lovers and is described as a “serial monogamist” by Simon Sebag Montefiore, author of Catherine the Great & Potemkin: The Imperial Love Affair.

De Souza and Fanning as Leo and Catherine.

Ollie Upton

By historical account, Catherine’s first lover was Russian officer Sergei Saltykov, but her true love was Grigory Orlov Potemkin. This character has yet to make an appearance on The Great. However, viewers have pointed out that Peter’s best friend Grigory (Gwilym Lee) and Catherine’s political ally Count Orlo (Sacha Dhawan) borrow elements of his moniker. New seasons will only tell if romance develops between Fanning’s Catherine and one of those characters. (Side note: There’s no link between Leo and the invention of the Moscow Mule, though the character does appear to be quite the mixologist.)

Fanning as Catherine and Dhawan as Count Orlo.

Ollie Upton

…but did Catherine have *relations* with a horse?

No—although the “first lie” did win. Despite Catherine’s 34-year reign as ruler of Russia and a trail of cultural accomplishments, the rumor that she had sex with a horse follows her through history. The New York Times reports that the myth likely began in Russian court as a way for Catherine’s enemies to discredit her. But on The Great, it’s Catherine’s circle of noblewomen who spread the lie after feeling dismissed upon her arrival. While Catherine has been painted on horseback, there’s no proof that her affinity for the animal extended into sexual territory. “It’s not even worth discussing,” Montefiore told TIME. But, as the character suggests in episode 8, the first lie to be told is often the one believed for all time.

Was Aunt Elizabeth (Belinda Bromilow) as sexually free-spirited and kooky as her onscreen counterpart?

Maybe?! In reality, Aunt Elizabeth wielded far more power than the show suggests. The New York Times notes that Catherine married Peter while Elizabeth was ruler, and he did not ascend the throne until Elizabeth’s death. She reigned as Empress for 21 years and was considered one of the most popular monarchs of Russia—she did not execute a single person during her reign. Elizabeth even reportedly arranged the marriage between Peter and Catherine. Bromilow’s Aunt Elizabeth who has kama sutra paintings on her walls and the ability to train butterflies. While neither of those facts are proven, history shows she had an artistic spirit during her time as ruler.

Bromilow as Aunt Elizabeth.

Andrea Pirrello

Was Ivan IV (Charlie Price) an actual child?

Sadly, yes. One of the more shocking turns Aunt Elizabeth takes is executing Ivan VI, the young, illegitimate son of Peter III’s late father, Peter the Great. On the show, Elizabeth kills the imprisoned child when Peter is suspected to be dying of arsenic poisoning and contingent of the Russian court wanted Ivan to take power over Catherine. Historically, that’s more or less what happened when Elizabeth took the throne from the infant. She imprisoned him for most of his life and ordered his death at age 23.

Price as Ivan and Bromilow as Aunt Elizabeth.

Ollie Upton

Was Catherine inspired by Voltaire (Dustin Demri-Burns)?

Yes, although the pair never met in person. Throughout the series, Catherine references her progressive ideals, quoting French philosophy and citing works from Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In the season 1 finale, Peter surprises Catherine on her 20th birthday with a visit from Voltaire, one of her favorite writers.

In reality, the pair never met, but were instead lifelong pen pals. Their correspondence helped inspire Catherine’s passion for the arts and education. In 1764, two years into her reign as Empress, Catherine established the Smolny Institute for daughters of nobility in St. Petersburg. It was the first institution of its kind in Russia, TIME reports.

Did Catherine actually help broker the end of a war between Russia and Sweden?

No. In episode 8 of The Great, Catherine and Peter journey to Sweden to end the ruthless bloodshed between the two countries. Both the Russian and Swedish leaders struggle to agree on a peace agreement, sparring over who will seize control of Russian capital St. Petersburg. Catherine enters the picture with a plan to end the war, leading Peter to believe he crafted the plan himself while talking in his sleep. In reality, the Russian-Swedish war took place two years before Catherine and Peter were even married. It seems The Great uses this historical event to depict Catherine’s growing influence over Peter’s political moves.

Fanning and Hoult as Catherine and Peter.

Ollie Upton

What about the time she injected herself with small pox?

This one is true. In episode 7, a smallpox outbreak tears through the servants’ quarters, infecting Catherine’s close serf Vlad (Louis Hynes). Catherine suggests to Peter that instead of burning the serfs to eradicate the disease, she should inject herself with smallpox in order to immunize herself. While Peter nixes the idea, Catherine still pulls off the stunt, injecting herself in front of a room of shocked nobles.

Per TIME, Catherine learned about immunization through inoculation from British doctor Thomas Dimsdale, whom she invited to the Russian court. Dimsdale injected both Catherine and her son Paul in front of the Russian court. On the series, the serfs burn and Catherine’s sacrifice is fruitless. But in the real version of events, Catherine’s idea actually inspired reform, leading to a mass program across Russia. Historians estimate that by 1780, 20,000 Russians had been inoculated, and by 1800, 2 million. She appointed Dimsdale a Baron and conferred a title on the peasant boy who provided the smallpox material she injected.

Fanning as Catherine the Great.

Ollie Upton

Was Catherine eventually able to successfully stage her coup?

Yes! Although Catherine only inches toward power in season 1, in real life, she seized the throne from Emperor Peter in 1762, six months after he assumed the top spot. She enjoyed

the longest-ever reign as empress of Russia from 1762 to 1796. She died of a stroke that year.

Fanning as Catherine the Great.

Nick Wall

TIME reported that Peter’s rash decision-making made him unpopular with the court and therefore easier for Grigory Orlov and an army of imperial guards to overthrow in a coup on June 28, 1762. Orlov forced Peter to sign an abdication document and on July 17 Peter was strangled to death, likely by one of Catherine’s supporters.

Stream The Great on Hulu now


Editorial Fellow
Savannah Walsh is an Editorial Fellow at ELLE.com.

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