The Many Lives of Catherine the Great

Doing a Coup

The many lives of Catherine the Great.


Popular protest has been raging around the world for years now, but the streaming services and networks are still churning out shows about monarchs. Absolute power never loses its appeal, at least where television is concerned. The Last Czars, The White Princess, Victoria, The Spanish Princess, Versailles, Reign, The White Queen, Wolf Hall—take your pick. Female rulers have proved especially alluring, giving screenwriters a chance to hash out contemporary anxieties about women and politics against a palace background.

Catherine the Great, one of history’s most accomplished and longest-reigning female monarchs, is the imperial star of the moment. In 2019, HBO released Catherine the Great, a Helen Mirren vehicle that focused on Catherine’s long relationship with her minister Potemkin. The show had lots of sex—in one scene, Catherine watches Potemkin get a hand job at the opera from her best friend—but it also emphasized her famous workaholism and interest in science, and it devoted significant attention to her smallpox inoculation campaign. (Catherine had herself and her son inoculated by a Scottish doctor in 1768 and arranged for inoculations across Russia.) The series was a fairly traditional period drama, jewel-toned and sticking more or less to the facts.

Now Hulu offers us The Great, a very different approach to Catherinology. Scripted by Tony McNamara, who cowrote 2018’s The Favourite, The Great declares itself only “an occasionally true story.” Beginning with the arrival of the teenage Catherine (Elle Fanning) in St. Petersburg, the show condenses the events of nearly two decades—her introduction at court, her painfully long betrothal to the German duke who would become Peter III, their eventual marriage, and her successful coup against him—into just a few months, with countless jokey anachronisms along the way.

The Great begins with the delicate, flaxen-haired Catherine hoping to be the heroine of a happy love story. She soon realizes that her destiny lies not with a husband but with Russia itself. She aspires to enlighten the barbaric Russians by introducing universal education, the printing press, freedom of speech, and modern medicine and to put an end to pointless war. And yet with its odd combination of demeaning sex jokes, would-be screwball comedy, and winks to liberal feminism, The Great makes Catherine look much less capable than she truly was. Turning away from the political aspects of her romantic liaisons, the series pretends that sex and power can be isolated in the story of a woman who was summoned to Russia to bear an heir to the throne.

Catherine began her life as a minor German princess, Sophia Friederike Auguste of Anhalt-Zerbst. She was plucked from obscurity when she was chosen as a bride for Peter, a grandson of Peter the Great. Accompanied by her difficult mother, the 14-year-old Sophia traveled to St. Petersburg, where she became Grand Duchess Ekaterina Alekseyevna, or Catherine.

The childless Empress Elizabeth had retrieved her nephew Peter from his native Holstein years earlier, in the hope that this new heir would promptly father a son and thus fortify her claim to the throne. Peter was a terrible disappointment—undersized, unprepossessing, and resistant to all attempts at education. Orphaned early and later brutally abused by his German tutor, he was emotionally and physically damaged. He despised everything Russian and worshipped the Prussian king Frederick the Great, forcing his servants to perform Prussian-style military drills for his amusement.

Elizabeth took an immediate shine to the tactful, attractive, and eminently educable Catherine, who seemed to have enough good qualities to compensate for Peter’s many flaws. Canny and ambitious even as a teenager, she did everything she could to please the empress. Catherine stayed up late into the night studying Russian, soon mastering the language; embraced Russian Orthodoxy, at least in public; and professed her Russian patriotism early and often. Although she was hardly enchanted by Peter, she knew that love was not the aim of marriages like hers and did her best to be pleasant. This became even harder when Peter told her about his infatuations with various other ladies of the court and after his face was disfigured by a bout of smallpox. Nevertheless, she persisted.

Elizabeth was desperate for the young pair to be married and produce a child, but for years the court doctor insisted that Peter wasn’t ready to become a father. The exact reasons for the doctor’s concern are unknown, but there are abundant possibilities. Malnutrition may have delayed Peter’s puberty; some have speculated that he had a tight foreskin that inhibited sexual activity. His excruciatingly traumatic childhood probably didn’t set him up for a lifetime of healthy relationships, and it was becoming clear that he was insane.

When the pair finally married in 1745, neither, it seems, had any knowledge of the nature of the sexual act. On their wedding night Catherine lay alone in bed for hours, waiting for Peter to show up and do something to her, but she had little idea what that something might be. When he did arrive, he was very drunk (he’d been boozing since childhood) and promptly fell asleep. It seems likely they never consummated their marriage. Peter spoiled Catherine’s rest by playing with toy soldiers late into the night, weighing down the bedspread with his regiments.

Dismayed by the fruitlessness of the union, Elizabeth had the unhappy couple confined and surveilled for evidence of unfaithfulness. Peter was eventually assigned an experienced widow to teach him the ways of love (or at least sexual intercourse), and he proceeded to take up with various ladies-in-waiting, though he remained demonstratively indifferent to Catherine’s charms. She began her own sexual career at age 23, when she was seduced by a handsome, rakish nobleman named Sergei Saltykov. Their affair became common knowledge at court, and no one was much troubled by it. When Catherine became pregnant, it was cause for celebration. Without making any fuss, Peter claimed paternity for the infant, Paul. Elizabeth took the baby at birth and raised him as her own, smothering him with affection and furs.

Catherine’s next lover was the gallant, cosmopolitan Stanislaus Poniatowski, a Polish prince resident at the Russian court. A virgin when they fell in love, he was something of an ideal boyfriend for her. As the biographer Robert Massie puts it, “He expressed admiration not merely for her title and beauty but also for Catherine’s mind and temperament, which both he and she recognized as superior to his own.” She had a daughter, Anna, from this relationship. Snatched by Elizabeth at birth, the child died in infancy.

When Elizabeth died of a stroke in 1762, Peter became emperor. During his disastrous six-month reign and despite all his experience with toy soldiers, he managed to enrage the military, the church, and much of the Russian elite. With the help of her third lover, the dashing war hero Grigory Orlov, Catherine took the throne in a coup d’état. She donned a soldier’s uniform, mounted a white stallion, and led 14,000 troops from St. Petersburg to arrest her husband at the royal residence at Oranienbaum. It wasn’t very hard: As Frederick the Great observed, Peter “allowed himself to be dethroned like a child being sent to bed.” A few days later, Grigory Orlov’s brother Aleksei Orlov strangled Peter, supposedly after they drank too much at lunch. His death was declared the result of colic, and his injuries were concealed at his open-casket funeral. Catherine was now the empress, autocrat of all the Russias.

In The Great, we meet Catherine as a starry-eyed teenager arriving in St. Petersburg implausibly alone, full of romantic illusions. Unlike his historical prototype, the show’s Peter (Nicholas Hoult) is tall and handsome. More realistically, he is also fatuous, ignorant, vulgar, and given to idiotic pranks. At their first meeting, he pretends to reject Catherine and then tells her she smells funny. She chalks his bad behavior up to “cultural issues” and remains certain that they will soon be as one. Rather than waiting two years for her wedding and many more for the consummation of their marriage, Fanning’s Catherine is immediately subjected to Peter’s attentions, such as they are. As she waits for him on their wedding night, she tells her maid what she expects from the sexual act: “You float for a time in ecstasy, before waves of pleasure push and pull you back into your body.” Peter strolls in, gives her a casual kiss, pushes her onto the bed, and ejaculates without interrupting his conversation with a male friend, who waits for him at the door. The scene is played for laughs, but it’s disturbing.

Depictions of Catherine have focused disproportionately on her sex life. Sometimes this is in the service of torrid biographical drama; in other cases, sex is used to deride her. More negative portrayals have often cast her as sexually insatiable. This is the case with many female rulers—as if a woman’s political ambition were a variety of nymphomania. But Catherine’s long list of lovers makes her a particularly easy target for this trope. After Peter’s death, she took on a succession of favorites, mostly handsome military men in their 20s. (To be the favorite was a quasi-official post, complete with chambers, a sign-on bonus, and a roster of official duties. The usual term was two years.) An aging emperor’s enthusiasm for beautiful young lovers would hardly have attracted notice, but empresses were held to other standards. As Catherine got older and her favorites remained the same age, tongues wagged. Obscene caricatures and jokes about her circulated in Russia and across Europe, uniting misogyny with Russophobia. After the 67-year-old Catherine died of a stroke, a scurrilous rumor circulated that she was killed in an accident while having sex with her favorite stallion.

The Great makes frequent references to this rumor, which yields plenty of ribald jokes. Here the story of her dalliances with a horse is invented by the ladies of the Russian court, who think Catherine is a “bitch.” She keeps telling people the rumor isn’t true, but as the Swedish queen tells her, “the first lie wins.” What’s striking is that despite the show’s often tiresome raunchiness, it sanitizes Catherine’s sex life, erasing the children she had with her lovers and giving her nothing more than the wholesome sexual appetite of your average rom-com heroine. While this negates the vicious, misogynistic rumors about her sexual insatiability, it also denies simple historical realities by decoupling her sexual relationships from her rise to power.

Though Fanning’s Catherine is resolutely optimistic about her prospects for marital bliss, she loses her composure when Peter burns down her school for girls, hits her, and kills her pet bear. Noting their incompatibility and her lack of sexual enthusiasm for him, Peter proposes a kind of open marriage and presents her with a lover. According to Peter, the handsome, compact Leo is smart, can recite sonnets, is conveniently sterile, and “has a pretty big cock.” Catherine rejects Leo at first but takes him back when Peter brutally beats him for failing to please her. It’s not that she wants Leo, particularly; she’s just a nice girl who doesn’t like to see a man kicked to death before her eyes. In time, she claims her sexual agency and has sex with him. He confesses that he has minimal sexual experience. The sex is good, and she and Leo fall in love.

Now that Catherine has sorted out her love life, The Great turns to the burning question of her work-life balance. Like so many ambitious women, she soon finds herself struggling with the tensions between her relationship and her career. On the whole, Leo is a supportive partner, smiling approvingly when she outlines her plans for universal education just before she has an orgasm. (She’s on top.) But she hasn’t been entirely honest with him. She’s been concealing her plans for a coup. When Leo gets sulky about all her work meetings and threatens to leave, she realizes that secrecy is imperiling her relationship. Her helpful maid tells Leo the truth. It turns out that Leo is fine with being Mr. Catherine the Great, even if he doesn’t have much to contribute conspiracywise. However, as if reminding us that Catherine really can’t have it all, the show produces, at the end of the season, another reason for her to choose between relationship and career. She chooses her coup.

The Great’s divergence from historical fact is not, of course, a fault in itself. Any anachronism is acceptable, as long as the artistic results are good. But in the name of lean-in feminism, The Great disentangles sex and power, even though this nexus is an essential part of the real Catherine’s story. The show has nothing perceptive to say about how Catherine navigated the dangerous straits of sex and politics during a period when her position at court was extremely precarious. Rather than being her lover and the father of her child as well as her coconspirator, the show’s version of Orlov, Count Orlo, is comically sexless, a kind of intellectual eunuch whom she gets to know thanks to their shared love of reading clever books. When Catherine is advised to secure Orlo’s cooperation by seducing him, he flees in horror at her clumsy attempt. The show’s revisions manifest a modern conviction that sex and work occupy separate realms and that a smart woman will choose a high-powered job over a love affair. But historically women’s lives have not been so simple.

Though The Great shows Catherine’s bodily integrity being violated in a wide variety of ways, it offers no insight into how it feels to be treated as a public vessel. Shortly after she arrives at the Russian court, the grossly ahistorical archbishop (played by the gawky, baleful Adam Godley) licks his fingers with a flourish, announcing that he will personally confirm her virginity. Catherine is strangely unfazed. Later, a fat, drunk, old general tackles her, tries to rape her, and then loses control of his bladder while on top of her. We learn later that the general will help her with the coup, but there is never any consideration of the relationship between these two events. She isn’t even safe in the company of women: She fields a proposal from her husband’s daffy, sex-crazed Aunt Elizabeth (here not an empress) to boost her fertility by inserting Chinese bamboo sticks into her vagina. Watching these distasteful episodes, I was puzzled about their intention. Are we meant to admire Catherine’s imperviousness to sexual assault? Or were these scenes just misguided slapstick?

The Great invites us to sympathize with Catherine. She is presented as a highly intelligent, ambitious, competent woman in a patriarchal system. She is a helper, a reformer who wishes to bring freedom, goodness, and light to a barbaric land. Also, she’s young and pretty. What’s not to like? The show makes no allusion to her backsliding on Enlightenment ideals or her endless appetite for self-celebration—fair enough, since it deals only with the years before she was empress. But the show fails to make you like Catherine, because her character is terribly unconvincing. We’re reminded at every turn that she’s really, really smart, but she does things that don’t make her look very smart at all. She tries to mail herself home in a trunk, and she keeps the details of her coup plot on a large bulletin board in her bedroom. Her supposed intelligence is indicated mostly through frequent mentions of abstract and proper nouns. She never stops reminding us that she loves books! And ideas! Plus she’s met Descartes. (Never mind that in reality, he lived a century before her.)

Catherine educates Peter about the virtues of modern medicine. After rejecting a plan to quash a smallpox outbreak by burning sick servants alive, she leaps up on a table and announces to the court that she has procured some smallpox-infected pus from the court doctor. “If we place it in the bloodstream, a tiny amount, our body learns to accommodate it, so it will not kill us,” she explains. “It is not unlike freedom. We absorb a small amount, knowing it is not dangerous…. The press freed us, did it not?” (She previously introduced the printing press to Russia, arguing that the free exchange of ideas could only strengthen the country.) She cuts herself and dabs pus into the wound. To the court’s surprise, she never becomes ill. Take that, anti-vaxxers!

In another heavy nod to the zeitgeist, the show includes many jokes about women’s innate superiority. On a peacemaking expedition, Catherine chats with the Swedish queen. As the two women speak wisely about matters of state, their husbands get drunk and make lewd jokes. Later, Elizabeth tells Catherine, “Most women die with an unsaid better idea in their hearts.” The rape jokes have subsided, and we’re on safer, more familiar ground. Run for office! Kill your incompetent emperor! Huzzah!

But a belief in the moral superiority of women makes it harder to stomach the real-life Catherine’s complicity in her husband’s murder. (Though she doesn’t seem to have ordered it or known about it in advance, she certainly helped create its preconditions.) The Great ties itself in knots as it tries to cope with this dilemma. There are jokes from the very first episode about Catherine killing her husband, and we see plenty of reasons she might want to murder him. But the show is also sure to remind us that if she is “doing a coup,” it’s for the good of Russia, not for her own advancement. She proclaims that she wants “a coup of ideas, not bloodshed.” Just as you can’t silo sex and power in the real Catherine’s story, you can’t disentangle power and violence. This is a story about an autocrat, after all.

What do we want from the famous women we admire? The Great’s answer is that someone like Catherine should be sexy but not manipulative or voracious, feisty but not tormented or prone to rage, well read but in a fun way. Her hair and skin should be flawless, she should love art and believe in science, and she should understand that women deserve to have orgasms. She should be smarter and more competent than her husband, and she should dispense with her lover if she’s summoned to a greater destiny—but she shouldn’t land the fatal blows herself. The Great makes Catherine’s rise to power into a naughty, frothy empowerment tale, albeit one with lots of dark humor. But history isn’t a rom-com, and an empress isn’t a girlboss.

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Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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