When Fact and Fiction Collide: The Real-Life Exploits of Catherine The Great

February 24, 2021
From a pet bear and a mummified mummy to smallpox pandemics and rumours of equine coitus; the events in the deliriously decadent period piece The Great, starring Elle Fanning as Catherine The Great and Nicholas Hoult as her husband Emperor Peter III, couldn’t possibly be true. Could they?

The gleefully wicked, and often hilarious, anti-historical drama follows Catherine’s riotous assent to power but does The Great play hard and fast with the facts or did the outrageous events actually happen? FilmInk reveals all.

Did Catherine the Great lead a successful coup against her husband?

She did. After only six months on the throne, Peter discovered his wife’s cunning plan forcing her to play her hand early. Peter was arrested by the military and abdicated. Not long after he mysteriously died. Like many events in the show, it’s the timeline that differs.

Did Catherine have sex with a horse?

In the show, Catherine was the target of malicious gossip that she had sex with a horse. In reality, she was the victim of the rumour but not until her death when she died of a stroke at the stately age of 67. No one knows who started the rumour, but fingers point to her son who succeeded her on the throne.

Did she inject herself with small pox?

In a defiant moment of girl power, Catherine The Great injected herself, and her son, with smallpox, pioneering an inoculation program across Russia. By showing what was good enough for her subjects was good enough for royalty, she saved her nation.

Who was Prince Ivan?

Ivan was only two months old when he was proclaimed emperor. Scarcely a year later, Elizabeth, his first cousin twice removed, seized the throne in a coup. Ivan was imprisoned and thrown into solitary confinement for 20 years. In the show, Ivan is released at a far younger age but is murdered by Elizabeth.

Did the Emperor keep the mummified corpse of his dead mother?

While Peter, no doubt, had mummy issues as she died not long after he was born, he did not keep his beloved mum’s corpse on display. And therefore, Garry Ilyich Brezhnev (Dan Wyllie) did not indulge in a public display of necrophilia-affection.

Did Catherine have a pet bear?

In the show Peter gives his new soon-to-be-bride a gift. No surprises there. Except the gift is a bear! He then shoots Catherine’s bear at a party in a brutal power move to show her who is the boss of the tortured union. So, it is unlikely as bears were outlawed as pets in St Petersburg in the 1740s.

Did the Emperor ban beards in his court?

The beard ban was real! In 1698, Emperor Peter III brought in a beard tax to bring Russian whiskers in line with Western Europe. To enforce the ban on beards, the Tsar gave special powers to the police enabling them to forcibly shave any hairy abusers who defiantly refused to pay the tax.

The Great: Season 1 is released on Digital and DVD on February 24

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