Russian Empire

The True Story of Catherine the Great’s Rise to Power—And How It Compares to Hulu’s The Great

Born a minor German princess, the royal was never supposed to reign over Russia.

The Great, Hulu’s new show about Catherine the Great’s less-than-ideal marriage—and her plans to ameliorate that situation—treads on familiar territory. Myriad movies and TV series, not least HBO’s 2019 miniseries Catherine the Great, have dramatized the Empress’s ascent to the throne and subsequent reign.

So how did it all really go down? Here, the true story of how Catherine the Great overthrew her husband, Tsar Peter III.

The future empress was not meant to rule

Born Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst, a minor German princess, she was selected by Empress Elizabeth to wed her heir, the future Peter III. Elizabeth was herself childless, but selected her nephew, the German-born Peter, to succeed her.

A portrait of Catherine after she had married Peter, but before he ascended the throne. HERITAGE IMAGES/GETTY IMAGES

After her conversion to Orthodoxy, she took the name Catherine. She did her best to eschew her Germanic origins, and endear herself to the Russians as one of them. To occupy herself during her famously unhappy marriage to Peter, who she’d later describe in her memoirs as stupid and too keen on alcohol, she immersed herself in her studies. Catherine was particularly taken with the writings of Enlightenment thinkers, like Diderot and Voltaire.

Peter, on the other hand, is remembered as a strange figure, ill-suited to the throne. Oft-mentioned is his strong interest in playing with toy military figurines, which he apparently sometimes took to bed with him.

After Elizabeth died, Peter III enjoyed a very short reign

The ill-fated Tsar quickly angered crucial allies, including the Russian Orthodox church and the country’s military class. With the help of her lover at the time, Grigory Orlov, Catherine plotted to overthrow her husband.

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In 1762, Catherine, a talented equestrian, lead a group of 14,000 soldiers to unseat her husband. After successfully dethroning him, she emerged from the Winter Palace in a male guardsman’s uniform, proclaiming herself the new Empress. At first, the coup was bloodless.

Portrait of the future Paul III and Catherine the Great. HERITAGE IMAGES/GETTY IMAGES

But the dethroned Peter III didn’t last long

Alexei Orlov, Grigory’s brother, killed Peter III in prison. At the time, it was widely assumed that Catherine was behind this, but historians aren’t so sure.”The circumstances and cause of death, and the intentions and degree of responsibility of those involved,” Catherine the Great biographer Robert K. Massie wrote, “can never be known.”

A late 18th century illustration of Catherine the Great emerging from Winter Palace, just after deposing her husband. HERITAGE IMAGES/GETTY IMAGES

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