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  • Jasmine Ledesma

The Great on Hulu - True Story or Work Of Fiction?

Right now, it seems as though everyone is talking about a solid three things, these being: the rampant rate of Omicron cases across the US, Julia Fox’s appearance in Interview magazine alongside new sweetheart Kanye West (amid moody, dark rooms and donning black sunglasses) and — The Great.

While all deserving of our immediate attention, I’ve spent more time with the latter as of late. I’ve spent the last three days curled into the side of my couch, full of Mexican hot chocolate and lozenges watching Elle Fanning laugh as a frost has coated and then released New York.

Safe to say, I have some thoughts.

The Great is an Australian-American television series (available for streaming via Hulu) of a surly, comical nature, centered around the rise of Catherine the Great, who served as the Empress of All Russia from 1762 to 1796. She would go on to serve as the country’s longest-ruling leader. It is a fantastically cheeky, gilded slice of modern television.

Elle Fanning stars as the titular Catherine as she relishes in her position and attempts to commit mariticide. One aspect of the show that has been praised since it was released in May of 2020 has been the way it attempts, a bit more than half-heartedly, to portray the events of Catherine’s reign accurately.

So how does the show hold up when compared to the actual historical facts? Where does it differ and where do they align?

Let’s find out...

Catherine The Great

Let’s begin with the wondrously guileful Catherine herself. In the series Catherine is still in her youth, having newly been appointed Empress. She is portrayed as a beautiful, blonde woman with a pale complexion and adorned with gold and pearls.

The real Catherine, whose birth name was Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst, was thirty-three when she was crowned Empress and the only portraits we have of her are later in her reign when she would have been around fifty years old.

Although these portraits show a woman with cheeks slathered in rogue, her hair gone grey, she does still carry an air of whimsical mischievousness. Her eyes sparkle with intellect. As though she knows something you have yet to find out. Fanning conveys this charm quite well.

In addition to this similarity in nature, the real Catherine was known to be well-read, even reading philosophical literature as a young girl. She went on to learn Russian so well that she was able to write various fiction and letters in the language. This is a trait that carries over into the show. Fanning is often seen reading throughout the show and at no point in the series assists a young serf to read.

Peter III

Let’s move on to Peter III who serves as the Emperor of Russia and husband of Catherine. It is well documented that in real-life Peter was more or less an alcoholic. In her memoirs, Catherine described him as a mere “drunkard from Holstein,” In the series, Peter is hardly ever seen without a glass in his hand. He is something of a gilded, truly royal Gatsby.

In the same vein, the show goes to great lengths to make Catherine’s disdain for her husband blatant. Catherine is propelled by a need to kill Peter as a result of this disdain. She is constantly plotting how to kill him often to comedic effect.

While the real-life Catherine did not kill him, Peter was forced to give up his position and died only a month afterward as a result of a stroke and while some have speculated that he was indeed killed, it has never been declared as fact.

Additionally, it is one of her goals to end serfdom.

The Rest

There are a few characters in the series who have never existed. For example, Leo Voronskywho is portrayed as Catherine’s solitary lover does not exist. He was merely invented for the show. In actuality, Catherine was known to have several lovers throughout her lifetime.

Another example exists in Marial, Catherine’s servant who goes on to plant the idea of murdering Peter in Catherine’s head. It does not seem she existed either. But both Sebastian de Souza (Leo) and Phoebe Fox (Marial) do fantastic jobs in breathing life into their characters respectively.

Of course, the show does declare itself to be a piece of anti-historical work. So take everything with a few grains of salt. And revel in the majesty.

Jasmine Ledesma is both a writer based in New York and a Pyrrhic contributor. Her work has appeared in or is set to appear in places such as Crazyhorse, Rattle, and [PANK] among others. Her work was nominated for both Best of The Net and the Pushcart Prize in 2020. She was named a Brooklyn Poets fellow in 2021.

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