Will anyone ever grow tired of seeing Dame Helen Mirren channel the life of a monarch? Well, seeing as the Academy Award winner just stepped into the role of Catherine the Great for HBO’s new four-part historical drama about the Russian empress, I'm going to go with "no." At the center of the show, which premieres October 21, is the stormy affair between Catherine and Russian military officer Grigory Potemkin (Jason Clarke) and how it affected her reign. Even the most major history buff might not be familiar with this steamy fling. Or, maybe you just want to double check the facts before you dive to far into the series. Either way, here's what you need to know about the real relationship between Catherine and Grigory.
The trailer for HBO's miniseries makes it obvious that Catherine the Great will focus on the end of her regime and show how her romance with Grigory was both emotionally and politically motivated. True to real life, Catherine the Great did have multiple extramarital affairs and lovers during her rule and it was known throughout Russian society. But her wits and the extended power she gained through these relationships help explain how she controlled Russia for about 34 years and was widely considered the most powerful woman during her heyday. The period she was Empress is typically called the “Golden Age of Russia,” according to the History Channel UK.
Catherine embracing her sexual independence meant that many “favourites” came before Grigory. But, he had the greatest political impact and was possibly the man she cared for the most. They began their relationship in 1774 after Catherine had led a coup that overthrew her husband Peter III twelve years prior. Catherine was already familiar with Grigory since he assisted in the takedown of her husband and was a fierce leader in the Russo-Turkish from 1768 to 1774.
His leadership on the battlefield gained her trust in the military arena in ways incomparable to her other suitors. He was viewed as her counterpart, the most powerful man in the Russian empire. They almost shared power as Catherine greatly expanded territorial control during her time as Empress. The Encyclopedia Britannica notes that she made him commander in chief and governor general of “New Russia,” an area she conquered which is now southern Ukraine. She also made him prince of Tauris (modern day Crimea since he worked to annex it from the Turks) in 1783 and gave him the title of Prince of the Holy Roman Empire.
With his new authority, Grigory was showered with gifts and wealth. It is believed believed he thoroughly enjoyed the extravagant lifestyle his ranking awarded him and influenced Catherine to enjoy these luxuries as well.
On the relationship front, these two were practically joined at the hip. In British historian Sebag Montefiore’s biography The Prince of Princes: The Life of Potemkin, he mentions, “When [Catherine and Grigory] were not together, even when they were just in their own apartments, a few yards apart, they wrote to each other maniacally.” Another novel titled Love and Conquest: Personal Correspondence of Catherine the Great and Prince Potemkin and translated by Douglas Smith, notes some of the epithets she used to describe him including genius, tiger, hero, idol, and dearest friend. It’s possible that the two even married at some point, but historians have yet to confirm this rumor.
But just like a modern Hollywood love story filled with fiery passion, Catherine and Grigory’s romantic coupling was short lived. He maintained his high ranking until his death, but shockingly, Catherine and Grigory were only together for about two years. Catherine became involved with other men after, but Grigory remained a part of her life. Sometimes, according to the History Channel UK, Grigory had a say in approving Catherine’s new man. But he eventually tried to oust one of her new favourites, Platon Zubov, which caused her to send him to Iași to oversee negotiations, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica. He died on his way to Ukraine in 1971 at 52 years old. Catherine intensely grieved the loss of her most influential lover.
So, unfortunately, Catherine and Grigory did not get a historical happy ending. But, it was dramatic as hell and you can watch it all play out on HBO in all its steamy glory.