Who Was Catherine The Great — & What Made Her So Great?

Photo: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images.
Behold, the three stages of watching HBO’s four-part miniseries Catherine the Great, premiering October 21. During stage one, you’ll be flailing and thinking, “I am unmoored! Who is who!” In stage two, you’ll feel duped by recent pop culture: Have we really been caring about the English monarchy and its infinite King Henrys all this time when the Russians have been around?  
Stage three is obsession. You’ll want to know everything there is to know about Catherine the Great, Russia’s longest-ruling female monarch (played excellently by Helen Mirren).  
Catherine the Great focuses on the end of Catherine’s reign. Let’s go back to the start. Here’s how a small-town Prussian princess could become one of Russia’s most successful and memorable rulers. All it took was a coup to overthrow her husband — and years of preparation. 

Catherine the Great wasn’t Russian. 

And she didn’t start off great, either. Catherine was born Sophie von Anhalt-Zerbst in Stettin, Prussia in 1729 (now Szczecin in Poland). She was a Taurus, FYI. Her father was an impoverished prince. Her royal blood was her only currency. 
At 15, Sophie got her “big break” when Czarina Elizabeth invited her to Russia meet her nephew and heir to the throne, Grand Duke Peter, then 16. This was a match made in political convenience, not heaven. The teenagers did not get along. Still, Sophie decided to ingratiate herself with her new, powerful family by adopting their culture — and learning their language. Eventually, she became fluent in Russian. 
PHoto: Courtesy of HBO.
In 1745, she changed her name to Catherine, converted to Russian Orthodoxy, and married Peter. 

Catherine used her early years in court wisely. 

Peter and Catherine’s marriage was a disaster. They spent most of their time apart. According to Catherine, Peter was obsessed with three things: “his mistress, toy soldiers, and Prussia.” Some scholars believe it was unconsummated. 
Nine years after marrying, in 1754, Catherine gave birth to a boy and heir named Paul. Back then, the court gossiped about whether Paul was Peter’s child, or the child of Catherine’s lover, Sergius Saltykov. Now historians believe that Catherine cultivated those rumors to discredit Peter. 
Paul and Catherine went on to have an equally toxic relationship as that with her husband. Catherine’s other children were, indeed, fathered by men other than Peter (and do not appear in the show Catherine the Great).
While Peter was off with his hobbies, Catherine was working the imperial court. She used a deliberate strategy to win over enemies: Play nice. 
“I tried to be as charming as possible to everyone and studied every opportunity to win the affection of those whom I suspected of being in the slightest degree ill-disposed towards me; I never showed any preference to any side, never interfere in anything; always looked serene. It pleased me when I realized that I was daily winning the affection of the public,” Catherine said, according to Catherine the Great: Love, Sex and Power by Virginia Roundling. 
She networked with foreign ambassadors, built up a network of informants, and cultivated powerful friends who helped her when she overthrew Peter six months after he assumed the throne. 

Instead of getting a divorce, she launched a coup. 

When Czarina Elizabeth died in January 1792, Peter III became czar. He was immediately unpopular, mostly because of his obsession with Prussia. He called King Frederick of II Prussia “the king my master,” an objectively odd title to call another world leader. Peter III proposed that Prussia and Russia enter into an alliance and go to war against Austria together.
The alliance would be short-lived. Six months after he took the throne, Catherine orchestrated a coup. Aided by her lover, Grigory Orlov, a Russian lieutenant, Catherine stirred the pot of discontent among the military and powerful people for months. 
There was precedent for such sudden upheaval: The Russian palace had been rocked by a series of coups since Peter the Great’s death in 1725. Peter resigned from the throne. A few days later, he was killed accidentally, according to a letter sent to Catherine from Aleksey Orlov.  
Did she orchestrate his murder? Her serene smile never gave her involvement away. 

She ruled Russia from 1762 to her death in 1796.

Let’s pause here and give Catherine a round of applause. Girl got the throne. She would go on to become Russia’s longest-ruling female leader — and an incredible influential empress. 
Catherine has a reputation as being an “Enlightened” empress, modernizing and westernizing Russia. She reformed bureaucracy, changed laws, favored religious tolerance, and education for women. 
But her accomplishments were often eclipsed by more negative elements of her reign. According to Smithsonian Mag, she suppressed peasant rebellions, failed to end serfdom (Russia’s system of indentured servitude that existed until 1861), and annexed land through frequent wars. She also imprisoned and executed her nephew who had a right to the throne (as seen in Catherine the Great’s first episode). 

She oversaw the expansion of the Russian empire. 

Under Catherine’s rule, Russia’s borders stretched towards Poland in the west, the Black Sea in the south, and all the way to Alaska in the far east (Russia had a presence on the West Coast of North America for years). In 1783, after the Russo-Turkish War ended in a treaty, Catherine the Great annexed the Crimean Peninsula almost 250 years before current Russian president Vladimir Putin did the same. 
“Now, just imagine that the Crimea is yours...Believe me, you will acquire immortal fame such as no other sovereign of Russia ever had. This glory will open the way to still further and greater glory,” Grigory Potemkin, Catherine’s lover and second-in-command, wrote her in 1780. 
Over 200,000 square miles were added to Russia while she was empress. 

She was a medical pioneer. 

Smallpox killed 400,000 people a year and left others (like Peter III) deformed. In 1762, Catherine was inoculated against smallpox in front of the court to demonstrate the procedure was safe and could save lives. 

She was Queen of the Arts. 

Catherine wanted Russia to gain a sheen of prestige, and did so by amassing an incredible art collection. She founded the Hermitage in St. Petersburg (still a world-class museum). With its art and new neoclassical palaces, Russia became a place to see. 
She also championed women artists. Many women writers and poets flourished under her reign. 

She had high-profile pen pals…

Catherine was known to be a great writer. She exchanged letters with the French philosopher Voltaire and Denis Diderot. She wrote memoirs at a time when such introspection was uncommon among monarchs. The fairy tales she wrote for her grandchildren became the first children’s literature published in Russia. 

...and a lot of lovers.

Catherine had about eight significant affairs, most of them with younger men. Being Catherine’s “favorite” was a good gig. She was generous to her current and former lovers, giving them parting gifts (and making one, Stanislaw Poniatowski, a king of Poland). 
Catherine loved love. “The trouble is that my heart is loath to remain even one hour without love,” she wrote to military leader Grigory Potemkin (Jason Clarke in the show), her lover, intellectual equal, and second-in-command. 

Just don’t mention the horse. 

You’ve probably heard the rumor: A sex-crazed Catherine died while attempting to have sex with a horse. Of course such a renowned woman would be forever linked to a lewd story that her enemies spread after her death — classic. The same thing happened to Anne Boleyn.  
In actuality, Catherine died in bed from a stroke on November 6, 1796. She was 67 years old.

More from TV

R29 Original Series