Hulu’s The Great is, well, great. Starring Elle Fanning, it’s the story of how Catherine the Great led a coup against her husband and took over power in the Russian Empire. The scripts are charming, witty, and fun while also baldly looking at the brutality and incompetence of the Russian aristocracy in the eighteenth century. With more than a few passing jabs at the Trump Administration (including an unfortunately timely plague episode), it’s a grand dissection of politics with a lot of sex and violence thrown in for funsies.
It’s also, by its own title card’s admission, only “occasionally based on a true story.” Historical accuracy was clearly not the driving force in making The Great, and that’s okay. Since it doesn’t pretend to authenticity, it actually sparks viewers to go in search of the real answers instead of assuming they are presented on screen.
Let’s look for some of them.
The Moscow Mule was not invented in Russia
Catherine’s lover Leo teaches her the finer things in life, and one of those involves pouring vodka and ginger beer into your mouth at the same time then chasing it with a lemon. When Catherine rides away on a mule afterwards, Leo is struck by inspiration, and his cocktail becomes a staple for the court.
Though ginger beer is ancient, cocktails as we know them are not. The Moscow Mule began, as many cocktails did, in the twentieth century in New York. It was either the invention of Jack Morgan, a ginger beer maker who was looking for new uses for his product, or a bartender named Wes Price, who was trying to clear old inventory when he stumbled across the concoction. Either way, the Moscow Mule is less Russian than Catherine herself was. Speaking of which...
Peter III wasn’t particularly Russian either
A big plot point of the show is that the German-born Catherine doesn’t understand Russia, certainly not like her emperor does. However, Peter III was not very Russian either. He was born in Germany and barely spoke the language of his kingdom. The fact that so many of his policies were more German than Russian was actually a main source of the discontent that led to his downfall.
For the record, he was also an educational reformer, and there is no evidence I can find he forbade women of his court from reading. In fact, several episodes after mentioning the women’s illiteracy in his court, they can all apparently read well enough to enjoy the scandalous new pamphlets put out in Catherine’s printing press. Russian education as woeful at the time, but women learning was by no means outlawed. Peter I had actually decreed that both men and women in the nobility should be educated and that convents should teach literacy.
Catherine didn’t invent bowling
With no books, the primary pastime of the Russian court for women is apparently hats and rolling balls down a hill. The latter is revolutionized when Catherine sets up bottles in rows and has people compete over who can break the the most with the balls.
Bowling is one of humanity’s most ancient games, and evidence of forms of it can be found as far back as 5,200 BCE. Moreover, there is no way Catherine did not already know about it. In Germany, the game was wildly popular and had its roots in ritualistic cleansing ceremonies. By Catherine’s time, it had already involved into organized games with specialized equipment in Germany.
However, the show does actually get some outlandish things right!
You really can pee on wheat to check for pregnancy
The last half of the show involves watching the empress pee on a pile of wheat to see if she’s pregnant. Like, it happens a lot, so if renaissance water sports happen to be your kink you will enjoy this show.
Believe it or not, this works! The test is one of many ancient ones for pregnancy (the wheat flowers if you are). In laboratory testing done in 1963, it was found to be 70 percent accurate, which is pretty damned good for medicine before the discovery of germs.
You can also totally train butterflies
One of the show’s most endearing characters is Peter’s aunt Elizabeth, a woman who has clearly left her cake out in the rain. Her madness is one of her charming hallmarks, and nothing shows it better than the fact that she has trained a fleet of butterflies to follow her around.
Which, yes, is possible. At least according to animal trainer Ken Ramirez who decided to try it out for the London Butterfly Project. With patience and combination of food rewards and sound cues, you can conduct a symphony of the animals, though Elizabeth’s attempt to get them to spell out Catherine’s name for her birthday is probably not possible.
Yes, there were black Russians in the court
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The Great has a very diverse cast, and one of the most striking things is how many people of color there are. Two of them are major characters, a secretary named Akady and a regional lord named Rostov.
Akady is probably loosely based on the historical figure of Ibrahim (later baptized as Abram Petrovich Hannibal), a kidnapped African from either Cameroon or Ethiopia who wound up as a favorite of Peter the Great after being freed from Turkish slavers. Blacks were fairly rare in Russia, particularly as they had not really participated in the Atlantic slave trade. That said, they were present. Black porters and courtiers were common enough that they had their own designation (arap, not to be confused with Arab), and they were often dressed in Oriental clothing to show off the width and breath of the Empire.
Racist? Sure, but Russia has a long history of accepting blacks where other countries have failed. Americans of African descent especially found Russia to be a welcome respite, with many sailors choosing the empire as a new home away from America’s legacy of racial chattel slavery.
The Great is an example of excellent historical fiction, a perfect blending of fact and fancy that enhances both for the curious. Hopefully it will be renewed, and will give us all a reason to learn more about this period and place in history.