Oscar-winning actress Helen Mirren ascends to the throne in an epic four-part series about Catherine the Great, Russia’s longest-ruling female leader and one of the most powerful female monarchs in history.
The mini-series focuses on Catherine’s affair with her court favourite Grigory Potemkin, played by Jason Clarke. But behind the rumours, who were the real-life couple, and how does the series depict their passionate relationship?
*Warning: contains some spoilers for Sky Atlantic’s Catherine the Great*
Born in 1729, Catherine II — better known as Catherine the Great — was Empress of Russia from 1762 until 1796, making her the country’s longest-ruling female leader. She came to power following a coup, in which her armies overthrew her husband, Peter III.
During her long reign Russia flourished and expanded in size, colonising outwards and spreading into the Ottoman Empire and even Alaska.
Speaking to RadioTimes.com, Jason Clarke (who plays military ruler and Catherine’s favourite, Potemkin) said that together “Potemkin and Catherine… annex[ed] half the known world at that point. They made Russia a massive country and took it down to Europe, very nearly got there. To the Mediterranean.”
Who was Catherine’s friend Countess Bruce?
Born the same year as Catherine, Praskovya Bruce (otherwise known as Countess Bruce) was a member of the Russian court and a close confidant of Catherine the Great. She’s perhaps best remembered as Catherine’s friend who, according to rumours, sexually “tested” Catherine’s potential lovers for her.
“I researched Countess Bruce as much as I could, but frankly there’s hardly anything out there about her,” revealed Bodyguard’s Gina McKee, who plays Countess Bruce. “What there is is kind of just a couple of sensationalist sentences, really, about implications of her… ‘testing’ lovers for the queen.”
“Bruce did serve at court, and she was there from a very young age; in fact she was the same age as [Catherine]… they were around about 15, 16, and you know, it’s extraordinary to be in that situation at that age, and she survived in court,” she told RadioTimes.com.
“In the end she did get dismissed by Catherine. But she survived, and not many people had longevity at court, so I was thinking, that’s really fascinating, and of course we don’t know how or why, but she clearly was very wily and very, very attuned to how to survive, so that was a nice thing to explore.”
A favourite of Catherine the Great’s, Grigory Potemkin was a military leader who oversaw Russia’s war with the Ottoman Empire, before being promoted to the governor-general of Russia’s new southern territories.
He first distinguished himself by helping Catherine in her 1762 coup, after which she singled him out and rewarded him. He then rose through the ranks during the first Russo-Turkish War.
Returning to court in 1774, by February he had become Catherine’s lover and favourite, supplanting Count Grigory Orlov (one of the masterminds behind Catherine’s coup) in her affections. There were even suggestions that Potemkin later married Catherine in secret, becoming her consort.
Who was ‘prisoner one’?
Ever seen the Leonardo DiCaprio film The Man in the Iron Mask, based on the real-life legend? Well, Russia has a similar story, of a young man hidden away in prison, his real-life identity unknown even by those who guarded him…
Russia’s youngest emperor (he became tsar at two-months old), Ivan VI of Russia was kidnapped as an infant during the 1741 coup and imprisoned for the majority of his life. “Prisoner one” or “the nameless one” was kept under lock and key, while in the outside world his name was forbidden at court, and all records of his brief reign (including books, coins and paintings) were destroyed.
Ivan’s guards also knew that if there were ever any attempt to free “prisoner one”, he should be killed immediately before he could escape — a rule that Catherine the Great ordered when she came to power in 1762.
The sad tale came to an end in 1764, when Vasily Mirovich (a sub-lieutenant of the garrison) discovered the prisoner’s identity and attempted to free him — only for the guards to immediately kill Ivan.
Who was Pugachev?
Following Catherine’s coup in 1762, there were plenty of rumours circulating that her husband Peter was still alive and imprisoned (in reality, he was assassinated)…
Yemelyan Ivanovich Pugachev, an ex-lieutenant of the Imperial Russian Army, wasn’t the only man during Catherine’s reign to claim that he was, in fact, Peter, but his rebellion was the most successful — and bloody — gaining plenty of support in Russia’s western territories, particularly among peasants.
The Pugachev Rebellion began around 1773 and lasted until 1775, when the Russian army squashed it and executed Pugachev.
Who was Prince Paul married to, and was his son illegitimate?
Prince Paul (later Paul I of Russia) married twice; firstly to Natalia Alexeievna, born Princess Wilhelmina Louisa of Hesse-Darmstadt (played by Georgina Beedle), in 1773.
Natalia was rumoured to have had an affair with courtier Andrei Razumovsky, but Catherine reportedly didn’t care about her grandchild’s secret parentage. In the end, however, Natalia and her child died during labour in April 1776.
Paul married for a second time to the Duchess Sophie Dorothea of Württemberg (played by Antonia Clarke) in September 1776, and together with Paul she had ten children, including the future Tsar Alexander I and Tsar Nicholas I of Russia.