The Life of Russian Women of Nobility in the 18th Century: Guest Post by Eva Stachniak

Continuing with my Women in History or Women Making History theme in celebration of Women’s History Month, I have a guest post by the award-winning, internationally best-selling historical fiction author, Eva Stachniak. She talks about why she chooses to write about certain women and time periods, then gives interesting thoughts on the role of Russian women in 18th Century culture. Very interesting….enjoy!

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Through the Women’s Eyes: Strong Women of the 18th Century
Guest Post by Eva Stachniak

I’m a writer of fiction, but history is my passion and my material. I’ve published three novels: Necessary Lies—a story of a Polish immigrant to Canada who has to confront her old country’s most recent past; Garden of Venus—an 18th century tale based on the life of  Sophie de Witt-Potocka, a Greek peasant who married into Polish aristocracy; and The Winter Palace—based on the early life of a German princess who became Catherine the Great.

All three novels have one thing in common. They are all about powerful women who have left their country of origin and by doing that have changed their lives.

The 18th century women, in particular, have captured my imagination, maybe because they are much closer to our century’s sensibilities than the generation of their daughters and grand-daughters. The 18th century women are not coy about their sexuality. They would find it odd or even preposterous to think of themselves as “angels of the house,” separated from the desires of the flesh. And they claim for themselves a much more active role in the mostly misogynous male world, and quite a successful one as well.

The women of Russian nobility I find particularly interesting. It was Peter the Great (1682-1725) who forcibly removed them from their secluded position inside the home (terem), forced them into salons, dressed them in Western clothes, and fostered their participation in the social life. The women were not asked to agree to these changes; the absolute ruler ordered it and they had to comply. Suddenly they found themselves obliged to entertain guests, conduct conversations with men who were not their husbands or relatives,  and appear in public at various court functions. These were not popular measures. The majority of the Russian society took to them with fear and reluctance. There was talk of shamelessness, of the decline of morals, of the dangers to the soul, but by the time Catherine the Great ascended to the throne in 1762, Russian ‘elite’ women were well used to their new freedoms. 

Having left their domestic seclusion the Russian women began to take active role in the Russian life. It helped that in the 18th century Russia enjoyed a sequence of female rulers: Peter the Great’s wife succeeded him as Empress Catherine I. Later, his youngest daughter ruled Russia from 1742-61 as Empress Elizabeth Petrovna.  And then, came the thirty-four year-long rule of Catherine the Great.

catherinethegreat

In Catherinian Russia women were a fixture of the court and public life. They actively participated in all court events, they threw themselves into charitable work, founded and cared for educational institutions, ran their estates. They enjoyed more property rights than the Western women, and their growing confidence brought spectacular results.  Princess Ekaterina Dashkova who thought herself Catherine the Great’s best friend perhaps with too much self-confidence has become Director of the Russian Imperial Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg – becoming the first woman in the world to lead a national science academy – and founded the Imperial Academy of the Russian Language.

What did foreign visitors to Russia make of this new confidence of the Russian noblewomen? Through my research for The Winter Palace I found out that many Western men found the Russian women too confident, too free, too independent. Charles Masson, in his Secret Memoirs of the Court of Petersburg chastises them as being unnatural and masculine, and of “assuming superiority over men.” And the Western women? They were far more impressed by what they saw.

As Princess Dashkova’s Irish house guest, Martha Wilmot, put it: Russian women enjoy more rights and more independence than the women of the West.

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Eva Stachniak, Biography~

EStachniakLQI was born and raised in Wrocław, Poland. English is my second language although, thanks to my wonderful and far-sighted mother, I began learning it in early childhood.

In Poland I was an academic, teaching in the English Department of the University of Wrocław. In the summer of 1981, on the eve of Solidarity crisis I received a scholarship to McGill University where I began working on my PhD dissertation, Positive Philosophy of Exile in Stefan Themerson’s Fiction (defended in 1988.)

In 1984-86 I worked for Radio Canada International, the Polish Section, in Montreal, writing and producing radio programs about Canada. In 1988 I joined the faculty of Sheridan College(Oakville, Ontario) where I taught English and humanities courses until 2007.

It is in Canada that I became a writer. My first short story, “Marble Heroes,” was published by the Antigonish Review in 1994, and my debut novel, Necessary Lies , won the Amazon.com/Books in CanadaFirst Novel Award in 2000.

Her latest novel, The Winter Palace, based on the early life of Catherine the Great, has been a bestseller in Canada, Poland and Germany. Eva Stachniak lives in Toronto, where she is working on her second historical novel about Catherine the Great, Empress of the Night.

You can learn more about Eva and her work at:  http://www.evastachniak.com

The Winter Palace Synopsis (and Review from Archive)~

US_winterpalaceI wrote a review for The Winter Palace this past summer, READ HERE!!

Behind every great ruler lies a betrayal. Eva Stachniak’s novel sweeps readers into the passionate, intimate, and treacherous world of Catherine the Great, revealing Russia’s greatest monarch from her earliest days in court, where the most valuable currency was the secrets of nobility and the most dangerous weapon to wield was ambition.

Two young women, caught in the landscape of shifting allegiances, navigate the treacherous waters of palace intrigue. Barbara, the narrator, is a servant who will become one of Russia’s most cunning royal spies. Sophie is a naive German duchess who will become Catherine the Great. For readers of superb historical fiction, Eva Stachniak captures in glorious detail the opulence of royalty and the perilous loyalties of the Russian court.

 The Winter Palace has been included in:

Booklist Top 10 Historical Fiction 2012

The Washington Post 50 notable works of fiction

The Globe and Mail top books of 2012

16 Books to watch for in 2012: Oprah magazine

*Photo of Catherine the Great taken from http://famousdiamonds.tripod.com/orlovdiamond.html

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