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Historical Novel of Catherine the Great a Stellar Deeply Woven Tale: The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak

The Winter Palace, by Eva Stachniak, was released this January and I am so happy to have finally been able to complete this outstanding fiction work regarding the rise of a woman history knows as Catherine the Great. Surprisingly, after an over 30 year reign (which was the longest by any female ruler in Russia (1762-1796)), Catherine II did not have a novel on the shelves about her until this one!  Stachniak certainly takes the shelves by storm with this historical fiction of grand design and includes all the elaborate scenery, trickery, politics, and debauchery of the time period that keeps readers engrossed in the story late into the night.

Though this novel doesn’t take place during Catherine the Great’s lengthy rule (only covers her covert ascension at the very end), it’s such an interesting story because it’s told through the eyes of a court servant and spy, Barbara-or Varvara in Russian.  The child of a deceased book binder, and Polish immigrant, Varvara becomes an orphan taken in by Empress Elizabeth Petrova on a favor, who then observes and assists in Catherine’s growth into womanhood throughout a book that outlines all the intrigue and machinations of the elaborate Russian court during a time when many outside of the Royal Family were extremely poor and hungry and dissent abounded.

Before she becomes Catherine the Great, she is Sophie, a German teenage princess from Zerbst who comes at the age of 14 to a court ruled by Empress Elizabeth, the youngest daughter of Peter the Great.  The Empress is just 35 years of age and exorbitant in her vices of decadence, lovers, and drink.  This makes her impulsive and sometimes curt even through her bouts of kindness. Princess Sophie is brought to the Palace to become the wife of the Crown Prince Peter, who is Empress Elizabeth’s nephew. He’s not enthralled with his new wife and the many issues that plague him make him distant, unloving, and not a player in politics, or in the bedroom, and Empress Elizabeth is expecting (and demanding) an heir. To Varvara, she is her closest friend.

I have always had a love affair with Russian history during the time period of the 16th to 19th centuries.  I loved the depth of the character of Varvara and how her life is held constantly in the balance by her usefulness (what she sees and hears) at court.  The ending was amazing. I don’t want to give it away, but the redemptive stance it took was so properly portrayed as to how I thought it should be.

I highly recommend this book if you love any type of historical drama regarding life surrounding those in court politics. For me, I especially enjoyed that it surrounded Russian court in the 1600s, as I love Russian history, intrigue, and mystery. Again, I am astounded by strong women of history, both those of royalty as well as those who serve them.

About the book from the publisher~

Catherine the Great is one of history’s most fascinating rulers—a monarch whose 34-year reign brought Russia into the modern industrial world, whose affairs were the scandal of her court, and who truly embodied the ideals of the Enlightenment. Yet there are no other novels in print on Catherine the Great. Now, drawing on letters, diaries, and on-the-ground research in St. Petersburg, Peterhof, and Tsarskoye Selo, award-winning author Eva Stachniak delivers a passionate novel that illuminates the early life of one of history’s most enigmatic and powerful women. THE WINTER PALACE: A Novel of Catherine the Great (Bantam Hardcover; January 10, 2012) tells the epic story of Catherine’s improbable rise to power, as seen through the ever-watchful eyes of an all-but-invisible servant close to the throne.

That servant is, like Stachniak herself, Polish—a woman who straddles the crossroads of Eastern European immigrant culture, and for whom the world of the Winter Palace is simultaneously alien and familiar. Her name is Barbara—in Russian, Varvara. Orphaned early in life, nimble-witted and attentive, she makes her way into the employ of the Empress Elizabeth amid the glitter and cruelty of the world’s most eminent court. Under the tutelage of Chancellor and spymaster Count Bestuzhev, Varvara is educated in skills from lock-picking to lovemaking, learning above all else to listen—and to wait for opportunity. That opportunity arrives in the form of a slender young princess from Zerbst named Sophie, a playful teenager who will become the indomitable Catherine the Great. Sophie’s destiny at court is to marry the Empress’s nephew, but she has loftier, more dangerous ambitions, and she proves to be more adept at court politics than she first appears.

What Sophie needs is an insider at court, a loyal pair of eyes and ears who knows the traps, the conspiracies, and the treacheries that swirl around her. Varvara becomes Sophie’s confidante, and together the two young women rise to the pinnacle of absolute power—surviving ill-suited marriages, illicit seductions, and, at last, the shocking coup to assume the throne of all of Russia—but at a tremendous cost, emotionally, physically and psychologically.

See the trailer on YouTube:  http://youtu.be/4RNlgKLbSfk

The Winter Palace

An Interview with Eva Stachniak, Author
(NOTE:  this is an interview sent by the publisher, not an exclusive as I generally do on my site, but good nonetheless)

There are no novels in print about Catherine the Great. Why do you think that’s the case, and what drew you to write about her life in THE WINTER PALACE?

It’s fascinating to me that there are no novels about Catherine, especially since there are many biographies of her. She and her reign have always been objects of attention.  

I have been drawn to Catherine for some time. She was a powerful woman who survived and triumphed in a misogynist world, and she was shaped by the 18th century, the Age of Reason—a time I find irresistible.  Like me, this German princess who came to Russia when she was fourteen was an immigrant. Like me, she had to re-invent herself in a new country, learn to understand it and change in the process.

Your narrator is a young Polish woman who serves as a spy in the Winter Palace. How does she offer unique insight into the court life and politics that transformed Princess Sophie into Catherine the Great, and to what extent does she reflect your own background and cultural history? 

Varvara or Barbara (her Polish name) is an outsider who has to survive in difficult and dangerous circumstances. She is an orphan, and she has no allies but her own intelligence and perseverance. Cast adrift in the Winter Palace, she has to watch and listen in order to find her way into safety. Unlike Princess Sophie, she is not an aristocrat, and if she perished no one would notice.

The evolving friendship between Varvara and the future Catherine the Great forms the novel’s backbone. Both women have to define themselves in a world of shifting loyalties, both have to weigh the price such transformations exact.

What does Princess Sophie find upon arriving at the Winter Palace? What was life like in the Russian court at that time?

Sophie arrives in Russia to the court of Empress Elizabeth Petrovna, the youngest daughter of Peter the Great. Empress Elizabeth was an absolute monarch, she lived in unsurpassed splendour, and she freely indulged in her passions. When Sophie arrives, Elizabeth is thirty-five years old, charming and very beautiful.  She is fond of men, dancing, music, and cherry brandy, all easily available at court. She can be loving and warm, but she can also capricious, impatient and inconsistent. Her court is dominated by her favourites.

In the 18th century, Russia emerged as a significant power on the European scene, but it still had to contend with its persistent image as an “uncouth Russian bear.” Hence Empress Elizabeth’s insistence on recognizing Russia’s playing a growing role in European politics, and also her grand building projects, the renovations of all the imperial palaces in the grand rococo style that plagued the daily life of the court with constant moves in all sorts of weather.

Princess Sophie travels to Russia to marry the Crown Prince Peter, Empress Elizabeth’s nephew.  The marriage is not yet certain, and even after it does takes place Sophie/Catherine’s position at court is extremely precarious for many years. She spends these years in an apprenticeship of her own design, looking for allies everywhere, learning the mechanisms and perils of power.

Both Princess Sophie and her confidante Varvara have to adapt quickly in order to survive in their new surroundings. What do they learn? And what are some of the ways in which they change as they come into power?

Both women quickly learn the deadly dangers of not having power. An unwanted and unloved wife could be sent to a nunnery. A childless wife—and Catherine did not conceive for several years after her wedding—could be pushed aside for a rival. A spy could find herself without a tongue, with her back mangled by the knout, exiled and forgotten.

Thus, for a long while, for both young women, power means safety, a chance to survive, and perhaps an opportunity to change some of the injustice they see and experience. But the moment Catherine reaches for the throne, power begins to exact its price. Catherine and Varvara learn that power means betrayals, but in the end each woman makes very different choices.

What was the role of women in the Russian court? Empress Elizabeth proves to be quite volatile in her treatment of Princess Sophie and Varvara as young women, and later as wives and mothers. To what extent (if at all) does Princess Sophie improve the lives of the women around her when she becomes Catherine the Great?

It was Peter the Great, determined to modernize Russia and break the country’s isolation, who changed the position of Russian women most drastically. One of his many decrees forbade upper-class Russian women to live in domestic seclusion. Under Peter’s rule, they had to participate in social and court life, alongside their husbands, brothers, or fathers.

By the time Peter’s youngest daughter Elizabeth became Empress of Russia, the country had had a succession of female rulers, starting with her own mother, Catherine I. At court, aristocratic women had as much power as their family wealth and connections would allow them. At home, however, they still deferred to their fathers, husbands and brothers.

Young women, especially if—like Catherine and Varvara—they were deprived of family support, had little to protect them. Still, they were much better off than serf women. It is worth remembering that Russia was a country in which serfs could be bought and sold, married to anyone their owner chose for them, punished or even killed with impunity.

Catherine as Empress did little to change the lot of serfs—claiming that Russian society was not yet ready for such drastic reforms—but she did improve some aspects of women’s lives. She founded foundling homes where unwanted babies could be left without questions or inquiries. She founded hospitals where venereal diseases could be safely and discreetly treated. She also established the Smolny Institute, the first educational institution for Russian women, providing excellent and progressive education to daughters of nobility. It is also worth noting that Catherine appointed her friend, Princess Dashkova, Director of the Russian Academy of Arts and Sciences and President of the Russian Academy—making her the first woman to hold such important positions.

In diaries of the time, I found traces of complaints some Russian men allowed themselves to utter. They were bothered by Catherine’s sexual freedom, not so much on her account—she was a Tsarina and could do what she wanted—but on account of their wives and daughters. “If matushka is acting thus, why cannot I do it as well?” Russian wives and daughters must have been asking their fathers and husbands when the empress took yet another young man into her bed. Catherine’s example spurred Russian women to demand more freedom.

Princess Sophie doesn’t find love with her husband, the Grand Duke Peter. But she does have intimate relationships with other men, including the future King of Poland, whom she places on the throne after becoming Empress. Do you think she found love, or did she embark on these relationships for political expediency? And what of her relationship with Varvara—is there true affection between them?

“I cannot live one hour without love,” Catherine told Prince Potemkin, and her statement rings true. In her life, she fell in love passionately, many times. Her relationship with Stanislaw Poniatowski, the last King of Poland, lasted three years and ended only when he was expelled from Russia. Catherine clearly loved him, but once he was gone, she found his successor immediately.

Grigory Orlov was the lover whose support allowed her to reach for the throne, but she did love him and lived with him quite happily for twelve years. I think that her true soul mate, however, was Prince Potemkin, her partner and most probably husband. Her relationships with her young favourites are also not just sexual or expedient. When twenty-five year old Sasha Lanskoy died after a brief illness, Catherine suffered from a serious depression for months. On the other hand, any lover hoping that love might make Catherine forget she was Empress, and thus responsible for the well-being and supremacy of Russia, would be greatly mistaken. She took her job very seriously, and personal sentiments were never allowed to interfere.

In THE WINTER PALACE, the fictional Catherine treats Varvara the way real Catherine treated her lovers and friends. She gave a lot, but she demanded ultimate loyalty and usefulness in return.  

What special research did you do for this book? Were there any surprises waiting for you in St. Petersburg, Peterhof, and/or Tsarskoye Selo?

First of all I read all the biographies of Catherine that I could find. I also read diaries of her contemporaries, and any 18th-century correspondence that had anything to do with Russia. There is a wealth of information in these old volumes. Once you know what to look for, the picture they paint is filled with intriguing details, many of which have found their way into my novel.

I always need to visit the places I write about. In preparation for writing the novel, I visited the palace in Stettin (now Polish Szczecin) where Catherine was born. I also travelled to St. Petersburg to get a physical sense of the city. I visited the palaces where Catherine lived: the Winter Palace, Tsarkoye Selo, Peterhof and the small Montplaisir Pavilion where, in June 1762, she spent her last night as the emperor’s wife before claiming the throne for herself. I went to St. Petersburg in June to experience the famous white nights of which I read so much.

The biggest surprise, I have to confess, was a visit to Kunstkamera, Peter the Great’s famous museum on the Vasilievsky Island. The sight of deformed fetuses in glass jars, the strange art pieces Peter the Great brought from Amsterdam composed from human body parts, made a great impression on me. Once again I was reminded of the vast cultural gulf that separates us from the 18th century; the experience cautioned me to be keenly aware of the differences in our perceptions of the past, the sense of what is appropriate or not, what can be accepted and what is considered shocking.

Your next novel will continue the story of Catherine the Great. How will it differ from this one?

The Empire of the Night begins three months before Catherine’s death. She has been Empress for thirty-four years.  She has conquered her enemies and ruthlessly enlarged Russia’s territory. The King of Poland, her former lover, is now her prisoner. And then, on November 5th, 1796, she has a massive stroke. Paralyzed, speechless and totally helpless, for two days she is forced to witness her heritage denied and her cherished plans abandoned.

If THE WINTER PALACE tells the story of acquiring power, The Empire of the Night is the portrait of powerful woman who loses control over her world.

Interesting facts about Catherine the Great

Catherine (born Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst) was German, born in Stettin, Pomerania, (now Polish Szczecin) and came to Russia at fourteen to marry the Crown Prince. Intriguing facts about her include:

  • She was a prolific author of plays, journalistic pieces, letters, books for children, and translations (in addition to government decrees and her authorship of Great Instruction, a guide for Russian Legislative Commission)
  • In the Sevres dinner service for 60 ordered for Prince Grigory Potemkin, her “beloved nail-biter,” she was depicted as goddess Minerva.
  • She had no legal claim to the Russian throne.
  • She never left Russia—a coup was always a possible threat
  • She made Stanislaw Poniatowski (her Polish lover) the king of Poland, only to force him to abdicate thirty-one years later and annex one-third of his kingdom to Russia


  • She loved playing billiards and cards (boston and macao)
  • She loved Tom Jones and Tristram Shandy (Fielding was a close friend of Sir Charles Hanbury Williams, British ambassador to Russia and Catherine’s close friend)
  • She loved dogs, had a white squirrel whom she tamed herself as well as doves, parrots and many other birds.
  • She disliked music; she was probably quite tone deaf, and musicians were appointed to give her a sign when to applaud.
  • She collected art with a passion; her vast collection is the basis for Hermitage Museum
  • She was a consummate gardener
  • She was largely indifferent to food: boiled beef with pickled cucumbers was her favourite, and  cucumbers with honey.


Eva Stachniak, Author Bio

Eva Stachniak was born in Wroclaw, Poland. She moved to Canada in 1981 and has worked for Radio Canada International and Sheridan College, where she taught English and humanities. Her first short story, “Marble Heroes,” was published by The Antigonish Review in 1994, and her debut novel, Necessary Lies, won the Amazon.ca/Books in Canada First Novel Award in 2000. She is also the author of Garden of Venus, which has been translated into seven languages. Stachniak lives in Toronto, where she is at work on her next novel about Catherine the Great to be published by Bantam Books, The Empire of the Night.

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