Eva Stachniak – The Winter Palace

When Varvara, a young orphaned Polish girl, is brought to serve at empress Elizabeth’s glittering, dangerous court in St. Petersburg, she is schooled by the Chancellor himself in skills from lock-picking to love-making, learning above all else to stay silent – and listen. Soon she is Elizabeth’s ‘tongue’ – her secret eyes and ears.

Then Sophie, a vulnerable young princess, arrives from Prussia as a prospective bride for Peter, Elizabeth’s nephew and heir. Set to spy on her by the Empress, Varvara soon becomes her friend and confidante, and helps her navigate the illicit seductions and the treacherous shifting allegiances of the court. But Sophie’s destiny is to become the notorious Catherine the Great. Are her ambitions more lofty and far-reaching than anyone suspected, and will she stop at nothing to achieve absolute power?

As mentioned in my look forward at my most anticipated reads for the first half of 2012, I love historical fiction centred on royalty and aristocracy. And while I’m fairly well grounded in the royal histories of The Netherlands and Great Britain, I’m far less familiar with that other great monarchy, the Russian Tsars. So when I read the synopsis for The Winter Palace, I knew I wanted to read this book as soon as possible. And as I was lucky enough to receive a review copy from the publisher, I didn’t have to wait long for the opportunity.

Telling the story of Varvara Nikolayevna, a young Polish orphan, The Winter Palace, shows us the rise to the throne of Catherine the Great. But this book is as much Varvara’s story as it is Catherine’s. Trained as a spy for Empress Elizabeth, Varvara’s viewpoint allows us to witness not just the story of how Princess Sophie became Empress Catherine; it also shows us much of the reign of Empress Elizabeth and the Russian court in the eighteenth century. The story is enthralling and drew me in completely. The details the author adds to her narrative are amazing and very well researched.

Stachniak doesn’t spare the reader the nasty side of eighteenth century Russian life, while we are blown away by the splendours of the Russian Imperial Court; we also see the rot beneath. The bad (oral) hygiene, the deplorable medical practices – such as bleeding a patient as a cure for any and all maladies – and the way those of a lower class would be taken advantage of – Bestuzhev’s casual abuse of Varvara – and the ease with which they were discarded once they were no longer considered useful. What drove home the point of distinctions in class is the way Varvara casually notes Bestuzhev’s taking of her innocence and doesn’t mention it as anything other than an event and it seems she doesn’t regard it as rape, but as a natural part of her ‘education’ as a spy, even if it made her feel sick afterwards. Bestuzhev even tells her he didn’t take anything from her, as he left her intact, a virgin. It’s a subtle way to show the different mores and customs of the time, although it’s one people of our day find appalling.

Varvara is an amazing narrator and protagonist. She’s smart, educated and an integral part of the Court, but at the same time an outsider, both due to her Polish nationality and the fact that she has to keep her being a spy secret. It’s the skills she’s learned as the latter, that make her such a wonderful narrator. She’s almost incapable of not observing all that happens around her and remembering it in detail, which lets her recount everything to us with exquisite clarity. I loved her growing closer to Catherine when she was still Sophie and their seemingly genuine friendship, even if that was all thrown in doubt by the ending. I also loved that due to her spy training Varvara is always a little paranoid and suspicious, both because she knows what’s going on and because she keeps hearing Bestuzhev’s voice in her head, filling it with doubts.

Sophie’s transformation from a young, somewhat naive, but still ambitious princess into Catherine, Empress of all Russia and beholden to no one, was caught in a most impressive way. This book shows her fight to not only remain at court and protect herself, but to become (relatively) happy and be the one in control, instead of the one being controlled. She has a hard time under Elizabeth and is very much despised by her husband Peter III, so it’s no wonder she reaches out to other men and people outside her set of peers for love and friendship. However, it does give a strange dichotomous view of Catherine’s character; on the one hand she’s a sweet, loving girl, wanting to please her husband and aunt-in-law, on the other, she’s a cunning political player, who schemes to maintain her position and even advance it. Then again, no human is only good or bad, so why would Catherine be?

What touched me most were the scenes in which Catherine gives birth to her first two children. The way the babies are immediately taken away to Elizabeth – Catherine being all but abandoned in her childbed and not to see her children again for months at a time – pierced my heart, for its cruelty and callousness. I can’t imagine going through a pregnancy, only to have my child be taken away against my wishes and not even being allowed to hold her for a minute. Especially, when getting pregnant had been such an ordeal for Catherine. At the same time, she chose not to raise any of her natural children herself, just to keep them safe from court intrigue. This must have been hard as well and it would be surprising if this pain hadn’t in some way contributed to her hard-hearted ambition to keep her husband from the throne.

The Winter Palace is a mesmerising read; the fascinating story of two outsiders to the Russian court and how one of them succeeded to reach the apex of said court. Stachniak’s writing is engaging and at times magical, with a wonderful attention to detail and a flair for laying bare the workings of human relationships. There is so much packed in this novel I haven’t touched upon half of what it offers. I loved this book and the good news is Stachniak is writing a companion novel from Catherine’s view dealing with her entire reign, which will be called The Empire of Night. I know I’ll be there to read that when it comes out. Meanwhile, read The Winter Palace, it’s a stunning book that blew me away and I can’t recommend it highly enough!

This book was provided by review by the publisher.