The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak
Published by Bantam, an imprint of Random House
Barbara has a loving family, her father is a Polish bookbinder who has had some measure of success in Russia, including some patronage from the Empress Elizabeth. When her parents die, one after the other, Barbara has nothing left, and must throw herself on the mercy of the court. Starting as a maid in Elizabeth’s wardrobe, Barbara – called Varvara in Russian – draws the attention of Chancellor Bestuzhev, who quickly recognizes her potential as a spy for himself and Elizabeth. As a new The timing for a new, bright spy to come into their employ is perfect, as a young princess is currently on her way to Russia as a potential bride for Elizabeth’s nephew and probably heir, Peter. As Varvara spends more time with Sophie, the girl who would become Catherine after her Orthodox conversion, her loyalty begins to shift from Elizabeth and Bestuzhev to Catherine.
The Winter Palace is the first in a series on Catherine the Great’s rule, and spans from the time shortly before she arrives in Russia to shortly after her ascension as Empress. Varvara is an engaging main character, and her position as maid and spy in the imperial court gives her the ability to know and narrate things that would be out of the purview of most characters, which allows Stachniak to use a first person narration that would otherwise be implausible.
Having recently read Robert Massie’s Catherine the Great, it seems to me that Stachniak’s historical research is topnotch, and she appears to stick very closely to Catherine’s story, without embellishment for dramatic purpose. This is particularly reassuring in cases like Catherine’s, where the historical drama is more than sufficient without anything added. Particularly shocking for students of Western European history is the exhortation for Catherine to become pregnant by any means possible to provide an heir, whether Peter was the father or not. The idea that none of the rest of the Romanovs were really Romanovs is simply mind-boggling.
Although this is the first book in a series, Stachniak made it nicely self-contained. There is no incomplete feeling at the end, it cuts off at a logical point in Catherine’s reign and in Eva’s life. Overall, this was a very engaging way to present the first part of Catherine’s life in Russia and the dramatic events that unfolded. If you’re at all interested in Russian history or Catherine’s amazingly strong reign, pick up The Winter Palace. Recommended.
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