THE WINTER PALACE
By Eva Stachniak
Bantam. 444 pp. $26
Catherine the Great, the much-mythologized empress of 18th-century Russia, has long been a popular subject for biographers, starring most recently in Robert K. Massie’s magnificently readable “Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman” (2011). She has also enjoyed strong representation on film, having been opulently portrayed by Marlene Dietrich and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Yet in historical fiction, there have been curiously few portraits of the long-reigning tsarina, with the exception of a few offerings that include a Romanov trilogy by British author Evelyn Anthony, published in the 1950s.
What luck, then, for the chance to sink into Eva Stachniak’s luxuriant new novel about Catherine’s beginnings. Its timing is particularly good for ambitious readers who have already tackled Massie’s biography. Except for the narrator, nearly all the main characters in “The Winter Palace” are imaginative re-creations of actual members of the Russian court from 1743 to 1764. We’re introduced to Catherine’s fearsome predecessor, Empress Elizabeth, the youngest surviving daughter of Peter the Great. Superstitious and impulsive, Elizabeth is nevertheless a powerful ruler, having inherited much of her father’s aptitude for government and his dedication to expanding Russia’s influence on the world stage. In 1744, she summons a minor German princess named Sophie to the court at St. Petersburg to serve as a bride for her nephew and heir, Grand Duke Peter Fyodorovich, an eccentric and sickly 15-year-old whose marriage will produce, she hopes, another Romanov successor.
Although she is expected to function as little more than a pedigreed breeder, 14-year-old Princess Sophie turns out to be a quick study, learning Russian and the intricacies of the Orthodox faith as she prepares to convert from her native Lutheranism. Upon her religious conversion, she is renamed Catherine Alexeyevna and officially betrothed, with much fanfare, to the young grand duke. And there her troubles begin.
For Catherine, the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg is a prison of loneliness and anxiety, where everyone from the lowest servant to the highest-ranking adviser acts as Elizabeth’s spy, eager to glean any shred of incriminating information that could lead to advancement. It’s also a place of near-mythic extravagance. When Empress Elizabeth complains of being cold at night, she summons 20 guardsmen to warm her bedroom air with their breath. It’s whispered that her cats wear velvet jackets, and that a great machine rolls through the imperial rooms, spreading the scent of roses. Yet for all its bizarre excess, the atmosphere at court is wearying: “Time, so precious everywhere else, stretched here like strands of hot tar.”
One of the more influential palace spies is the novel’s narrator, Barbara, a Polish orphan who was adopted by the court as a lady in waiting. A couple of years older than Catherine, she’s instructed in the art of espionage by Elizabeth’s wily chancellor, Count Bestuzhev, and assigned to report on Catherine’s every move.
A good spy, it turns out, makes quite a useful narrator, as Barbara manages to take readers behind every closed door in Elizabeth’s court. We see young Peter’s descent into alcoholism and derangement, his obsession with toy soldiers, his irrational outbursts and his avoidance of any kind of intimacy with his anxious bride. We see Elizabeth become so impatient for an heir that she’s happy to pretend that the three children Catherine eventually manages to produce were sired by Peter.
We don’t see Catherine take the crown until the end of the novel (a sequel is already in the works). Yet by the time she becomes empress, we’ve taken the measure of the steely foresight that will qualify her to serve as Russia’s longest-reigning female monarch, equipped to guide her hidebound empire into the age of enlightenment. At the same time baroque and intimate, worldly and domestic, wildly strange and soulfully familiar, “The Winter Palace” offers a flickering glimpse of history through the gauze of a deft entertainment.