A novel featuring proximity to the historically notable from the point of view of the ordinary, complete with intrigue, a palace coup, war, and a bookbinder’s daughter made into a countess – I was attracted to this book in a major way. And yet when it was finished, I felt it still wanted something.
The Winter Palace brings us the story of Catherine the Great’s accession to the throne of all the Russias in 1762. It’s told from the point of view of Barbara (Varvara in Russian), a young girl who has immigrated with her father and mother to St. Petersburg from Poland. As this young girl reaches adolescence (circa 1749 or so) she makes herself valuable to the Empress Elizabeth’s Chancellor, for her ability to gather and keep secrets. She becomes a spy for his excellency, and a pretty reliable one. In a few years, along comes Sophie, a princess in the German ruling Anhalt family, a young maiden of fourteen, who is betrothed to Empress Elizabeth’s nephew and heir-designate, Peter. The book contains the narrative of Sophie, who will take the Russian name Catherine: she arrives at court, bravely tries to get along with Peter, finally marries him, and bears a son whom the Empress takes from her to raise herself. Six months after the old Empress dies, after Peter has ruled disastrously as her heir, Catherine’s supporters confer all power on her and her reign starts in a (nearly) bloodless coup.
The novel’s take on human nature, while I’m sure wholly accurate, remains flat – it’s a monotone of grasping, secretive jealousy, and hunger for power. While I have no doubt that the court of Empress Elizabeth was exactly this way, the story could clearly do with some relief from this miserable and all-encompassing mania. Also I could have wished for a more effective description of the architecture of the palaces and temporary quarters the principals lived in, and more especially of the international and internal issues that Elizabeth is noted for having dealt with. Yes, we witness this story through the eyes of an unimportant courtier, but Barbara is an awfully quick study, and a large thinker. She would have understood the hazards for Russia contained in the surprise Anglo-Prussian treaty from the Seven Years’ War, for instance.
However, for anyone interested in the novelization of Catherine’s early life and rise to power, this will be a must-read. The author does an excellent job of portraying the royal family in all its jealousy, vainglory, and profligacy, and doing a fully nuanced, unblinking job on Catherine herself. I would not recommend this book to readers who lack those interests, though.