Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Winter Palace

The Winter Palace: A Novel of Catherine the Great
Eva Stachniak
January 2012
ISBN: 978-0553808124
464 pages
$ 26.00

Who really knows what the lives of those who are born into royalty? Obviously, many of us are enthusiastic to view these privileged lives through the eyes of those who are closest to these people, the friends, advisors, and servants.

Barbara Nikolayevna, better known as Varvara in Russian, moved to Russia years ago when her father served as a favored bookbinder to Empress Elizabeth. After this move, Varvara’s parents died leaving her as an orphan. Eventually she was able to remind the Empress of the previous relationship with her father and managed to become a servant to royalty, beginning as a seamstress. Varvara had no talent for sewing but did successfully develop the talent of spying, reporting to the Empress about the activities and conversations, especially about the foreign princess, Sophie who later was called Catherine. Varvara was to become her best friend to find out all her hidden secrets. However, Varara discovered that it was best for her if she acted as a spy to many parties, learning quickly how to hide in passageways, and how to play one participant against the other, all for her personal advantage.

Once Catherine is married to the Empress’s nephew, Peter, an heir is expected. Unfortunately, Peter had other priorities and a relationship with his wife was not important to him. Being the Catherine was both a foreigner and an in-law, most of the blame was placed on her by the Empress. With Varvara doubling as a spy for the Empress, Catherine, and the Chancellor of Russia, Alexi Bestuzhev-Rhumin, each of them keep a full agenda with wanting information on each other.

Whenever you read a historical novel, you always have to keep realizing that this is one person’s perspective. To me, this particular author seemed to have Catherine as the victim of each situation. Obviously, there has been documentation about much of that especially when the Empress took the children after Catherine have given birth. However, Catherine did play many games herself and quickly became a game master herself.

The Winter Palace is about Catherine’s life from the time she became bethrothed to Peter at the age of fourteen to the time she became the Empress of Russia. The morality and ethics of the royal family were revealing, however, rather making me wonder as a reader, how any of these people became competent and respected rulers. This was definitely revealing as to the manipulations and contrived and discriminating nature of their lives.

The Winter Palace is informative as to the time period and the manner of life in Russia at this time. The strength in this novel is definitely the understanding of the constant changes of rivalries with the various countries of this time period and the changes in their influences and power. Also, the personal connections within the novel are well-documented in other sources so this author just developed what was already considered common knowledge about this royal family.

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