NAMED A BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR BY
The Wall Street Journal AND The Washington Post
From award-winning author Eva Stachniak comes this passionate novel that illuminates, as only fiction can, the early life of one of history’s boldest women. The Winter Palace tells the epic story of Catherine the Great’s improbable rise to power—as seen through the ever-watchful eyes of an all-but-invisible servant close to the throne.
Her name is Barbara—in Russian, Varvara. Nimble-witted and attentive, she’s allowed into the employ of the Empress Elizabeth, amid the glitter and cruelty of the world’s most eminent court. Under the tutelage of Count Bestuzhev, Chancellor and spymaster, Varvara will be educated in skills from lock picking to lovemaking, learning above all else to listen—and to wait for opportunity. That opportunity arrives in a slender young princess from Zerbst named Sophie, a playful teenager destined to become the indomitable Catherine the Great. Sophie’s destiny at court is to marry the Empress’s nephew, but she has other, loftier, more dangerous ambitions, and she proves to be more guileful than she first appears.
What Sophie needs is an insider at court, a loyal pair of eyes and ears who knows the traps, the conspiracies, and the treacheries that surround her. Varvara will become Sophie’s confidante—and together the two young women will rise to the pinnacle of absolute power.
With dazzling details and intense drama, Eva Stachniak depicts Varvara’s secret alliance with Catherine as the princess grows into a legend—through an enforced marriage, illicit seductions, and, at last, the shocking coup to assume the throne of all of Russia. Impeccably researched and magnificently written, The Winter Palace is an irresistible peek through the keyhole of one of history’s grandest tales.
About the author
Eva Stachniak was born in Wroclaw, Poland, and came to Canada in 1981. She has been a radio broadcaster and college English and Humanities lecturer. Her debut novel, Necessary Lies, won the Amazon.com/Books in Canada First Novel Award, and her second novel, Garden Of Venus, has been translated into seven languages. Her third novel, The Winter Palace, has been published in Canada (Doubleday), US (Bantam) and the UK (Transworld) and will soon appear in Holland, Germany, and Poland.
Excerpt: The Winter Palace (by (author) Eva Stachniak)
I could have warned her when she arrived in Russia, this petty German princess from Zerbst, a town no bigger than St. Petersburg’s Summer Garden, this frail girl who would become Catherine.
This court is a new world to you, I could have said to her, a slippery ground. Do not be deceived by tender looks and flattering words, promises of splendor and triumph. This place is where hopes shrivel and die. This is where dreams turn to ashes.
She has charmed you already, our Empress. With her simplicity, the gentle touch of her hand, the tears she dried from her eyes at her first sight of you. With the vivacity of her speech and gestures, her brisk impatience with etiquette. How kind and frank Empress Elizabeth Petrovna is, you have said. Others have, too. Many others. But frankness can be a mask, a disguise, as her predecessor has learned far too late.
Three years ago our bewitching Empress was but a maiden princess at the court of Ivan VI, the baby Emperor, and his Regent Mother. There had been a fiance lost to smallpox, there had been other prospects derailed by political intrigues until everyone believed that, at thirty- two and without a husband, the youngest daughter of Peter the Great had missed her chance at the throne. They all thought Elizabeth Petrovna flippant and flighty then, entangled in the intricacies of her dancing steps and the cut of her ball dresses— all but a handful who kept their eyes opened wide, who gambled on the power of her father’s blood.
The French call her “Elizabeth the Merciful.” For the day before she stole the throne of Russia from Ivan VI, she swore on the icon of St. Nicholas the Maker of Miracles that no one under her rule would ever be put to death. True to her word, on the day of the coup, she stopped the Palace Guards from slashing Ivan’s infant throat. She plucked the wailing baby Emperor from his crib and kissed his rosy cheeks before she handed him back to his mother and packed them both off to live in prison.
She likes when we repeat that no head has been cut off since the day she took power but forbids us to mention the tongues and ears. Or the backs torn to meaty shreds by the knout. Or the prisoners nailed to a board and thrown into a freezing river. Mercy, too, knows how to deceive.
Here in the Russian court, I could have warned the pretty newcomer from Zerbst, life is a game and every player is cheating. Everyone watches everyone else. There is no room in this palace where you can be truly alone. Behind these walls there are corridors, a whole maze of them. For those who know, secret passages allow access where none is suspected. Panels open, bookcases move, sounds travel through hidden pipes. Every word you say may be repeated and used against you. Every friend you trust may betray you.
Your trunks will be searched. Double bottoms and hollowed books will not hold their secrets for long. Your letters will be copied before they are sent on their way. When your servant complains that an intimate piece of your clothing is missing, it may be because your scent is preserved in a corked bottle for the time when a hound is sent to sniff out your presence.
Keep your hands on your pockets. Learn the art of deception. When you are questioned, even in jest, even in passing, you have mere seconds to hide your thoughts, to split your soul and conceal what you do not want known. The eyes and ears of an inquisitor have no equals.
Listen to me.
The one you do not suspect is the most dangerous of spies.
As soon as she seized the throne of Russia, Empress Elizabeth made no secret of her resolve to rule alone, without a royal husband. Since she would have no children to succeed her, she sent for her sister’s orphaned son, Karl Peter Ulrich, the Duke of Holstein. When the young Duke was brought to her, lanky and bone- thin, his eyes bloodshot with exhaustion after the long journey, she pressed him to her heaving bosom. “The blood of the Romanovs,” she announced, as he stiffened in her arms. “The grandson of Peter the Great.” She presided over his conversion to the Orthodox faith, renamed him Peter Fyodorovich, and made him the Crown Prince. He was fourteen years old.
She didn’t ask him if he wished to live with her. She didn’t ask him if he wanted to rule Russia one day. Now, right after his fifteenth birthday, she didn’t ask him if he wanted a bride.
Princess Sophie Fredrika Auguste Anhalt- Zerbst. It was her portrait that arrived first, and I recall the grand moment of its unveiling. Portraits of this kind are not meant to render a likeness, but to entice. “Her?” I heard Chancellor Bestuzhev say when the Empress mentioned Sophie for the first time. “But why her?” The Chancellor mentioned the need of crafty ties, and hedging one’s bets. Europe required a careful balance of power, he cautioned. The Prussians were growing too strong as it was. “Your Highness should consider a Saxon princess.”
The Empress stifled a yawn.
“I’ve not decided anything yet,” Elizabeth told him. Her nephew Peter was sitting at her feet, his long white fingers turning the turquoise ring around, as if he were tightening a screw.
In the weeks that followed I heard Sophie’s father referred to as a prince of quite exceptional imbecility, a Prussian general not able to control his foolhardy wife for whom the shabby Court of Brunswick had become the measure of all grandeur. The Anhalt- Zerbsts were well connected but poor, shamelessly clamoring for Empress Elizabeth’s attention, reminding her that she once almost married one of them, this tenuous link to Russia their only real hope of attaining significance.
When a footman parted the red velvet curtain, we saw a portrait of a slim and graceful figure standing by the mantel, a girl of fourteen, summoned from her studies. We saw the pale- green bodice of her gown, the dainty hands folded on her stomach. Whatever rumors may have reached us, Princess Sophie was not a cripple. No childhood illness had deformed her spine. There was an air of lightness around her; she seemed on the verge of breaking into a cheerful dance. Her chin was pointed, her lips small but shapely. Not quite pretty but fresh and playful, like a kitten watching a ball of yarn unfurl. The painter made sure we would not miss the exquisite pallor of her complexion, the softness of her eyes, the blue flecks of her pupils so striking a contrast to her raven- black hair. Nor could we overlook her ardent will to please.
Murmurs, hesitant and vague, filled the room. Courtiers’ words mumbled and slurred so praise could still be retracted, blame turned into a veiled compliment. The art of deception, I thought, the eyespots on a butterfly’s wing flickering for a lifesaving second. Grasshoppers that change their color with the seasons to match the fading leaves. The grand gentlemen and ladies of the court were still looking at the portrait, but I knew there was something far more important to watch. The face of the Empress of Russia taking her first measure of this princess child who, if she willed it, would become her nephew’s bride. The face I had learned to read.
Praise for The Winter Palace
"The book roars along, with all the backstabbing, forced marriages, shifting alliances and drama that make up this royal household. . . . A very entertaining book."
—The Gazette (Montreal)
"Stachniak has uncovered a treasure trove of rich material. . . . [Her] vision casts light over recent Russian history too, which is exactly what a piece of historical fiction should do."
—The Globe and Mail
"A sweeping novel."
—O, The Oprah Magazine Magazine