Tuesday, 10 January 2012

The Winter Palace - Eva Stachniak

Only if you like historical novels. Otherwise read Catherine the Great by Robert K Massie

Russia has always been surrounded by an aura of mystery even today and the Winter Palace and Saint Petersburg seem as far off and remote as the moon! In this fine historical novel by Polish born Eva Stachniak we are going to sneak right into the palace and right into the private rooms of royalty. You get the feeling throughout this novel that the author understands the Russian psyche well, bringing to life the exalted men and women of Russia's elite and the servants who toil to keep the palaces functioning.

In fact we are going to be Peeping Toms. Or actually, Peeping Thomasinas as "Winter Palace" is penned by a servant girl named Varvara. The old saying that no man is a hero to his valet is pretty much true here as Varvara sees everything, goes everywhere and judges much. Although the way Varvara manages to inveigle herself into the palace is complicated and contrived, this novel is a splendid romp. Varvara becomes the confident of Empress Elizabeth and closely observes her nephew, the Crown Prince Peter who at 16 years of age is cowardly, neurotic.and still wets his bed. She also becomes the friend and confident of the German princess Sophie, in fact she is a sort of double agent. We see the immense panorama of the times through Varvara's eyes.

Everybody in the palace from the Empress Elizabeth to the lowliest scullery maid is waiting with baited breath the arrival of 14 year old Sophie of Anhalt, an obscure German princess who might be a possible mate for the Crown Prince Peter. She is arriving at the palace to be vetted. Sophie is approved and when she has converted (very enthusiastically) to Russian Orthodox, she is married to Crown Prince and assumes the name of Catherine.

Empress Elizabeth, apparently as a reward to one of the young palace guards who had been her lover, forces Egor to marry, Varvara being the reward. Catherine is almost lost in the secondary tale of Varvara and her travails She and her husband move into a house of their own and Varvara gives birth to a little girl, Darya. But Empress Elizabeth needs Varvara back in the palace to act as her spy, however Varvara's sympathy is with Catherine.

Seven years go by and the Crown Princess Catherine has not conceived. To be a little bit delicate so Amazon will not zap my review, Peter can't perform due to a problem which is remedied by surgery. (This actually is historically true). Catherine promptly brings a son to term, and Paul, as he is named by Elizabeth is snatched up by the Empress and taken to her apartments to be brought up by her and not his mother Catherine.

Although Catherine is thoroughly upstaged by the narrator of the tale, Varvara, we see Catherine develop as both a power and a personality. She takes the first of her many lovers and climbs slowly but surely up the ladder of success, success in her case being Empress of Russia. A determined, resolute lady, the word failure does not exist in her vocabulary. Catherine morphs from a rather sensitive, kind hearted girl to a woman much more steely. She usurps the throne from her own husband, Peter and Peter is mysteriously murdered. It has never been proved whether or not Catherine was privy to his death. (Shades of Mary Queen of Scots and Darnley.).

When Catherine grabs the reins as autocrat of all the Russias, she will go on to try and bring Russia out of the Dark Ages. She corresponds with preeminent historical intellectual figures including Voltaire. She has a powerful intellect herself, but she is an adulteress, a traitor and a murderess. She becomes too important to bother with a friendship such as Varvara and Varvara must go on, with her daughter at her side, to carve out her own niche in life.

Author Stachniak dishes up a historically- based stew that is a savory and pungent . She captures very well the atmosphere of the eighteenth century Russia, where *greed, ambition, treachery and superstition rubbed shoulders, where every man had to watch his back. The title "The Winter Palace" is inappropriate as much of the action takes place elsewhere but this is a fast-paced novel that will easily hold your interest. However, this is not a novel about Catherine, it is a novel about Varvara.


What has changed? greed, ambition, treachery and superstition still rub shoulders, every man still has  to watch his back


  1. dis nou net die tipe van boek wat ek graag lees.

  2. Maar die Massie een is beter en lees lekker, ek dink nie die feite hier is heeltemal korrek nie - Daar was nie iemand soos Varvara bv nie