The Winter Palace, for those of you unaware, used to be the official winter residence of Russian monarchs. Of course when the monarchy was abolished in 1917, it stopped being used as a royal residence and instead became a tourist attraction. Nonetheless, when I saw this book titled The Winter Palace, I was intrigued. And when the book claimed to be about Catherine the Great, I was further intrigued and hence picked up the book to read. While the description of the book isn’t explicitly accurate, it was still an enjoyable read and I intend on reviewing it. So let’s get into it.
The Winter Palace is written by Eva Stachniak and claims to tell the story of Catherine the Great’s rise to power, beginning from when she was just Princess Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst. However, our lens for this story is not Princess Sophie, rather it is a Polish royal maidservant, Barbara (or Varvara as she’s known in Russia). And so the story actually begins with a history of Barbara’s life and how she came to be so close to the monarchs.
Barbara has a semi-uninteresting beginning. She was originally the daughter of a bookbinder who managed to repair a book for Empress Elizabeth of Russia and impress her in the process. He manages to ensure that Barbara is taken in by the royal court after his death. In other words, Elizabeth used to take in young orphan girls and have them work as her servants. Hence Barbara initially begins as a seamstress in the court, but finds the work tedious (she sucks at it) and hence begins covertly listening to others instead. Her ability catches the eye of Elizabeth’s chancellor, Bestuzhev, who then becomes a mentor of sorts for he and teaches her advanced spying methods. From his teachings, she comes a ‘tongue’ for him and Elizabeth. She spies on all servants and reports on their sayings/ activities to them. Eventually, she advances to the point of becoming a ‘reader’ for the next-in-line for the Russian Throne, Prince Peter (eventually Peter III of Russia).
It is through this line of work that she first meets the young Princess Sophie and becomes familiar with her. Despite being told to be suspicious of Sophie and given the duty of spying on her (Bestuzhev severely disliked Sophie), Barbara finds herself taken with the young Sophie. Sophie gifts Barbara an amber necklace and forges a pact with her, based on the fact that the two of them are ‘foreigners’ in the court (Sophie was German/ Prussian). Barbara then switches sides and covertly becomes Sophie’s tongue, protecting her and warning her about potential conspiracies.Barbara is eventually found out by Bestuzhev and he persuades Elizabeth to get Barbara married off and thus forced out of the palace.
During this time, a lot of stuff happens in Barbara’s life. And through bits and pieces, we’re also given some happenings with Sophie. Turns out, she suffers from a horrible marriage as her husband dislikes her and doesn’t like consummating with her. Desperate for an heir, Elizabeth sends one of her Romanov cousins, Sergei Saltykov, to seduce and impregnate Sophie. Unfortunately, once Sophie becomes pregnant, Sergei is ordered to leave her (Sophie loves him by this time) and once she gives birth, her son is snatched from her womb by Elizabeth. Elizabeth takes the newborn, future Paul I of Russia, and raises him on her own, refusing Sophie even a glimpse of her son.
By this time, Barbara is able to come back to the palace and support Sophie. She also becomes Elizabeth’s main room-servant. Sophie, meanwhile, hardens herself and continues to live life. During this time, she also grows braver, sneaking out to meet friends in the middle of the night dressed as men, having her lovers come into her room without bothering to hide the signs, etc. Barbara continually does her best to protect Sophie from Elizabeth (who really dislikes both Peter and Sophie and only loves Paul) and lies to her. Alongside Sophie’s life, Barbara’s life also changes as her husband eventually dies in war. She is left alone with their seven year old daughter and a loyal female servant. It is at this point that Barbara realizes how badly she treated her husband and how she had happiness within her grasp as a young newly married woman/mother but failed to see it.
Eventually, the book talks of how Elizabeth’s health fails, how Peter’s reign is disliked, and how Sophie gains the support of the soldiers. Once Sophie becomes Catherine the Great, Barbara becomes Chief Steward and her friendship with Catherine is at an all time high. Things are running smoothly and everything is going as it should. However, through certain circumstances, Barbara discovers that Catherine employs other ‘tongues’ beside her and also uses her daughter to keep tabs on Barbara’s life. She is furious, seeing these things as a betrayal and unwilling to have her daughter involved in court life. She confronts Catherine who looks at her with pity and tell her that it’s no big deal. Barbara is still really angry, so she decides to take some time off and takes her daughter and servant travelling with her. They first visit Paris and then go to Poland, Barbara’s homeland. The novel ends with her deciding to stay in Poland and leaving the court behind.
As you can tell from the review, the book doesn’t really talk about Catherine the Great that much, it’s more about Barbara and her life and how it relates to the royal court. And actually, that’s one of my critiques of the book. It’s misleading in its title and cover blurb. It doesn’t really tell the story of Sophie’s rise to becoming Catherine the Great. We’re only given side hints as to what type of character Sophie possesses. Hence, our view of Sophie/ Catherine depends on our own individual interpretation. However, even then, it’s difficult to feel too connected to Sophie, because she just doesn’t feature predominantly. If anything, I felt like we got more of a glimpse into Empress Elizabeth and her court. We learn more about Elizabeth’s lifestyle and feelings and motivations, then we do about Sophie. And more than that, we learn extensively about Barbara. At times, it felt like this book was about Barbara who accidentally fell into the royal court and her life that followed, vs. Barbara as a proxy for readers to experience Sophie’s rise to power. On that note, it’s not necessarily a bad thing, because on her own, Barbara is a decent character. She’s definitely flawed and does unlikeable things at times, but she’s also quite engaging, or at least I thought so. I enjoyed reading about her life outside the palace and her various thought processes. I just wish that the author/ publishers had been more honest in their descriptions about this book.
Which brings me to my second point, I actually quite enjoyed the writing in the novel. It was clear and understandable. I also found the descriptions of the Russian Royal court to be quite apt and well done. It didn’t feel too overly-descriptive and I quite enjoyed the little touches Ms. Stachniak added, like when talking about how the characters would drink kvass vs just using the english translation of the word (beer-like drink). They helped the book have an authentic, historical feel. All in all, a pretty enjoyable historical fiction read. Albeit more geared toward a specific era in time vs. a specific person in history.
My rating: read this if you’re curious about what the Russian Royal Court was like, but you can skip it if you want to read about Catherine the Great and her rise to power.