The Winter Palace: A Novel of Catherine the Great

The Winter Palace: A Novel of Catherine the Great

by Eva Stachniak


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The Wall Street Journal • 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.
Praise for The Winter Palace
“A majestic and splendidly written tale of pride, passion, intrigue, and deceit that is brought alive from the first page to the last.”—Rosalind Laker
“At the same time baroque and intimate, worldly and domestic, wildly strange and soulfully familiar, The Winter Palace offers a flickering glimpse of history through the gauze of deft entertainment.”—The Washington Post
“A thrilling point of view . . . Readers are treated to a firsthand account of the young princess’s slow ascent to the throne, a path deliciously strewn with discarded lovers and sanguine court intrigues.”—Minneapolis Star-Tribune
“[A] brilliant, bold historical novel . . . This superb biographical epic proves the Tudors don’t have a monopoly on marital scandal, royal intrigue, or feminine triumph.”—Booklist (starred review)

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780553386899
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/23/2012
Pages: 480
Sales rank: 94,338
Product dimensions: 5.32(w) x 7.76(h) x 1.08(d)

About the Author

Eva Stachniak was born in Wrocław, Poland. She moved to Canada in 1981 and has worked for Radio Canada International and Sheridan College, where she taught English and humanities. Her first short story, “Marble Heroes,” was published by The Antigonish Review in 1994, and her debut novel, Necessary Lies, won the Books in Canada First Novel Award in 2000. She is also the author of Garden of Venus, which has been translated into seven languages. She lives in Toronto, where she is at work on her next novel about Catherine the Great, which Bantam Books will publish.

Read an Excerpt


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 fiancé 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.

I know.

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.

There was a sigh, a slight twitch of Elizabeth Petrovna’s lower lip. A moment of pensiveness, the same that descended upon her before the time of prayers. A tear slowly rolling down her rouged cheek.

My eyes returned to the portrait, and I knew what the Empress had perceived. In the painted features there was a slight but unmistakable hint of manliness, a distant echo of another, older face. The fiancé long dead. A memory that lingered and still moved her to tears.

“Lord be merciful. . . .”

When I heard the Empress of All the Russias whisper the prayer for the departed souls, I knew the Anhalt-­Zerbsts had scored their first victory.

The chorus of voices rose, still hesitant, still unsure. No courtier wanted to risk Elizabeth’s wrath. Like me, they had seen objects flung at anyone near her, a powder box exploding in a cloud of white dust, a silver statue of Amor and Psyche making a jagged dent in the floor. Like me, they had seen the quivering stump inside a mouth from which the tongue had been cut.

“Her dress is green,” the Grand Duke Peter said. In German he drew out the vowels in an almost musical manner. It was only in Russian that he sounded awkward and harsh.

All eyes turned to him.

The Duke himself was dressed in a green velvet suit, embroidered with gold. At that time his face was not yet marred by smallpox. It was lean and pale but not unpleasant. The day before I had seen him stare at his hand, examining each finger as if it held some mystery worth pondering.

“What do you think, Peter?” Elizabeth asked the Grand Duke. I watched her smooth the sleeve of her dress, the rich burgundy ­brocade gown, play with the pearls that adorned it. “Does she look ­anything like this picture, Peter?”

“This is a good likeness,” the Grand Duke said. “This is how I remember my cousin Sophie.”

“Your second cousin, Peter.”

“My second cousin,” he agreed. “She is not a cripple.”

“Who said she was a cripple?”

“I don’t remember.”

“Who told you she was a cripple, Peter?”

“I don’t remember. My Blackamoor heard it. But it’s not true. Sophie is very strong. In Eutin, she outran me every time we raced in the garden.”

“Such display of vigor might not be such a good sign, Your Highness,” Chancellor Bestuzhev remarked.

I looked at him. At the gray powdered curls of his wig, the bushy eyebrows, the soft lines of his smooth face. His velvet jacket was new, I noted, smartly cut, becoming. It was the color of dry blood. A miniature portrait of the Empress was pinned to his chest. More than once, I had seen the Chancellor leave Elizabeth’s bedroom at dawn, his clothes rumpled, buttons undone, embers flickering in his black eyes.

A slippery eel? An old fox?

Had he missed what I had just seen? Was he still hoping the Empress had not set her mind on Sophie?

“Why not, my dear count?” Her Majesty frowned.

“Strong legs? A pointed chin? Women like that tend to be bossy. I’ve formed this opinion based on significant personal experience, Your Highness,” Chancellor Bestuzhev continued, with a gracious bow. A slight titter traveled through the back of the room. The Chancellor’s wife, known for her frequent storms of rage, had been endowed with a pointed chin.

Like an actor contemplating his next triumph, Bestuzhev added, “Experience I’d be pleased to tell Your Highness about at another, more opportune, time.”

The Empress turned away from him.

“I’ve decided to invite Princess Sophie here,” she said. “With her mother. Nothing official. The Anhalt-­Zerbsts have received enough favors from me to show their gratitude.”

I could see shoulders dropping in relief. Courtiers hurried to express their agreement, to offer reasons why they thought the Empress had made an excellent choice.

She was very cheerful that day. The embroidered trim of her gown shimmered as she moved, and I remember wondering who would get it, for the Empress never wore the same dress twice.

The portrait of the little German Princess with an eager smile was moved aside. Stretching on the daybed the footmen had fetched for her, Empress Elizabeth ordered Count Razumovsky to sing. There was no impatience on her face when he plucked the strings of his favorite bandura to tune it. She didn’t even scold the Grand Duke when he stuck his thumb in his mouth, probing his gums. A week before, he had lost another rotting tooth.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

Advance praise for The Winter Palace
“Stachniak’s brilliant, bold historical novel of eighteenth-century Russia is a masterful account of one woman’s progress toward absolute monarchical rule. . . . This superb biographical epic proves the Tudors don’t have a monopoly on marital scandal, royal intrigue, or feminine triumph.”—Booklist
“Awash in period details and as gripping and suspenseful as any thriller, The Winter Palace gives us a unique look at the making of a queen. Eva Stachniak allows us to peep through keyholes and overhear whispers as we navigate the intrigues of Imperialist Russia along with Sophie, the princess who became Catherine the Great. I loved this book, and this glimpse into a world of silk and shadows, grandeur and gossip.”—Melanie Benjamin, author of The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb
The Winter Palace is an intensely written, intensely felt saga of the early years that shaped the eighteenth century’s famous czarina, Catherine the Great. Her survival in the treachery of the Russian court was an amazing feat, and Eva Stachniak captures the fluidity and steeliness that propelled Catherine from a lowly German duchess to one of the towering figures of the century.”—Karleen Koen, New York Times bestselling author of Through a Glass Darkly
“Eva Stachniak has given readers a thrilling glimpse into the scandals and secrets at the heart of the Russian Imperial court. With deft prose and exquisite detail, Stachniak has resurrected one of the most compelling ages in history. Turn off the phones and lock the doors—you will not put it down.”—Deanna Raybourn, New York Times bestselling author of Silent in the Grave
“This novel is literary sable to sink into on a cold winter’s night: luxurious and elegant, gilded with details, yet piercing in its depiction of the flamboyant decadence of the Russian court, and the tumultuous rise to power of Catherine the Great, as seen through the eyes of a scheming lady in waiting and spy. Once you enter the glorious, dangerous world of The Winter Palace, you will never want to leave.”—C.W. Gortner, author of The Confessions of Catherine de Medici
“Utterly enchanting from the first page . . . Eva Stachniak brings to life the sensual feast that was Catherine the Great’s Russia in this beautifully written, tightly plotted novel.”—Tasha Alexander, author of And Only to Deceive

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The Winter Palace 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 93 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Closing my borrowed copy of The Winter Palace early this morning, I could not help but feel I was holding a prettily painted glass bead marketed and hyped as a genuine gem of a novel. While the reader is promised and enticed by a “keyhole” view of the 18th century Russian court, the splendor is soon overshadowed and left this reviewer shaking her head in bewilderment and frustration. Although, the attention to historical detail is impressive and Ms. Stachniak has a true talent to capture the grandeur of the era with her meticulous elements; sadly those alone could not prevent the chips and peeling later revealed by: underdeveloped characterization, unexpected vulgar language, repetitive storytelling, weak foreshadowing, and oddly out of place Victorian to Modern language that jarred this reviewer out of a couple chapters. Add to this, the irksome voice of a narrator that mimicked a noisy one-noted bird that I wished would have been silenced by a covered cage or a well placed shoe. If the potential reader is seeking a novel that keeps an even balance of education and entertainment on all aspects and viewpoints of 18th century Russia, you may be slightly disappointed. While the novel supplies only the basic facts of Catherine the Great’s life at the Winter Palace it focuses more on her intimate life and the drama of those of the court, that may leave the reader wondering what genre or audience the author was really striving for. With all of the displayed private sordid details that unfortunately borderlines on a cheap bodice ripper, it can get overwhelming and another narration would have been appreciated to break up the monotony of the numerous scandalous encounters. While The Winter Palace focuses more on the elite and powerful, the poor serve as a limited background-that leaves much to be desired and explored. In the end, I did not exactly come away wanting to read any type of sequel but it did spark an interest of learning all I can about Russian rulers, superstitions, and history.
lit-in-the-last-frontier More than 1 year ago
[b]The Winter Palace: A Novel of Catherine the Great[/b] by Eva Stachniak (¿¿¿-barely) More than anything else I hate to see a truly gifted writer fail to achieve potential. To succeed in crafting wonderful prose, creating an enveloping atmosphere, only then to fail when history itself has given you the very plot and characters you need spin out your tale in a stunning coup de grace! Eva Stachniak chose an interesting, completely fictional narrator, which does allow her interesting roving viewpoints throughout the palace. Her narrator is the orphaned daughter of the bookbinder to the Empress Elizabeth I of Russia, whom he begged to care for the girl in the event of his death. Upon that event she ends up in various lowly positions in the court, is made a mistress and spy of the Chancellor of Russia and begins her rise to fame. The author uses her considerable talents to create an ambience of espionage, sumptuous feasts, decadent clothing, and furtive love affairs, all of which the Russian courts of the age were well known for. There is no “author’s note” attached to the book, other than one which states that this is a work of fiction. So why attach the subtitle “A novel of Catherine the Great” to the book? To serious readers of historical fiction such a note is a tag denoting a work which is seriously researched and essentially a work “biographical fiction”. Catherine is not even the major character in the book-Elizabeth is. Catherine comes to Elizabeth’s court as a young bride to Elizabeth’s heir, her nephew, Peter, and she and the narrator, Varvara, form an uneasy friendship, but Elizabeth remains that dominante force in the novel. Some historical elements of the novel, such as Elizabeth’s relationships with Peter and Catherine’s children (and their paternity), the access that Elizabeth allowed Catherine to her children, and Peter’s character were fairly well portrayed. However, I felt that she grossly missed the mark in her portrayals of Elizabeth and Catherine. Elizabeth is portrayed as a completely debauched woman. There is no doubt that she loved parties and beautiful things, but she ruled Russia for twenty years and was very much the daughter of Peter the Great, continuing many of the positive things which he began, none of which comes across in this novel at all. Due to it’s subtitle, you feel like you are supposed to be focusing your attentions on Catherine, but so much attention is paid to Elizabeth that I couldn’t help but feel dissatisfied that her character was not fully developed and that it was so one-sided and unfairly portrayed. She was a woman of many talents who made many contributions to Russia during her reign. This novel ends shortly after the death of Elizabeth and Catherine’s seizure of power. Eva Stachniak is working on a sequel, continuing the reign of Catherine, as she becomes Catherine the Great. I sure hope she focuses on something other than the twenty something lovers that Catherine cycled through her bed in her lifetime. This could have been a wonderful book about two very strong empresses and a narrator who fought her way up from nothing. Instead it felt like two debauched empresses and an abused orphan-made-whore swimming through the mire that was imperial Russia. This one barely merits three stars from me, and that only because Eva Stachniak writes some lovely atmospheric prose, and while she often fails to develop her characters, she does perfectly capture their per
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
You get a glimpse at the young Catherine the Great, but it's really a story about the lady's maid, Barbara, who is resourceful, flexible in her allegiances and willing to spy for whoever seems to hold the most political clout at any given moment. The chilly Russian atmosphere is perfectly enthralling and the writing is very good.
emmi331 More than 1 year ago
Most people are aware of Catherine the Great as one of Russia's outstanding monarchs, but have no idea of the difficulties she went through to obtain the crown. In this excellent novel, once she marries Peter III, the heir to the throne, the young Catherine is kept in her place by the domineering Empress Elizabeth, her self-absorbed husband, and ambitious and conniving courtiers. Frustrated by being ignored and humiliated, she learns to become skilled at intrigue and conspiracy in order to survive and ultimately prevail. The story is told from the perspective of her trusted servant and spy Barbara, whose own life is inevitably impacted by the constant stress of trying to survive in the dangerous Russian court. The novel tells a great story, and the author is working on a sequel, which I can't wait to read.
Anonymous 5 months ago
Through the eyes of the foreign-born spy and friend, Varbara, we err how Catherine became the Great as a result of the years she spent in disgrace. Interesting read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I have read another book on Catherine the Great written from her own point of view, so this novel’s perspective, from a woman, who was a spy, a courtier, friend and mother was a really fresh insight into this Empress. I look forward to reading the next book by this author.
jennyandaustin on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I loved this book. An intriguing story of an orphan girl working at the Winter Palace - court of Empress Elizabeth of Russia. As a young seamstress she becomes a listener, reporting back what she has overheard whilst serving the Empress to the chancellor. She works her way up the ranks. When a lonely, young German princess arrives for an arranged marriage with the Empresses nephew she forms a friendship with her and her allegiances shift. This is a book full of whispers, plots and counterplots, and also beautifully describes life at the Russian Palace.
dgmlrhodes on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This was a good story about Catherine the Great. However, the title was a misleading. The book is told from the perspective of a close servant in the palace and I felt like the story of Catherine was too far removed. There was more detail about the intrigues of the palace and that of the servants story. The story of Catherine was at arms length and only showed the highlights of her life and not as much about her day to day.
Kegsoccer on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
"The Winter Palace: A Novel of Catherine the Great" by Eva Stachniak cashes in on the fascination with Catherine the Great. I agree with other reviewers that 'A Novel of Catherine the Great' is misleading since the main character is not Catherine. Stachniak should have just gone with "The Winter Palace" as her title, and because she did not, many of her readers are going to be unhappy. The story itself is not necessarily bad, but picking up a book because you think it is going to be about one thing, and it turning out to be about another, does not make the reader very happy. I enjoy historical fiction about certain figures in history (Alexander the Great for example) and often go out of my way to find books about them. If I were a Catherine the Great fan, I would have been greatly disappointed.
Smits on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
good book. Not great but readable. I enjoyed learning some history around this time in russian history. Story of the rise of Chatherine the great from the point of view of a young "bookbinders ' daughter that rises in the household of first Elisabeth and then Catherine.
BarbN on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
As the voice of the story, Varvara, sees history through the crannies and cracks of the spies' art, the story unfolds in small reveals and tells, with an ever growing sense of impending doom as Varvara loses first her physical and then her emotional innocence, to the last betrayal. Varvara is recruited as a spy, then sent to serve the Empress of Russia, to rub her feet and tell her stories of the court. By the Empress, she is commanded to serve as a companion to the Princess Sophie who is imported from Germany to be the bride of the heir apparent. The story evolves as she tries to serve both mistresses, who have opposing schemes and objectives. Fascinating and intricate as a Byzantine screen, The Winter Palace carries one into what is essentially a cold world, jeweled but deadly, all the deaths and betrayals perfumed over and hidden under the courtly graces and uncourtly appetites. The only love that rules is the lust for power, the only love that survives is that of Varvara for her child. This is not a book for a quick read, but for savoring. Highly recommended.
tvordj on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The title of the book implies that the book is about Catherine the Great and it is sort of. Mainly it's about Barbara (or Varvera as the Russian equivalent of her Polish name) who was a bookbinder's daughter and ended up in the palace at St. Petersburg in the 18th century court of Empress Elizabeth and later, Catherine in St. Petersburg.She is used as a "tongue" or spy for the Chancellor to pass on information about what happens in both women's courts to the chancellor. She makes friends with Catherine before she is queen/Empress, married to the childish and spoiled Peter III. The book gives a good idea of what court life is like, too. There is intrigue, plotting, secret lovers, and tragedy.Varvera is married to an Imperial guard and has a daughter of her own and the point of view sometimes comes away from the court and focuses on her life on her own. It's an interesting book as long as you don't expect to get a deep insight into Catherine the Great, even if it is a fictionalized account.
Laurenbdavis on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
3.5 stars really. I enjoyed it, and it captured the decadence and intrigue of the Russian court, but I didn't care about Catherine as much as I ought to and found it a bit overlong and repetitive. Still, for fans of the genre and the period, there is much to admire.
JanaRose1 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Stachniak presents a look into the Russian court of Empress Elizabeth and Catherine the Great told by Varvara, an orphaned ward of the court. Varvara, at first doomed to work away her life in servitude becomes a skilled spy for first Elizabeth and then the young Catherine. The majority of the book occurs when Catherine is first brought to Russia as a potential bride for the Empress's nephew. Once married, the royal couple fails to produce an heir until Catherine begins having a series of affairs.I enjoyed this book however; I felt that it was a bit too long. The plot seemed to suffer from the length. The characters were well constructed and appeared realistic. Varvara's role seemed interesting, but became a bit mundane as the book dragged on. I wish that the book was centered more on Catherine's later life, after she took the throne. Perhaps a sequel will be forthcoming.
lilkim714 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A fabulous book that opens the eyes of the reader to the court of Russia and the life of Catherine the Great before she became the great Empress she is remembered for in history. I havent read a lot of Russian historical fiction, but this author has left me begging for more. I noticed that this author will be writing another book about Catherine the Great and I must make sure I pick that one up too. This book is filled with twists and turns, surprises and intrigue. This book definitely will not disappoint historical fiction fans.
goldnyght on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The only reason I didn't give this book 5 stars is because it was from a second-hand perspective. When I read history, fiction or otherwise, I like it to be told from the perspective of the main players. (In other words, personal preferences have lowered my rating)That said, this is an extremely well written and engaging book. Just don't expect to be totally focused on Catherine.
containedobsession on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
While I am a huge fan of historical fiction, I generally stay away from books about royals. I prefer books written from a regular person's perspective. The Winter Palace is one of the best books about royalty that I have read. Since it's written from Barbara the spy's perspective, you also see the disparities in the lives of regular people and the privileged. Details about St. Petersburg and Russian life are rich and immediate. The story centers around a young girl, Barbara (or Varvara in Russian) and her lonely life in the Russian court of Empress Elizabeth, Peter the Great's daughter. As an orphan, she has no one to support her as she works as a seamstress in the court. Her life of drudgery changes when she catches the eye of a smarmy Chancellor, who trains her to be the Empress's spy. As Barbara matures and proves to be an excellent spy, the story follows the arrival of a young princess to the court who grows up to be Catherine the Great.I know shamefully little about Russian history. In that sense the book filled in a few gaps. The only quibble I have with the book is I was not sure why the guards backed Catherine during the coup. I understood that Peter was kind of weird and too fond of the Prussians but was that the only reason? That part could have been clearer for me.A great book and highly recommended--I am looking forward to the writer's next book.
historicalreader on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed this book,the friendship of Barbara and Catherine was fasicanting it wasa fast pace read for me the character of Barbara kept me interested in the story but I just wish there was more of Catherine in the story. Lots of twists and an turns to keep you turning the page. The development of the friend ship between Sophie and Barbara was one of my favorite parts of the story . This book just draws you to another time in Russia and you just dont want to leave until that last page of the book.
4fish on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Before she was Catherine the Great, she was Princess Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst, a poverty-stricken German province. Brought to Russia as the fourteen-year-old bride of Peter, heir to Empress Elizabeth, and re-christened Catherine when she converted from the Lutheran faith to the Orthodox church, she had to negotiate a court full of ambitious nobles, deal with a half-witted husband, and find a way to endear herself to ordinary Russians, who were deeply suspicious of foreign influences. Before she was thirty-five, she'd become Empress of all the Russias, ruling in her own right rather than that of her son. Stachniak tells Catherine's story through Barbara (Varvara in Russian), daughter of a Polish bookbinder, and a spy for Empress Elizabeth and her Chancellor. Barbara falls under Catherine's spell and plays a dangerous double and triple game of spying on both ends against the middle. Vivid characters and poetic sentences make this book a delight to read, while the intrigue and suspense generated by Catherine's rise to power make it a fast read, too.
Kingray on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Outstanding research making the novel seem real
hpelke02 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Eva Stachniak has a smoothly flowing writing style that pulls you right into the story and she leaves no stone unturned for immersing the reader in the period. The people, politics, court happenings, descriptions of palaces, and the Russian landscape are all rendered in great detail. The story is narrated by Varvara, a young girl who comes to live at the court of the Empress Elizabeth after losing her father. At first she has a hard time adjusting to palace life but soon she is taken under the wing of Russian Chancellor Bestuzhev who trains her to function as his spy (or "tongue") and also spy for Elizabeth, the volatile Empress of all the Russias who presides over her court of loose morals chooses Catherine (then Sophie) to be the bride of her nephew and heir Peter.While the book is titled The Winter Palace: A Novel of Catherine the Great, the story really belongs to Varvara as she narrates her information gathering for Bestuzhev and the Empress. Varvara knows that her position within the palace depends on how much knowledge she can obtain and that failure to please could move her back to a life of poverty. She becomes a close confidant of Sophie/Catherine when she arrives and soon takes to spying for her as well. It is clear that the marriage between Catherine and Peter is not a happy one and as the story continues on we see Catherine subjected to cruelty and ostracism by those around her which fuels her ambitions to take the crown herself. The book is full of court scandals and political intrigues. It is an environment where the characters must learn to adapt of be crushed in the viciousness of it all.I did like this story but at the same time I felt I wasn't getting the full picture with Catherine because we are only seeing the side of her Varvara sees (and I was proven correct on this in the end). The book is a very well researched glimpse of Catherine's unlikely rise to the throne of Russia. The biggest problem for me was that even though the writing was good and I appreciated the amount of detail, the story was really drawn out. There wasn't a whole lot of action occurring throughout and what little there was didn't happen until about the last 75 pages of the book. Also I was under the assumption that with this being "a novel of Catherine the Great" that it would be covering her reign but it stops at the point shortly after she assumes the throne. I do believe the author is writing another book on Catherine though so hopefully we will get the second half of her story there.
Crittercrazyjen on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The Winter Palace is a novel based upon Catherine the Great's rise to the throne of Russia. I say "based upon" and not "about" because Catherine is really not the central character in this particular novel. The protagonist of The Winter Palace is a Polish woman named Barbara (called Varvara by the Russians). Orphaned at a young age, Varvara is brought to the Russian court and ends up serving as a spy for Elizabeth the Empress. When Princess Sophie, who will one day become Catherine the Great, is brought to the court as the intended bride of Elizabeth's heir apparent, Peter, Varvara is commanded to spy on the young princess. Against her better judgement, Varvara soon becomes attached to Princess Sophie, now renamed Catherine, and what seems to be a deep friendship blossoms. Varvara devotes herself to doing what she can to ensure Catherine's survival at the tumultuous Russian court and her eventual rise to the throne. Although it was an intriguing and captivating novel, I was a bit disappointed that Catherine herself was not a more central character. Overall, I would give The Winter Palace 4 stars. I recommend it to anyone interested in the Russian Court.
TheLostEntwife on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is quite the story.I'm always a big fan of books about royals which are told from the point of view of someone who's been placed near them. While it's interesting if the author can capture the actual royal voice, more often than not I find that the technique used by Stachniak in The Winter Palace is a better one to use.So I knew little to nothing about Catherine the Great before picking up this book - as most of my reading about Kings and Queens has been focused on England - but holy cow, I think now I'll be checking more into Russian history. I was thoroughly charmed by this book and caught up in so much drama - because it had it in abundance!Stachniak's writing is strong, and she really creates the scene well. I felt as if I was being whisked away, and along with Sophia, felt so much sympathy for Varvara - while also SO much respect for Elizabeth, because that Queen, I'm tellin' ya, she's got a story as well.Highly recommend for historical fiction fans.
allisonmacias on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The Winter Palace is a lush story of the Russian Court set in the life of Catherine the Great. Catherine, then German Princess Sophie, arrives at the Russian Court to meet Empress Elizabeth and Grand Duke Peter. Elizabeth arranges the marriage between Sophie and Peter with an iron fist. Sophie, now Catherine, faces many challenges before she marries the Grand Duke. Catherine is subjected to Elizabeth¿s changing opinions and suspicions. Varvara, a book binder¿s daughter is taken into the palace around the same time. She rises through the ranks from lowly seamstress to a spying maid. Varvara befriends Catherine and becomes her tongue. But Varvara must not forget who made her and who can take away all she worked for.The Winter Palace is an intriguing novel of Imperial Russia. Varvara was a very sympathetic character. She is used by all around her, but constantly gives. Her life story was very interesting, and provided its own twists and turns without over complicating Catherine¿s story. I was astonished at the hardness in certain characters, but it made for a great novel. Varvara precariously navigates court life. This novel is fast paced and wonderfully detailed. Stachniak¿s research produces a wonderfully accurate portrait. The action is nail biting and kept me turning pages. I felt like I was walking the tight rope!
Christiana5 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An entertaining novel, although the title is somewhat misleading. While Catherine the Great does feature as a major character, this book is the story of Varvara (Barbara), a young teen who becomes a spy for Empress Elizabeth and her Chancellor. She "befriends" the Grand Duchess Catherine and spies for her as well. However, the story ends shortly after Catherine seizes the throne of Russia. Nonetheless, an interesting story of the dangers of court life, spying, and having divided loyalties, as well as the potential rewards. The history of the major players is accurate, despite this being a work of fiction. The author is working on another book about Catherine, which I hope will continue the story where this leaves off. It also made me want to learn more about this time period. A worthwhile read.