Novel details intrigues of Catherine the Great

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 25, 2012

“The Winter Place,” by Eva Stachniak. Bantam Books. 2012. $26. 440 pp.
By Arthur Steinberg
For the Salisbury Post
SALISBURY — “The Winter Palace” is a novel about the Russian Court of Peter the Great’s successor, Catherine I, and her need to perpetuate the Romanov dynasty — a dynasty lasting until 1917 and the second Russian Revolution.
Born in Poland, Eva Stachniak immigrated to Canada, working at Sheridan College and Radio Canada International.
Readers may question the atmosphere of the Russian Court and how Sophia evolves into Catherine the Great. Since the work is fiction, the author’s narrative permits the reader to enjoy a marvelous story based on history, void of academic restraints. However, Robert K. Masse’s wonderful rendition, “Catherine the Great,” provides the biography, footnotes and index lacking in Stachniak’s work of fiction.
Tsarina Elizabeth searches European royalty and finds Sophia Augusta Fredericka, a German princess of Anhalt-Zerbst, a small, fragmented piece of Germany. While her father objects to her going to Russia to marry the duke, her mother encourages her to enter the Russian Royal Court; her mother — Elizabeth Johanna, princess of Holstein-Gottrop. The novel describes numerous conflicts between Johanna, Sophia and the Tsarina Elizabeth.
Masse’s historic rendition, like Stachniak’s, traces Sophia’s journey and her travels through the imperial court including being forced to spy for the vice chancellor, Bestuzhev-Ryumin, who attempts to control foreign policy. During periods of conflict she asks to return to Germany and her family, but the anger passes. Her mother, before being dismissed, is instrumental in keeping Sophia in Russia. And despite her father’s wishes, she converts from Lutheranism to Russian Orthodoxy, joining the church and becoming head of church and state. Aware she cannot rule in German, she learns Russian and studies Russian culture.
Peter the Great is unable to sire a child, despite all attempts. The book describes his psychological and emotional state and how painful the marriage is to Duchess Sophia; the duke, Peter, plays with toy soldiers dressed in Prussian military uniforms, alienating the pro-Austrian court. His lack of desire to cooperate with Sophia in producing an heir to the throne causes consternation and Sophia is compelled to take some unusual steps. This lack of a Romanov successor is the driving force for the angst and its resolution is the central theme of the novel.
Sophia eventually has three children, but no one is certain as to paternity. Elizabeth takes control or possession of the children, and Sophia is denied the bond of mother and child, which will plague her later in life.
However, there is a sub-theme. The first is Ivan IV, who is condemned to confinement; he assumed the throne at 2 months of age and Elizabeth overthrew him. He was confined to Schlusselburg Fortress. The allegation was he was not mentally stable and therefore a danger to the Romanov Dynasty. He was placed under 24-hour guard and provided with toys, but no reading materials with which to exercise his mind. Catherine lived in the fear of his being freed to retake the crown.
The Tsarina, Elizabeth and Catherine II didn’t wish to dilute her royal authority, but had human desires. We are introduced to several men of all classes with whom they had relationships. Many reasons for the failure of Catherine II’s encounters are given; at the end of the affair, she endows most of her lovers with an estate and pension for life.
As a result, her emotional and psychological state rises and falls as the waves in the Neva. Since Sophia (Catherine II) experienced alienation and isolation during much of her time in court, she studied Russian, corresponded with members of the Enlightenment in France and several journeyed to Russia as her guest. As she evolves emotionally and intellectually from a German princess to a Russian duchess and empress, her mindset finds her new home’s geopolitical, political and intellectual interests. Her conviction for Russia led to the overthrow of Elizabeth and her Orthodox installation on the throne with the help of the palace guards and the Orlov family, one of whom who was her prime lover. Masse’s work carries one from the point of her inauguration as empress of all the Russian Empire.
The book is excellent reading.