1. The novel starts with a quotation from a letter the future
Catherine the Great wrote to the British Ambassador, Sir
Hanbury-Williams: Three people who never leave her room, and
who do not know about one another, inform me of what is going on,
and will not fail to acquaint me when the crucial moment
What does this sentence tell us about the future empress of
2. Varvara is an immigrant to Russia. She is an outsider in many
other ways, a tradesman's daughter among aristocrats, a Roman
Catholic among Orthodox Christians, a Polish wife of a Russian
officer. How does she cope with the need to belong? How much is she
willing to sacrifice for a sense of home?
3. Catherine too is an immigrant. In 17th century Russia, keen
on developing its national identity, her Prussian blood is suspect.
How does Catherine cope with xenophobia? How does she use it to her
4. Much of the novel is about power. The characters crave it,
gain it, lose it. How are the principal women characters: Varvara,
Catherine, and Elizabeth defined by their understanding of what
power is? What in their background made them think that their
definition of power is the right one?
And what do men in the novel think of power? Powerful women? Their
role in a country ruled by a woman?
5. Why is power so important to these three women? What do they
wish to do with it? How much are they willing to sacrifice for it?
And, when they finally have it, what do they actually do?
6. Motherhood is another pivotal issue in the novel. Elizabeth
wishes to be a surrogate mother to her nephew, Peter, and later to
Catherine's son Paul. Catherine and Varvara give birth to their own
children. What does motherhood mean to each of them? How does it
transform them? Why?
7. Darya and Paul are two children whose births we witness in
the novel. How does their childhood differ? What is expected of
them? What emotional future do envisage for them and why?
8. Love, lust and marriage are always present at the Winter
Palace. How do the three principal characters, Varvara, Catherine
and Elizabeth, understand them? How do they use love, lust,
and marriage to further their own needs? Why?
9. The Russian court is the backdrop of the novel. Historical
sources confirm that spying was ubiquitous there. How does being a
spy affect Varvara? How does having spies affect Elizabeth and
Catherine? How does being watched affect the lives of the
10. Loyalty is another important theme in The Winter
Palace-national, political, personal. How does each
of the three main characters define loyalty? How does this
definition affect their actions?
11. Peter the Great has transformed Russia. Is his presence felt
in the novel? In what ways? What is your sense of Russia under
Elizabeth and later under Catherine? Why does the country feel
snubbed by the rest of Europe? How do Catherine and Elizabeth play
to this sense of rejection? What are their visions for Russia? Do
they really differ that much?
12. Toward the end of the novel Catherine decides to reassess
her own needs as an empress and her obligations as a friend and
lover. Is she justified in this decision? How does she do it? What
are Varvara's expectations of their friendship and what is
Catherine's assessment of it?
13. The novel ends when the reign of Catherine II has just
begun. How much has Catherine sacrificed for her position? Is it
possible to predict from her behavior as Grand Duchess what kind of
a ruler is she going to be? What are her best qualities? Her
14. Varvara leaves Catherine's court. In the last chapter of the
novel she meets one of Catherine's former lovers, recently elected
the king of Poland. What are Varvara's feelings about Stanislaw's
prospects? What does she fear? Why?
15. The novel ends with the image of Varvara beginning to tell
Darya the story of her life in Russia. How much do you think she
will tell her child? What will she keep to herself? Why?