The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak

The Winter Palace

byEva Stachniak

Paperback | January 3, 2012

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Behind every great ruler lies a betrayal. Eva Stachniak's novel sweeps readers into the passionate, intimate, and treacherous world of Catherine the Great, revealing Russia's greatest matriarch from her earliest days in court, where the most valuable currency was the secrets of nobility and the most dangerous weapon to wield was ambition.
 
Two young women, caught in the landscape of shifting allegiances, navigate the treacherous waters of palace intrigue. Barbara is a servant who will become one of Russia's most cunning royal spies. Sophia is a pretty, naive German duchess who will become Catherine the Great. For readers of superb historical fiction, Eva Stachniak captures in glorious detail the opulence of royalty and the perilous loyalties of the Russian court.

About The Author

EVA STACHNIAK was born in Wroclaw, Poland. She came 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 Amazon.com/Books in Canad...
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Details & Specs

Title:The Winter PalaceFormat:PaperbackDimensions:464 pages, 9.21 × 6.35 × 1.27 inPublished:January 3, 2012Publisher:Doubleday CanadaLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:038566656X

ISBN - 13:9780385666565

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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 fiance 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.

Bookclub Guide

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 arrives. What does this sentence tell us about the future empress of Russia?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 advantage?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 courtiers?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 worst?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?

Editorial Reviews

“The Winter Palace is indeed as gorgeous, opulent and lush as its titular location.” —National Post “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 a deft entertainment.” —The Washington Post “[B]rilliant, bold . . . This superb biographical epic proves the Tudors don’t have a monopoly on marital scandal, royal intrigue, or feminine triumph.” —Booklist“Eva Stachniak's new novel should establish her as a pre-eminent writer of historical fiction. ... The Winter Palace is seamless in its depiction of a place and time…. what Stachniak has given us is not history, but a dramatic recreation of what the witnesses to history actually manage to see and do.”—Quill & Quire“Stachniak captures dramatic moments with flair, and the Russian Imperial court—with its fox-fur blankets, gilded furniture, and carafes of cherry vodka—appears in glorious splendor. This superb biographical epic proves the Tudors don’t have a monopoly on marital scandal, royal intrigue, or feminine triumph.” —Booklist “Stachniak sets the scene extravagantly with details of sumptuous meals, elaborate wardrobes, and cunning palace politics. Longtime readers of English and French historical novels will delight in this relatively unsung dynasty and the familiar hallmarks of courtly intrigue.” —Library Journal “In The Winter Palace, Stachniak creates a story filled with political intrigue, secret affairs and dread diseases. . . . Stachniak has faithfully reproduced the historical story of Catherine.” —Vancouver Sun“Rich in detail, filled with vivid characters, recounted in seamless prose, The Winter Palace follows the suspenseful journey of two forceful young women--Varvara, the ‘tongue’ whose task it is to spy on a penniless young princess from Germany brought to court to provide a heir for Mother Russia, and Catherine, groomed to become the future wife of the next Czar, the socially clumsy and dull Peter. The Winter Palace is as luminescent as a Fabergé egg, as salty as caviar and as heady as vodka. Eva Stachniak has re-created an absolutely believable world of the Russian Imperial Court and the character of the young Catherine, the ambitious, ill-used, manipulated girl who became one of the greatest female monarchs the world has ever seen. This book will grab you by the throat on page one and not let you go until the last page.  The characters will stay with you forever.” —Roberta Rich, author of The Midwife of Venice “The Winter Palace evokes the dark, glittering world of the Russian court. I loved my reader’s place behind the eyes of the servant girl Varvara, engaged in her perilous role as confidante to the young Catherine the Great. Rich with fascinating details of St. Petersburg, Eva Stachniak’s novel is an illuminating lesson and a delicious read.”—Beth Powning, author of The Sea Captain’s Wife “Spies and lovers lurk everywhere, while brilliantly bedecked royals indulge their every whim.” —Publishers Weekly “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 “A wonderful tale of the Imperial Russia court in all its glittering glory.  Eva Stachniak vividly brings to life the early years of the meek young bride who would become the terrifying fascinating Catherine the Great.”  —Kate Williams, author of England’s Mistress and Becoming Queen “Fantastic, bold, colourful, assured and wonderful writing - and what a story! An outstanding book, magical, beautiful with writing as crisp and fine and breathtaking as a Russian winter.”   —Manda Scott, author of the Boudica trilogy “Covering the twenty years that turned Catherine the Great from a young bride on approval to the legendary Empress of Russia, Eva Stachniak’s novel gives a magical insight into the hopes and fears that haunted the corridors of the St. Petersburg palace.  It brings alive the very tastes and textures of the mid-eighteenth century.” —Sarah Gristwood, author of The Girl in the Mirror “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 “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 "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 “This is 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, author of The Golden Tulip “The Winter Palace is an intensely written, intensely felt saga of the early years that shaped the 18th 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