The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak
First line: The spies you learn about are either those who get exposed or those who reveal themselves.
From the back cover: 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 loftier, more dangerous ambitions.
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.
My thoughts: Ever since having to write a paper on her in a college history class, I've been intrigued by Catherine the Great. Sadly, though, I haven't read much about her since then, so you can imagine my excitement when last year, there were a few books released about her.
The Winter Palace tells the story of Catherine the Great's rise to power. But it's the point of view that, in my mind, makes the story. It's told from the perspective of Varvara Nikolayevna, a young Polish orphan who is put in Empress Elizabeth's care after her father dies. Trained
as a spy for Elizabeth, Varvara's viewpoint allows us to
witness not just the story of how Princess Sophie became Empress
Catherine; it also shows us much of the reign of Empress Elizabeth and
the Russian court in the eighteenth century.
Fiercely loyal to Sophie while still faithfully
serving the Empress Elizabeth, Varvara is used by both of her mistresses,
and other monarchs of the court to their own selfish means. She must
use her wits and skills that she hones over years of service to the
royals to stay afloat in a world of intrigue and ever increasing
The Winter Palace is a mesmerizing read of the friendship that develops between two outsiders of the Russian court, one who later goes on to rule. As far as being a book about Catherine the Great, it details the seventeen years during which
Sophie waited and learned all she could in order to prepare herself for
taking the throne. We also see how she endured tremendous hardship in her personal
life, having everybody who she loved taken away from her. Her first and second-born children were taken from her at birth before she even had a chance to hold them, and others died before they even reached a year.
I enjoyed this book and while sadly I admit that I do not know too much about Russian history, I am left wanting to read more. I want to read more about Empress Elizabeth and certainly more about Catherine the Great's reign. I will definitely be keeping my eyes out for Eva Stachniak's next book, The Empire of Night, which is going to be told from Catherine the Great's perspective and will cover her whole life, focusing on her 34 years in power.
Have you read anything about either Catherine the Great or Empress Elizabeth?
(I purchased this book.)
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