The Winter Palace (2011)

By: Ewa Stachniak
Published by: Doubleday

When Vavara, a young Polish orphan, arrives at the glittering, dangerous court of the Empress Elizabeth in St Petersburg, she is schooled in skills ranging from lock-picking to love-making, learning above all else to stay silent – and listen. 

Then Sophie, a vulnerable young princess, arrives from Prussia as a prospective bride for the Empress’s heir. Set to spy on her, Vavara soon becomes her friend and confidante, and helps her navigate the illicit liaisons and the treacherous shifting allegiances of the court. But Sophie’s destiny is to become the notorious Catherine the Great. Are her ambitions more lofty and far-reaching than anyone suspected, and will she stop at nothing to achieve absolute power?

Bursting with dazzling period detail on life at court – the fashions, the food and the décor – this tale of passion, betrayal and revenge shows how the legend of Catherine the Great was born, and gives an irresistible peek through the keyhole at one fo history’s most turbulent and seductive dramas.

(NB Stachniak writes in English; the Polish edition, Gra o władze, is a translation.)

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Zielony Balonik book club notes:

Everyone more or less enjoyed the book, so we talked about the characters and the setting and the period, rather than arguing about its literary merits.

Zenon preferred it to Wolf Hall, which he felt got bogged down in detail. If Varvara is such a good spy / tongue, why doesn’t she notice or sense that there are other tongues around? To what extent is she a victim, groomed by the Chancellor? Not greatly, I’d say, she seems to act with her eyes open. She is more comfortable under Elizabeth, as she knows her place, understands the politics – when Catherine takes over she loses control, though in theory she is closer to her.

Grazyna had the paperback edition, which includes at the back ‘Questions for reading groups’ – she read out one or two, including one on ‘motherhood’.

In Poland today Poniatowsky (Stanislav) is well thought of culturally, but was politically weak. The contrast between Sophie (later Catherine) and Peter is that she adapts to Russia, while he holds onto his (German) past. It struck me that Stanislav’s habit of still calling her Sophie is a mark of how he fails to understand how she’s changed. Catherine learns Russian, and converts to the Orthodox faith; is clever in her choice of ministers – divide and rule. But we don’t see her learning process – as Varvara is essentially blind to it – so it’s hard then to understand how she takes the throne and (projecting ahead, beyond the novel) retains it. I suggested her ‘negative capability’ – she is simply less insensitive, or stupid, than Peter, and draws people to her that way, as much as for any of her own qualities.

Elizabeth is ‘vain and indolent’ (wikipedia) but knows how to hold onto power – partly by her manipulation of the spectacle of power (in which vanity and indolence may be conscious strategies). The army is disorganised but (as Stalin said later) has more or less limitless numbers.

One comment on “The Winter Palace”

  1. (Notes made before the meeting.)
    I know little about the period, so there was an enjoyable level of tension, of unknowingness, as to when and how Elizabeth’s reign would end, and Catherine’s begin. And I don’t know to what extent Barbara / Varvara’s retreat at the end will work – when the partition of Poland begins, and how long Stanislav remains on the throne.
    She is a slightly odd narrative voice, more humble than her involvement with those at the top suggests, and seemingly uncorrupted, or incorruptible – her moment of realisation that she is not Catherine’s only ‘tongue’ is rather undramatic, as it’s been flagged up by the epigraph right at the start. I suppose it’s attempting the balancing act Stevenson pulls off so well in Kidnapped and Treasure Island, of a narrator looking back and telling a tale of their earlier life, while in the telling the actions are purely in the present, and not coloured by foreknowledge of what’s to come. Here there’s no explicit suggestion of that older narrator, but it’s always the implicit perspective.
    Perhaps Varvara’s naïvety is clearer to someone with a greater knowledge of the times, and Catherine’s reign. For all of Elizabeth’s extravagances, she keeps a lid on rivalries – and then within a year of her death, two potential Tsars are murdered. (What became of Paul?) I did get a sense of the importance of the person of the monarch / empress, and the (vast) extent of her authority. The secrecies seem like those of any other society, until Varvara remarks on how different the situation is in Warsaw – but there’s no consideration of why things are so secretive in St Petersburg, and how things might be by comparison at courts in, say, Prussia, Austria, or France. Poor Poland never gets a mention in the politics (of war) – it seems to be a negligible player, despite Varvara’s hopes for her country under Stanislav, and with Catherine’s support – if anything it seems to be part of Saxony, which is defeated by the Prussians – so perhaps this is all self-delusion on Varvara’s part?

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