The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak is an excellent, absorbing historical novel that captures the rise of Catherine the Great.
Barbara (Varvara) Nikoleyeva is the daughter of a Polish bookbinder who takes his family to St. Petersburg hoping for opportunity. It is the years of the reign of Empress Elizabeth, the daugher of Peter the Great, who has wrested the empire from her nephew, the rightful heir, Ivan, and placed him in prison. Years ago, Varvara’s father had bound a badly damaged book owned by Elizabeth, and Varvara’s mother, an artistocrat who has married beneath her, urges him to draw himself to the Empress’s attention. The family’s move is a success until both Varvara’s parents die, and as a young woman she begs a place at court from Elizabeth.
The court is full of secret passages and peepholes. Nothing is private, and many people are paid to listen, poke through others’ belongings, and inform. Varvara finds herself employed as a spy, or nose, for the Chancellor Bestuchev. She does not wish for this position but finds it a way to keep favor, as in the volatile atmosphere of the court, one needs to keep in with the right people. Even the position of princes and princesses can be precarious, and Varvara has no social status.
Varvara is new to court when the Empress imports Sophia Anhalt-Zerst to consider her as a possible bride for her heir, the childish Peter Fyodorovich. Varvara’s sympathies are caught immediately as she watches Sophia navigate the treacherous shoals of the temperamental Empress, Sophia’s own selfish and conniving mother, and the foolish Peter. Despite her mother’s plotting, which almost gets her thrown out of the country, Sophia converts to Russian orthodoxy, taking the name of Catherine, and eventually marries Peter.
Varbara becomes close to Catherine and supports her even as she is ignored and then cruelly treated by her husband and loses her status with the Empress and the court when, because of Peter’s impotence, she fails to conceive.
The life of the Russian court is vividly depicted in this enthralling novel, where Catherine’s rise to power is paralleled by the building of the magnificent Winter Palace.