Varvara Nikolayevna, the orphaned daughter of a immigrant bookbinder, is taken in by the Russian court to serve the royal seamstress. After Empress Elizabeth's closest advisers realize the girl can read and speak several languages, she is given another, secret job. Varvara is to become a spy for the empress, revealing all she sees and hears in the palace, in return for serving Grand Duke Peter.
When the Lutheran Sophie arrives at the Winter Palace, rumor has it that the young princess is meant to marry the grand duke. To help Empress Elizabeth decide on the betrothal, Varvara is ordered to befriend Sophie and show her the ways of the Russian court--and to report her every movement to the empress. As Varvara gets to know the future Catherine the Great, she begins to have torn loyalties, putting her own life and future in jeopardy.
Eva Stachniak's The Winter Palace is a very well researched historical novel of the rise of Catherine the Great from guest of the royal court to her seizure of the Russian throne. The story itself is told through the eyes of a servant girl, who is at times an unwilling participant and at others an active manipulator of the affairs of the court.
It's Varvara's insider/outsider perspective that makes The Winter Palace shine. The girl is privy to inner workings of the palace, and she knows how to uncover the most guarded secrets. Varvara sees all and reports what she must her to various masters, while also acting in her own best interests.
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. . . . Every word you say may be repeated and used against you. Every friend you trust may betray you. (p. 6)Stachniak's subject--the story of Catherine's rise to power--is an exciting one all on its own, as was made clear by recent the Massie biography. Still, the novel brings a freshness to Catherine's transformation from minor nobility to Russian empress and manages to do so without twisting the facts in any glaring way. It's important, however, to remember that The Winter Palace is a novel with Varvara at its hub and the workings of the Russian court as its arena.
Varvara is a likeable witness, and readers will be as taken up in her life as they are in Catherine's. The Winter Palace will appeal to readers just getting to know about Russian history in the years of Elizabeth's reign. For those who are already familiar with Catherine's rise to power, the novel will flesh out the facts, providing a more personal perspective.
These links lead to affiliate programs.