Intrigue at The Winter Palace

First aired on North by Northwest (17/03/12)

catherine-great.jpgCatherine the Great came to Russia as a young German princess and in a relatively short span of time emerged as one of the most powerful monarchs in history. Author Eva Stachniak tells the empress's story in her bestselling novel, The Winter Palace.

Stachniak joined North by Northwest host Sheryl MacKay for the program's Studio One Book Club, which takes place in front of a live studio audience, to talk about her novel and the controversial historical figure who inspired it.

The session began with Stachniak reading a passage from the book that vividly conveys the atmosphere of intrigue and secrecy that permeated the Russian court. In fact, the novel is written from the point of view of a spy working against Elizabeth, the current empress.

Asked about her choice of narrator, Stachniak explained that in the course of her historical research she encountered many characters. "I was trying to find my way into the story and then I came across a letter that she which Catherine says she has three spies in the bedroom of the current empress, and that the three spies do not know of each other, and that they report to her, and will definitely tell her if anything happens." The letter made Stachniak wonder who the three spies could be. Though she readily identified one (Princess Dashkoff, a young aristocrat friend of Catherine) but the other two had her stumped.

Then her own imagination furnished an answer. "I started hearing voices and that voice was Barbara's voice, and she told me at first that she was Polish, so I felt very comforted by that (Stachniak is of Polish descent.)

"A spy is a marvelous narrator," Stachniak said. "The spy is naturally someone hiding behind, in the corridors. So I trusted her, and she became my eyes and ears, and I followed her into the corridors of the palace."

In part, the book is about an intimate female friendship. Stachniak said that she was Interested in "what power does to friendship and what success does to friendships."

Stachniak said had been told by a good friend, "you have to shed friends when you're a politician." She went on to explain: "How would it be, to be a friend shed in the process of getting power. But when you think about it, a politician has to promise many things to different people, and these are often contradictory things, so by the time you actually have the power, you have to say no to people who supported you, believing that that was what you will do."

Stachniak was drawn to the story in part, she said, because Catherine is "a very, very important and controversial figure" in her native Poland. "She is the Czarina who destroyed Poland, who wiped Poland off the map of Europe. You kind of grow up under her shadow."

Did her opinion change in the course of researching the book? "I always start from the premise that I don't want to form my opinion about a character before, no matter who that character is," Stachniak said.

The Winter Palace deals with a youthful Catherine. "She's not yet the powerful empress who destroys Poland. She's just put her former lover to be the king of Poland, she hasn't done anything terrible yet," Stachniak said. "She's full of idealism as well. I think it's easy to like early Catherine, because she's such a plucky and interesting individual."

Stachniak is saving the exploration of Catherine as an empress for her next book. She acknowledged it will be a little harder, but added, "I think that as a writer I have no right to like or dislike a character like that. You know, I have to explore her with an open mind."

She found Catherine's memoirs fascinating. "She's writing in order to create a certain image, political image of her, and to justify the death of her husband, the murder of her she's manipulating the reader," Stachniak explained. "And as a writer, I love that kind of writing because I think that you reveal yourself, you really reveal yourself. She's so blunt about manipulating the reader. She wants us to believe that her husband was an absolute monster, and that she was totally justified in having him murdered, or creating the conditions that led to his murder." According to Stachniak, Catherine's role in his death is murky, but it's clear that "she condoned the murder."

Stachniak sees Catherine as ambitious from an early age. The way for a German princess to advance was by marriage, and at one time she wanted to be the queen of Sweden. She was status-conscious, and she wanted a big country. "She approached it as a really good CEO would," Stachniak said. "Once she took the job on, she was extremely loyal. She was loyal to Russia, and that was an issue, because her husband was actually pushing Russia's policies towards the interests of Prussia."

the winter palace.jpg

The Winter Palace

by Eva Stachniak

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From the publisher:

" "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."..."