Book Talk: Maid's tale of Catherine the Great

Before Catherine the Great became a powerful Russian ruler, she was a naive German princess invited to court in St Petersburg by her aunt, the Empress Elizabeth.

January 12, 2012 / 07:29 PM IST

Before Catherine the Great became a powerful Russian ruler, she was a naive German princess invited to court in St Petersburg by her aunt, the Empress Elizabeth.

Catherine's early intrigues, her affairs, and her rise to power are narrated by servant and spy Varvara in "The Winter Palace" by Eva Stachniak, in the first of two books on the subject.

Stachniak, who came to Canada from Poland at 29, spoke about Catherine, who she feels has been misjudged by history.

Q: What is Catherine's appeal to you?

A: "I think that first of all, she is a very powerful woman. She's also a wonderful example of someone who, as an immigrant, is able to blend into another culture and make it her own and flourish in it. Because I'm an immigrant myself, I'm always fascinated by people who are able to shed one culture, enough to get into the skin of another, and function in another language.

"I grew up in Poland, where Catherine was always present. She was the Russian Czarina who destroyed Poland, basically. So she was always there, you always felt her presence. She was not very much liked, and so for me that was another very interesting challenge. As a writer, I love going into my Polish prejudices and shattering them."

Q: Was she different when seen from the outside?

A: "For me, I had to break through a sense of an evil empress, who was able to rule and fool everybody. That was the kind of press she had in Poland, that she was able to fool the West, present an enlightened facade and in fact ruled Russia the way Stalin ruled Russia. But when I started looking at her from the outside I realized she was far more complicated. Yes, of course, she had to rule Russia, and she was not able to rule Russia the way she wanted to. She wanted to tackle serfdom, and legislation, she wanted a lot of reforms, she called herself a republican. She was not a hypocrite. But she was a very pragmatic politician."

Q: There's a rush of Catherine books these days. Do you think there's something about her that speaks to us now?

A: "I have seen a surge of interest in Russia, and part of it may be the changes in Russia, that Russia is just this incredible power, a giant country that is always unstable, and we watch it with fear, and hope, and with great interest.

"Why Catherine? Maybe because, out of all the Russian rulers -- when you think of the czars after her -- she shines. Maybe with her faults and her mistakes, she's still one of the best rulers that Russia has had. After her, the Romanovs really disintegrated, and the revolution, and then more disasters."

Q: Have you seen changes in how Catherine is viewed?

A: "What I see is more and more interest in her as a woman, and it's really no coincidence that the latest biography is called 'Portrait of a Woman.' I see at least a little bit more understanding of her sexuality. I don't deal with it in the first novel, I will deal with it, very much, in the second. Later on, Catherine will have, shall we say, a very unconventional sexual life, and I don't think that the earlier biographers had much of an understanding of it. The more we go to contemporary biographies, there is more of a sense of well, she did it, and that's all right."

Q: What was hard about this book, what was easy?

A: "The easy part, surprisingly, was Varvara's voice, because it just came to me. I was thinking about this book and thinking about Catherine all the time, and getting ready to write about her, when suddenly I heard this woman speaking to me. I sat down and started writing what she was telling me. That had never happened to me before, the other novels that I wrote there was never that sort of sense of someone grabbing my pen and dictating the novel -- and taking initiative, because I never planned to write a novel in the first person.

"What was difficult, I think, was to find a fair balance between these three incredibly strong women characters in the novel. Because there's not only Varvara and Catherine, there is also Elizabeth, the empress who brought Catherine over from Germany, the daughter of Peter the Great, a sensuous woman."

Q: Do you usually emphasize character, setting or plot?

A: "I think setting's extremely important, I cannot start to write before I can see my characters in the spaces. I had to go to St. Petersburg and I had to walk through the Nevsky Prospekt and along the embankment, I had to see the sun and I had to experience the White Nights. I could imagine the winter in St. Petersburg -- I live in Canada, it isn't too hard. But I couldn't imagine the White Nights. I wanted to see what effect it would have on me physically.

"It would probably save me a lot of time if I could sit down and plan everything out and then start writing. But I like to play with the character and let the character live in the space I create, and then watch that character and listen, and see where it takes me. Once I have the setting and do the research and know what I'm writing about, I like to start with a character and let the character tell me what really happened. So it's almost like remembering back, rather than creating a plot."

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