Moving from 1744 to 1765, Stachniak intricately melds fact into authentic period detail, unfolding the turbulent and passionate early life of Russia‘s Catherine the Great through the eyes and ears of Varvara Nikolayev, the young daughter of a bookbinder. At sixteen and stripped of illusions, rosy-cheeked Varvara is one of the “countless, nameless girls in the Empire of the East.”
Aware that Empress Elizabeth needs beautiful and clever girls to serve her every need, Varvara is eventually taken in as a parlor maid at the vast Winter Palace.
The imposing, ancient edifice stands grand and tall in this new capital of Russia, a city built in defiance of the unruly waves of the Neva and the ruthless darkness of the
Northern winters. Forced to find a home in the servant’s quarters amid mice and the Empresses’ vast array of cats, Varvara’s prayers are answered when she
is discovered by ruthless Count Bestuzhev, the Chancellor of Russia.
Among small, forgotten rooms and dim oak-paneled chambers, Bestuzhev trains Varvara in the art of keeping secrets, telling his muse of “godless people” who plot against the Empress, while those who are cunning and shrewd know how to bury their thoughts in false professions of friendship and loyalty. Varvara strives to please, settling into court life while clues drop like fairy-tale bread
crumbs around her. Sometimes they whisper; sometimes they switch languages amid poisonous, hushed voices heard in the kitchen alcove or out in the garden with its flimsy fence: “There is to this place more important stories, only you must know where to look.”
Varvara hears the furtive whisperings of a poor, half-witted orphan Crown Prince deprived of his mother’s love and of an Empress who likes to be flattered and desired but is
ever afraid of assassins' daggers. Although the chancellor refuses to hide his irritation at the ineffectual ways of the Crown Prince, “the world was not a plaything of Dukes.”
The old palace game demands a constant shifting of alliances.
Against this turbulent political environment, the author focuses on the Empress’s desperation to perpetuate the blood of the Romanovs. It’s not surprising that Elizabeth’s penchant for marrying her nephew to Princess Sophie Anhalt-Zerbst is remarked as rather strange by the Palace’s political and military class. But Russia needs an alliance with Saxony or Austria, because the Prussian King is getting too strong.
Although the story is bit weighed down by a surplus of characters, the dramas unfold in a world characterized by excess and the lust and glitter of privilege. Forced into a cold,
sexless marriage with Peter, Catherine is in danger of being defeated by his
unkindness and by the Empress’s selfish whims. Catherine is summarily ignored by
her aunt, thrown into a weary, solitary exile. In the end, her only knowledge of her young son comes from the clandestine missives of Varvara, her best friend.
From the magic of two-sided mirrors to hidden spying holes, a daughter turns imperial tongues and two figures will the future to bend to their own grandiose wishes. So wrapped up was I in the lives of Varvara and Catherine that it was almost as if I had been caught up in the treacherous
years of the Winter Palace and its choking grip of secrecy and revenge.