Eva Stachniak’s first novel on Catherine the Great, The Winter Palace, was published in 2012. Its successor, Empress of the Night, was just published last month. I’ve always been fascinated by the ways in which writers of historical fiction take figures from the past and introduce their lives and times to modern readers. To mark the ebook publication of Empress of the Night, I’m delighted to host a guest post from Eva Stachniak in which she talks about the figure who has inspired her, the great 18th-century Russian queen Catherine the Great.
In historical accounts she is an immigrant to Russia, a minor Princess of Anhalt-Zerbst chosen to marry the Russian heir to the throne precisely because she was considered weak and without influence. She is a born politician able to build a coalition of friends, supporters, and spies who, in the end, allowed her to overthrow her husband and reach for the crown. She is a pragmatic ruler who managed to reform some of Russia’s institutions and undermine others and continued the vision of Peter the Great. Under her rule, Russia expanded her influence and territory, and ensured her position in 18th century Europe.
There are many excellent biographies of Catherine, which I’ve all read and then re-read as I prepared to write my novels. There are also her own words: from her letters, from her memoirs, plays, books for children, articles she penned for various journals. There are scholarly articles, too. At the Western universities Catherine and her rule have been studied assiduously for years. In Russia, however, her reputation and position have fared less well. After Catherine’s death, motivated by personal grievances, her son and heir tried to do everything to discredit his mother’s reputation. He did not wholly succeed, but his vilifying campaign had its effect on the 19th century Russian scholarship. The Revolution and the creation of the Soviet Union presented new problems. The Communist rulers of Russia made sure Soviet scholarship reflected their policy, which included the rejection and condemnation of Russian imperial tradition. Peter the Great was the only Tsar for whom some public measure of respect was allowed. Catherine the Great and other 18th century Tsarinas had been dismissed as insignificant at best; the 20th century Romanovs were considered criminals deserving to be executed for their crimes. It was only during perestroika that Russian historians were permitted and even encouraged to study Catherine the Great and her reign in a more objective way. We are still awaiting a seminal Russian biography of the last woman on the Russian throne.
Catherine’s ever-changing psychological portrait is more difficult to piece together, but this is where a novel can help. “We quarrel about power, not about love,” Catherine wrote to Grigory Potemkin, the most important man of her life. I thought about these words for a long time, before I was ready to write Empress of the Night. I thought about the intersection between the personal and political, of the sheer impossibility to separate the two, if one is the absolute ruler of All the Russias.
On November 15, 1796, Catherine felt the first pangs of pain, which heralded a massive stroke. In the matter of minutes she was lysing on the floor, paralyzed and speechless, a powerful woman rendered powerless, more vulnerable than when she arrived to Russia from Zerbst at 14. Facing death, she is forced to face the question of her inheritance—not just political but also personal—for when you are Catherine the Great the two are never separate. And when she does, Empress of the Night begins.