Author: Ellen Alpsten
Published: November 10, 2020
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Before there was Catherine the Great, there was Catherine Alexeyevna: the first woman to rule Russia in her own right. Ellen Alpsten’s rich, sweeping debut novel is the story of her rise to power.
St. Petersburg, 1725. Peter the Great lies dying in his magnificent Winter Palace. The weakness and treachery of his only son has driven his father to an appalling act of cruelty and left the empire without an heir. Russia risks falling into chaos. Into the void steps the woman who has been by his side for decades: his second wife, Catherine Alexeyevna, as ambitious, ruthless and passionate as Peter himself.
Born into devastating poverty, Catherine used her extraordinary beauty and shrewd intelligence to ingratiate herself with Peter’s powerful generals, finally seducing the Tsar himself. But even amongst the splendor and opulence of her new life—the lavish feasts, glittering jewels, and candle-lit hours in Peter’s bedchamber—she knows the peril of her position. Peter’s attentions are fickle and his rages powerful; his first wife is condemned to a prison cell, her lover impaled alive in Red Square. And now Catherine faces the ultimate test: can she keep the Tsar’s death a secret as she plays a lethal game to destroy her enemies and take the Crown for herself?
From the sensuous pleasures of a decadent aristocracy, to the incense-filled rites of the Orthodox Church and the terror of Peter’s torture chambers, the intoxicating and dangerous world of Imperial Russia is brought to vivid life. Tsarina is the story of one remarkable woman whose bid for power would transform the Russian Empire.
Russian Delicacies of the Era
Russian cuisine is one of the most colourful and delicious in the world and a sensuous pleasure that plays a VAST role in ‘Tsarina’. If you wake in the morning unsure of seeing the sun set the same day, you better feast the hell out of it one more time! Russian cuisine consists of a myriad of different cooking traditions: Northern and Eastern European, Caucasian, Central Asian, Siberian, and East Asian influences meet and were adapted to suit scant means and a harsh climate. Fish, pork, poultry, caviar, mushrooms, berries, and honey were plentiful, and crops of rye, wheat, barley and millet provided for a plethora of breads, ‘blini’ pancakes, pies , cereals , beer and vodka. Soups and stews are a staple well into the 20th century: easy to prepare and very calorific.
Peter the Great’s Westernization brought more refined culinary techniques, such as smoked meats and fish, pastry cooking, salads and green vegetables, chocolate, ice cream, wines, and juice were imported for ‘creative integration’. Among those were all possible chopped chunks of meat (lamb and pork) with bones, natural beefsteaks, escalope, and entrecotes. Foreign, mostly French, chefs widely used potatoes and tomatoes for side dishes; they also introduced sausages, omelets and compotes or ‘mixed’ foods such as salads, which were unconceivable earlier. Also, in the 18th century the German way of serving bread and a spread as an open sandwich prevailed.
As for drink, cold sour milk and clear water were as much an everyday drink as kwass, a beer like bitter fermented drink made from bread. Vodka, the ‘little water’ was for the wealthy. Again, Peter the Great started importing wine from all over Europe, from France to Tokay in Hungary, and he also loved a cold German beer. No doubt that reading ‘Tsarina’ will give you vast appetite!
What sets this Catherine Apart?
Tsarina is an historic novel, but in our age of female empowerment it feels shockingly contemporary.
Catherine never gives up and overcomes any obstacle. The Italian newspaper ‘La Stampa’ published a glorious review of ‘Tsarina’, pointing out the ‘female condition’ as a strong point of the novel: the plain misery of being born a woman in those days. The reviewer sums ‘Tsarina’s’ attitude up: “Her voice overcomes a fate raging against her.” Thus, in Catherine’s life we witness a milestone in female emancipation and empowerment. It is the ‘ultimate Cinderella story’, as Daisy Goodwin called it, but bears testimony of the strength of the human nature and the absolute will to survive. Every possible card in the world was stacked against her, yet she rose to the most unimaginable height of history. Her short reign of two years was peaceful and prosperous, a rarity in the Russian history, and set the scene for all that was to come – a century of hitherto unprecedented female rule, ending with Catherine The Great, her grand-daughter in law.
I am fascinated with Cinderella stories such as hers, as they speak of the strength of human nature and the will to survive. She was born as Marta, an illegitimate, illiterate daughter of a serf, and lower than the dirt between her toes. Every possible card in the world was stacked against her. But off she went and rose to the most unimaginable height of history: she was the first woman to be a crowned, reigning Empress of Russia, in her time the world’s largest realm. But not only her psychological strength is impressive, her physical condition, too: she bore the Tsar thirteen children only to see most of them die, she travelled with him all over Russia and Central Asia and accompanied him into the field. Even though she accepts his straying and his affairs, and she handles him with care and cunning: Peter the Great and her were lovers, yes, but above all they were great friends. He loved her practical jokes, her courage, and her level headedness. When we look at her portraits today, people might struggle to see her appeal – she is not Cindy Crawford – though her eyes sparkle with mischief and her mouth likes laughing. What else counts? You can make it happen without adhering to a beauty ideal. If a contemporary wrote: ‘She wasn’t beautiful, but as warm as an animal,’ he speaks of her sex appeal, but above all about her indomitable spirit!
‘Know Thyself” is written on the Oracle of Delphi, and it’s as valid for my heroine as it is today for female power players or any woman, really.
“Tsarina” is a historic novel, but it is a very modern book.
The writing process and inspiration for the book
The fascinating story of Catherine I. of Russia had never left me, ever since I had first read about her when aged 13. In my parent’s library I had come across a book called ‘Germans and Russians’, charting the millennial history of those two people. Despite terrible tragedies and two horrendous wars, there is a deep fascination for each other. Two people that can toil and function to terrible ends, but who are equally endowed with an incredible soulfulness and depth, an innate understanding of beauty and life, of tragedy and fate. One chapter in ‘Germans and Russians’ were devoted to Catharine I: I think she is ‘my’ Tut-Ankh-Amun, as she was always there but had slid into the shadows of history. I was destined to find her, as when I had matured enough to write, I realized that there was no book about her: no thesis, no biography, no novel, no nothing. Luckily, there were sources galore, and infinitely fascinating ones: early travel descriptions, such as the German merchant Adam Olearius visiting Tsar Mikhail Romanov (Peter the Great’s grandfather), letters of foreigners at the Russian Court such as Mrs Rondeau, watching Nureyev and Baryshnikov dance as well as the Dogma movie ‘The Ark’ and, last but not least, Prof. Lindsey Hughes tome ‘Russia in the time of Peter the Great’. I slid deeper and deeper into the strange, shocking, sensuous world that is the Russian Baroque, and the Russian soul. Seemingly insurmountable contrasts are casually combined and lived out without any qualms. This absoluteness is fascinating. I read for almost a year before writing my first word, immersing myself completely into her life and rise. I even watched read Russian myths and fairy tales, which tell you everything about the mindset and the imaginary of a people – an invaluable help. I love Baba Yaga’s house and certain turns of phrases – e.g. how the storyteller mostly eats honey in the end 😊. The book is stuffed to the brim with soul, detail, and truth – and an attempted answer to the question: So, what was her life REALLY like? I read for one year before daring to write the opening sentence – and while writing I had always at least 5 books open, all annotated and marked with post-its. One big challenge was to make this her book and not another oeuvre about Peter the Great, who tried to usurp the narrative with his larger than life character wherever possible – men!! Yet the writing itself was an all-encompassing endeavor – I did so whilst working nightshifts as a presenter on live breakfast TV. Normally I got up at 2am and left the house at 2.30 (my neighbor in the flat beneath thought I worked as an escort, as I cantered down the stairs at any ungodly hour!) came home at 12.00 noon, slept 3 hours, went running in the park, wrote. Repeat, for 1.5 years. In the end I suffered anxiety and depression from sleep deprivation. I really gave this book my all! From that original version 300 pages have since been edited out…