Catherine Alexeyevna rose from peasant beginnings to become one of the most powerful women in Russia as the second wife of Peter the Great. Known as Marta to her family she was born in 1684 in the village of Livonia. Her meteoric rise from illiterate servitude to the Russian throne is one of chance, but also, as the author puts it ‘intellect, wit and sensuality’. Her parents sold her into the service of a man called Vasilly from the town of Walk. The author pulls us into the world of this nine year old girl as she experiences the town for the first time. She is overwhelmed by the number of people and all the chimneys she can see, each one representing a family. In her wonder, she loses the count and becomes mesmerised by the foods being sold by street vendors. This experience inspires her and she begins to work in the kitchen, soon able to prepare delicious meals of her own.
It’s very hard not to admire the way this incredible woman rose through the ranks of Russian high society, almost always by catching the attention of men. This was a dangerous and volatile period of history and it must have taken a great deal of resourcefulness and cunning to succeed. She was observant, able to read people and their interactions, successful at manipulation and doesn’t let herself be used by men – unless she wants to be of course. There are moments when she is struggling but the right advice or opportunity seems to come along. She takes to heart a lesson taught by Menshikov, the Tsar’s best friend:
‘Use life’s surprises to your advantage. See your power over men like a hand of cards; play them, to trump your life’.
I really enjoyed it when the focus was on Catherine (Marta) and her rise. When she reaches her position as Peter the Great’s wife and Empress of Russia, the story starts to open up and include others within the court. When we’re not concentrating on Catherine, I wasn’t as engaged with the book, but maybe that was just me. Her life becomes swallowed up by the demands of being a monarch’s wife – the demands on her to produce an heir resulted in twelve pregnancies! The cruelty of Peter starts to come to the fore as well as his contrary nature. He upholds religious and cultural custom to a stubborn degree and then when it suits him, simply discards custom for his own advantage. He’s a textbook narcissist. Even though Catherine is surrounded by riches, lavish banquets and incredible jewels I didn’t envy her position. She knows the dangers of being his wife, because his first wife ended up in a prison cell and her lover was impaled alive, on a spike in Red Square.
Despite this being more fiction than biography, I think the author researched her subject well and worked hard to bring Catherine to life. There are some really dark moments of rape and torture, but this is probably an accurate portrayal of very bloodthirsty time in history. Its also a very sensual book, not just the lusty moments, which I really enjoyed, but also the author’s focus on the senses. The taste of the incredible dishes she creates, the smell of the incense and incredible interiors of the Russian Orthodox Church, all the way down to the sweat and fear of the torture chambers. When Catherine’s trying to keep Peter’s death a secret in order to keep the crown, I was drawn back into the action. As he lies there, dying in the Winter Palace, Peter has to face the fact he is leaving his country without an heir. His only son Alexei, was killed under interrogation for conspiring against him. This is when Catherine undertakes her greatest political manoeuvre and becomes Queen, despite Alexei’s son being the heir apparent. I enjoyed reading from Catherine’s perspective, especially considering the way her male enemies spread misogynistic stories about her suppose voracious sexual appetite. The book did it’s work in making me want to know more about this time and place in history. I’ll be going to All4 and watching their series starring Helen Mirren to learn more about this fascinating character.
Next month I will be reviewing the author’s next novel
Meet The Author
Ellen Alpsten was born and raised in the Kenyan highlands, where she dressed up her many pets and forced them to listen to her stories. Upon graduating from the ‘Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris’, she worked as a news-anchor for Bloomberg TV London. While working gruesome night shifts on breakfast TV, she started to write in earnest, every day, after work, a nap and a run. So much for burning midnight oil!
Today, Ellen works as an author and as a journalist for international publications such as Vogue, Standpoint, and CN Traveller. She lives in London with her husband, three sons, and a moody fox red Labrador.
‘Tsarina’ is her debut novel. For more information about her literary life follow her on social media.