I’m so happy to have Eva Stachniak posting on my blog today. Please welcome her! And stay tuned at the end of the post for a giveaway 🙂
When I began writing The Winter Palace one of the first sources I reached for were the memoirs of Catherine the Great. I quickly discovered that the great Russian empress started writing them a few times, only to abandon all attempts in the end.
In her final, longest attempt—which takes us to the year 1759, three years before the coup which made her the Empress of Russia —Catherine wrote: Fortune is not as blind as people imagine. It is often the result of a long series of precise and well-chosen steps that precede events and are not perceived by the common herd. In people it is also more specifically the result of qualities, of character, and of personal conduct….Here are two striking examples. Catherine II. Peter III.
It didn’t take me long to realize that these remarkable memoirs constitute one of these well-chosen steps. This isn’t an act of confession, but a carefully woven story produced by a savvy politician who knows what she wants. Catherine II (for she refused to call herself Catherine the Great) was a voracious reader, and when she became empress she commanded one of the best libraries of the Western world. As a reader she was aware of the changing needs of the public which, by then, believed that a worthy life was ruled by reason. Catherine re-wrote her story a few times, not because she wanted to, but because she realized that she had to fine-tune her historical image. She had important goals: to elicit sympathy of future biographers, claim her legitimacy over the Russian throne, and convince everyone that she has been a much better choice for Russia’s Sovereign than her husband.
And so Catherine II presents herself as a newcomer to Russia, a bride of a cruel and foolish husband, a young woman mistreated by the elder empress, a mother whose children have been taken away from her. She gives us many details of her life—descriptions of dresses, buildings, and people—but she always stops short of describing the coup itself or her own less than stellar actions (like her tacit approval of her husband’s murder).
I’ve read and re-read these Memoirs many times in the course of doing research for my novel and every time I reach for them, I’m awed by the perfect pitch of Catherine’s voice. I know she manipulates me, forces me to pity her, all in preparation for the time when I’ll have to reflect on her dubious deeds. I know that she uses style and rhetoric as a master publicist for her cause.
It has taken all my strength to read between these masterly words, to look for the real woman behind the images she creates. And even now, when I’m working on the second novel about her, the Empire of the Night, I still remain on my guard.
And I am still awed.
Source of the quote used: “The Memoirs of Catherine the Great.” A new translation by Mark Cruse and Hilde Hoogenboom. Modern Library: Random House, 2006.
I have one copy of The Winter Palace up for grabs today. It’s open to readers in Canada and the US and ends February 3, 2012. To enter, comment on this post – be sure to leave your email address so I can contact you if you are the lucky winner. For an additional entry, comment on the review I posted yesterday. Any type of sharing of this giveaway will also count toward extra entries, just leave a link to how/where/what/etc. Good luck!!