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.
In the Winter Palace, 1725
He is dead. My beloved husband, the mighty tsar of all the Russias, has died—and just in time.
Moments before death came for him, Peter called for a quill and paper to be brought to him in his bedchamber in the Winter Palace. My heart almost stalled. He had not forgotten, but was going to drag me down with him. When he lost consciousness for the last time and the darkness drew him closer to its heart, the quill slipped from his fingers. Black ink spattered the soiled sheets; time held its breath. What had the tsar wanted to settle with that last effort of his tremendous spirit?
I knew the answer.
The candles in the tall candelabra filled the room with a heavy scent and an unsteady light; their glow made shadows reel in corners and brought the woven figurines on the Flemish tapestries to life, their coarse faces showing pain and disbelief. Outside the door, the voices of the people who’d stood there all night were drowned out by the Febru- ary wind rattling furiously at the shutters. Time spread slowly, like oil on water. Peter had pressed himself into our souls like his signet ring in hot wax. It seemed impossible that the world hadn’t careened to a halt at his passing. My husband, the greatest will ever to impose itself on Russia, had been more than our ruler. He had been our fate. He was still mine.
Catherine was not always Catherine. She was born Marta – penniless, but beautiful and resourceful. She leveraged her assets and her cunning into an extravagant life as the wife of Tsar Peter.
She sacrifices her youth and beauty to a world conscribed by his petty cruelties, her youth to an endless cycle of childbearing. She is marginalized and victimized by her husband. He tries to relegate her to the fringes of palace life, inconsequential and forgotten.
But Marta, now known as Catherine, is nothing if not resilient. She has been forging alliances of her own. When Peter dies, she accomplishes the inconceivable. She launches a successful coup, disinheriting the heirs to the throne. She is declared empress of all Russia.
Catherine the Great’s origin story is one of survival against incredible odds. It is a story of re-invention and unwavering determination. If you are fascinated by stories of political intrigue and strong women, I highly recommend immersing yourself in this elaborate tapestry.