#81 review: The Winter Palace

The Winter Palace:

A Novel of Catherine the Great



464 pages

To be published by Bantam on Jan 10, 2012

Ebook provided by NetGalley & Bantam


I enjoy more and more historical fiction and have been discovering this year so many excellent authors in that genre. Eva Stachniak is definitely one of them.

I thought it was really smart to choose to tell the story of Catherine’s access to the throne from the point of view of another foreigner, one of her ladies in waiting. More than any other books I have read on the subject, this one gave an amazing inkling on all the gossips and betrayals that were going on in that type of society, with so much struggle for power, and many people rather sick in their heads.

I enjoyed the tension between Catherine and Varvara, with their friendship and competition, their need and fear of each other.

I also found the end of the book was unexpected but also a smart way of exit, literally for Varvara, and also for the writer!

I happen to be Russian Orthodox Christian myself, and I was a bit surprised by 2 things related to Orthodoxy: the author describes the scene when Catherine is received in Orthodoxy; the ritual of the reception of Sacrament of the Eucharist did look unfortunately more pertaining to Roman Catholicism than to Orthodoxy. I doubt they would have done it that way at the time, but I may be wrong.

Also, the author gives the translation of the Our Father as the usual protestant or Catholic translation, or even Greek Orthodox:  “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”; Russian Orthodox though stick to the original Greek text and say: “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors”. Here again, it may have been different at the time. I unfortunately do not have time to research these points, but I do hope that the author did a good background research, and that I am the one wrong here.

A good historical background is very important for historical novels, according to me, but if you are not Russian Orthodox, you would not even notice, so I guess this is not essential, and I trust that the rest of the book is well founded historically.

It was really thoroughly enjoyable.

The only annoying thing was that I received the book as a pdf form, and it is hard to read in the Bluefire Reader, I had to readjust each page. If you know how to read pdfs on ipod touch, please tell me the trick! I would like to be able to change to read in a bigger font.


From award-winning author Eva Stachniak comes this passionate novel that illuminates, as only fiction can, the early life of one of history’s boldest women. The Winter Palace tells the epic story of Catherine the Great’s improbable rise to power—as seen through the ever-watchful eyes of an all-but-invisible servant close to the throne.
Her name is Barbara—in Russian, Varvara. Nimble-witted and attentive, she’s allowed into the employ of the Empress Elizabeth, amid the glitter and cruelty of the world’s most eminent court. Under the tutelage of Count Bestuzhev, Chancellor and spymaster, Varvara will be educated in skills from lock picking to lovemaking, learning above all else to listen—and to wait for opportunity. That opportunity arrives in a slender young princess from Zerbst named Sophie, a playful teenager destined to become the indomitable Catherine the Great. Sophie’s destiny at court is to marry the Empress’s nephew, but she has other, loftier, more dangerous ambitions, and she proves to be more guileful than she first appears.
What Sophie needs is an insider at court, a loyal pair of eyes and ears who knows the traps, the conspiracies, and the treacheries that surround her. Varvara will become Sophie’s confidante—and together the two young women will rise to the pinnacle of absolute power.
With dazzling details and intense drama, Eva Stachniak depicts Varvara’s secret alliance with Catherine as the princess grows into a legend—through an enforced marriage, illicit seductions, and, at last, the shocking coup to assume the throne of all of Russia.
Impeccably researched and magnificently written, The Winter Palace is an irresistible peek through the keyhole of one of history’s grandest tales. [Bantam/Goodreads]


I was born in Wrocław, Poland.
I came to Canada in 1981 on an English scholarship to McGill University. In Poland I taught at the English Department of the University of Wrocław . At McGill I defended my doctoral thesis: Positive Philosophy of Exile in Stefan Themerson’s Fiction in 1988.
In 1984-86 I worked for Radio Canada International, the Polish Section, in Montreal, writing and producing radio programs about Canada. In 1988 I joined the faculty of Sheridan College where I taught English and humanities courses until 2007.
My first short story, “Marble Heroes,” was published by the Antigonish Review in 1994, and my debut novel, Necessary Lies, won the Amazon.com/Books in Canada First Novel Award in 2000.
I live in Toronto. [by the author herself, on her own website]


“Stachniak’s brilliant, bold historical novel of eighteenth-century Russia is a masterful account of one woman’s progress toward absolute monarchical rule. . . . This superb biographical epic proves the Tudors don’t have a monopoly on marital scandal, royal intrigue, or feminine triumph.”—Booklist (starred review)

“Awash in period details and as gripping and suspenseful as any thriller, The Winter Palace gives us a unique look at the making of a queen. Eva Stachniak allows us to peep through keyholes and overhear whispers as we navigate the intrigues of Imperialist Russia along with Sophie, the princess who became Catherine the Great. I loved this book, and this glimpse into a world of silk and shadows, grandeur and gossip.”—Melanie Benjamin, author of The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb

The Winter Palace is an intensely written, intensely felt saga of the early years that shaped the eighteenth century’s famous czarina, Catherine the Great. Her survival in the treachery of the Russian court was an amazing feat, and Eva Stachniak captures the fluidity and steeliness that propelled Catherine from a lowly German duchess to one of the towering figures of the century.”—Karleen Koen, New York Times bestselling author of Through a Glass Darkly

“Eva Stachniak has given readers a thrilling glimpse into the scandals and secrets at the heart of the Russian Imperial court. With deft prose and exquisite detail, Stachniak has resurrected one of the most compelling ages in history. Turn off the phones and lock the doors—you will not put it down.”—Deanna Raybourn, New York Times bestselling author of Silent in the Grave [amazon]



6 thoughts on “#81 review: The Winter Palace

  1. That is a shame about the Orthodox ceremony sounding more Catholic…I wouldn’t have noticed this myself as I’m not religious, but it should be more authentic. Still, I think it sounds like an interesting read as I don’t know much about Catherine the Great.


  2. I’m really interested in reading this. I’ve read very little Russian history – usually read about the English – but I’m excited to read more. Thanks for the great review 🙂


    • My apology is that I don’t have the time and means to double check if I’m write about how they were doing these things at the time when the novel is set, but knowing Orthodoxy, I have the feeling that it could not be as she writes.


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