The Winter Palace is a passionate new novel by award-winning author Eva Stachniak that illuminates the early life of Catherine the Great. It tells the epic story of Catherine’s improbable rise to power as seen through the eyes her servant and confidante, Varvara. To learn more, check out the synopsis and reading guide below.
Nimble-witted and attentive, Varvara is 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.
1. The novel starts with a quotation from a letter the future Catherine the Great wrote to the British Ambassador, Sir Hanbury-Williams: Three people who never leave her room, and who do not know about one another, inform me of what is going on, and will not fail to acquaint me when the crucial moment arrives. What does this sentence tell us about the future empress of Russia?
2. Varvara is an immigrant to Russia. She is an outsider in many other ways, a tradesman’s daughter among aristocrats, a Roman Catholic among Orthodox Christians, a Polish wife of a Russian officer. How does she cope with the need to belong? How much is she willing to sacrifice for a sense of home?
3. Catherine too is an immigrant. In the 17th century Russia, keen on developing its national identity, her Prussian blood is suspect. How does Catherine cope with xenophobia? How does she turn it to her advantage?
4. Much of the novel is about power. The characters crave it, gain it, lose it. How are the principal women characters: Varvara, Catherine, and Elizabeth defined by their understanding of what power is? What in their background made them think that their definition of power is the right one?
And what do men in the novel think of power? Powerful women? Their role in a country ruled by a woman?
5. Why is power so important to these three women? What do they wish to do with it? How much are they willing to sacrifice for it? And, when they finally have it, what do they actually do?
6. Motherhood is another pivotal issue in the novel. Elizabeth wishes to be a surrogate mother to her nephew, Peter, and later to Catherine’s son Paul. Catherine and Varvara give birth to their own children. What does motherhood mean to each of them? How does it transform them? Why?
7. Darya and Paul are two children whose birth we witness in the novel. How does their childhood differ? What is expected of them? What emotional future do envisage for them and why?
8. Love, lust and marriage are always present at the Winter Palace. How do the three principal characters, Varvara, Catherine and Elizabeth, understand them? How do they use love, lust, and marriage to further their own needs? Why?
9. The Russian court is the backdrop of the novel. Historical sources confirm that spying was ubiquitous there. How does being a spy affect Varvara? How does having spies affect Elizabeth and Catherine? How does being watched affect the lives of the courtiers?
10. Loyalty is another important theme in “The Winter Palace,” national, political, personal. How is each of the three main characters defining loyalty? How does this definition affect their actions?
11. Peter the Great has transformed Russia. Is his presence felt in the novel? In what ways? What is your sense of Russia under Elizabeth and later under Catherine? Why does the country feel snubbed by the rest of Europe? How is Catherine and Elizabeth play to this sense of rejection? What are their visions for Russia? Do they really differ that much?
12. Toward the end of the novel Catherine decides to reassess her own needs as an empress and her obligations as a friend and lover. Is she justified in this decision? How does she do it? What are Varvara’s expectations of their friendship and what is Catherine’s assessment of it?
13. The novel ends when the reign of Catherine II has just begun. How much has Catherine sacrificed for her position? Is it possible to predict from her behavior as Grand Duchess what kind of a ruler is she going to be? What are her best qualities? Her worst?
14. Varvara leaves Catherine’s court. In the last chapter of the novel she meets one of Catherine’s former lovers, recently elected the king of Poland. What are Varvara’s feelings about Stanislaw’s prospects? What does she fear? Why?
15. The novel ends with the image of Varvara beginning to tell Darya the story of her life in Russia. How much do you think she will tell her child? What will she keep to herself? Why?