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21 November 2018

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Book Review

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The Winter Palace

By Eva Stachniak (Bantam, $26)

This is unquestionably the finest among this troika of Romanoviana.

It is the life story of Varvara, the facile, observant daughter of a Polish bookbinder who, after her father’s death, gets a modest position in Empress Elizabeth’s Winter Palace. Laboring away haplessly as a seamstress, her keen eye and memory, to say nothing of her fluency in German, are soon discovered by the unscrupulous Bestuzhev, who then personally trains her in all the wiles of a "tongue" or court spy.

Young Varvara is in the right place at the right time, first serving as a chambermaid for Elizabeth’s handpicked heir – the incompetent Peter III, then as the friend and confidante of Peter’s bride, Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg – the future Catherine II (a.k.a. “The Great”).

Stachniak crafts a wonderful tale of court intrigue that is rich in detail, bringing to life the sights, sounds and smells of eighteenth century Russia. Varvara is a compelling heroine who endures numerous plots and counterplots, and the book charts her life just through Catherine’s coup, ending on some satisfyingly unexpected twists. Yet clearly this is just the beginning, as we are told Stachniak is working on a sequel about Catherine’s reign.

Given that Catherine ruled for 34 years, we can expect the Romanoviana to continue for some time to come.

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: Mar/Apr 2012