Written by Ellen Alpsten
Review by Marilyn Sherlock

This is the story of Catherine I of Russia, not to be confused with Catherine the Great. This Catherine was born in 1684 to a peasant family in either Poland or Lithuania, and went by the name of Marta Skowronska, and history has largely forgotten her. Gradually she climbed the social ladder until in 1712 she became the second wife of Peter I (Peter the Great). After his death in 1725, she ruled Russia in her own right until her own death in 1727.

Ellen Alpsten has drawn on documentary evidence and created an account of Catherine’s life in novel form. It is easy to read, and one becomes captivated by all the events, but it is not for the fainthearted. Daisy Goodwin describes it as “the ultimate Cinderella story of an illiterate peasant girl who becomes the Empress of Russia. It makes Game of Thrones look like a nursery rhyme”. I have never seen Game of Thrones, but I can certainly agree that this is not a happy-ever-after fairy story. It is true that Catherine became empress of Russia, but one description is that she only achieved that because Peter “died just in time”.

The story is brilliantly descriptive and leaves nothing to the imagination, be it the lives of the peasants from whom Catherine came; the social lives of both rich and poor; the sexual mores of the time; and the sheer cruelty of the Emperor. His people were largely terrified of him, and he spared no one, not even his only son, Alexey, born of his first wife, Evdokia, whom he also confined to a convent.

Ellen Alpsten won the Grande École short story competition and has contributed to international publications such as Vogue, Standpoint and Conde Nast Traveller. This is her first novel.