The Spy Who Went Out into the Cold

By Wanda Wyporska

Or, How a Minor German Princess became Catherine the Great  |  an interview with Eva Stachniak

The Winter PalaceCatherine the Great is a towering historical figure in any terms: an empress who seized the throne, took lovers and invaded territories. Only now she has also become the subject of a historical novel, The Winter Palace (Bantam/Doubleday, 2012), a best-selling tour de force from Eva Stachniak. The Polish-born Canadian’s latest novel tells the story, through the eyes of Varvara, a Polish girl recruited as a spy at the Russian court, of how a minor German princess became Tsarina Catherine the Great of all the Russias. Stachniak’s own experiences as an outsider clearly resonate in her portrayal of both the young girls, whom we see adapting to very different circumstances. “I can only suggest that no one has written about her because perhaps it needed a writer familiar with both the Eastern and Western cultural traditions?” says Stachniak. “Perhaps my Polish and Canadian experience allowed me to approach her from both a personal and historical perspective? When Varvara and Catherine meet they are both very young. As foreigners, they both have to re-define themselves, re-write their lives. All they know is that they are both threatened and that their friendship can save them. And I needed an outsider’s point of view, because I know from my own experience that outsiders make for excellent observers.”

The author’s own experience brings intensity to a novel that straddles east and west, portraying the multicultural tapestry that was Eastern Europe. Her interest in exploring identity adds a fascinating dimension to an already grand theatre of history, with echoes of the theme of her debut novel, Necessary Lies. Winner of the in Canada First Novel Award in 2000, that novel tells of a Polish immigrant to Canada who returns to Wrocław (previously German Breslau) and is forced to re-examine her own identity. However, Stachniak also uses her exploration of identity to examine womanhood and female friendship, Russia’s relationship with the West and its role in the East, and the mechanics and politics of power.

Still fascinated with Catherine, Stachniak has no illusions about her character and actions, having delved deep into her correspondence, diaries and available biographies. Her research also took her to St. Petersburg, the Peterhof, and Tsarskoye Selo, which are evoked colourfully in the novel. As she says, “On one hand this is a story of a powerful woman, who had to find her own way in a largely misogynous world. On the other, it is a story of a usurper who, in her quest for absolute power, manipulated her friends and condoned her husband’s murder. A reformer and a conservative; a passionate woman and a cool politician who knew how to win – and an immigrant to Russia who had to reinvent herself in order to win her new country to her ways of thinking. What a treat for a writer!”

For Stachniak, history has always been a passion, and she admits to it being “a treasure trove of stories from which I take freely”. She counts Hilary Mantel, Penelope Fitzgerald and Kate Grenville among her influences, citing Fitzgerald’s The Beginning of Spring as her all-time favourite for its portrayal of Russia on the cusp of the October Revolution. “It is written with such mastery and understanding of Russia,” she says, “I re-read it every time I want to remind myself of what attracts me the most in historical fiction.” Stachniak is busy at work in Toronto finishing The Empire of the Night which will examine what absolute power can do to a woman’s soul, as it tells of the older Catherine, facing death and the destruction of her political legacy.

For more information, please find Stachniak online at   |   @EvaStachniak

About the interviewer: Dr Wanda Wyporska lives in London with writer Daniel Woodley and son Arkady. She is finishing Witchcraft in Poland 1500-1800 and starting an historical trilogy. Find her online @WandaWyporska


Published in Historical Novels Review   |   Issue 60, May 2012

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