In The Winter Palace (Bantam) Polish-born author Eva Strachniak (Necessary Lies) tells the story of Russia’s Catherine the Great from the perspective of an almost-invisible Polish servant.
Despite the fact that Catherine the Great is one of the most interesting — and arguably controversial — of Europe’s 18th century monarchs, I’ve never before encountered a work of fiction about her life before and, having read a lot of royal-based fiction, I found it was a delight encountering new ground in what is often considered to be the Golden Age of the Russian Empire.
“When I grew up in Poland,” writes the author, “Catherine the Great was a sinister figure.” But research brought the woman closer, and Strachniak came to see Catherine as “a powerful woman leader in a misogynist world, a savvy player of political games, a passionate lover and a cool-headed politician.” All of this comes through loud and clear in The Winter Palace, a terrifically engrossing book.
Meanwhile, a an excellent biography of Catherine the Great was published by Random House late last year. Written by Pullitzer Prize-winning author, Robert K. Massie (Nicholas and Alexander, The Romanovs: the Final Chapter), Catherine the Great: Portrait of A Woman goes all the way, including details from the sexual diary the slightly nasty queen with the historically awful marriage kept throughout her reign.
If you have a hankering to know more about this enigmatic queen, this brace of books will likely deliver even more than you bargained for. ◊
Monica Stark is a contributing editor to January Magazine. She currently makes her home on a liveaboard boat somewhere in the North Pacific.