Special Feature/Excerpt: The Tsarina’s Daughter by Ellen Alpsten

In light of recent world events, there are a lot of eyes on Eastern Europe and Russian right now. As a huge fan of historical fiction I love exploring new cultures and new parts of history and Eastern Europe and Russian history have caught my eye over and over again in recent years but especially now. I want to know more and more about this area of the world and what their history is like. So many historical fiction novels are set in different Western settings like England, France, or the USA. All of these regions and history are more of less familiar to the average historical fiction reader but when it comes to Eastern European history I think historical fiction readers will feel less familiar.

The time period I am most familiar with when it comes to Russian or European history is the Great War, but even that I am woefully limited. This is why. this book really appealed to me, the time period is late 1700s which I know basically nothing about. I am so excited to read more about this time period in a country where my knowledge is limited. I think fans of historical fiction will also enjoy this interesting time period that is full of intrigue and maybe even a little romance!

This cover is absolutely stunning and the author Ellen Alpsten has also written another piece of historical fiction set in Russia during a similar time period so clearly she has a love for 1700s Russia and I think readers will enjoy something new and interesting. I have a lovely excerpt here for you guys to check out so take a look and let me know what you think!

Excerpt

Prologue In the Winter Palace, St. Nicholas Day, 6th December 1741

Ivan is innocent – my little nephew is a baby, and as pure as only a one-year-old can be. But tonight, at my order, the infant Tsar will be guilty as charged.

I fight the urge to pick him up and kiss him; it would only make things worse. Beyond his nursery door, there is a low buzzing sound, like of angry bees ready to swarm the Winter Palace. Soldier’s boots scrape and shuffle. Spurs clink like stubby vodka glasses and bayonets are being fixed to muskets. These are the sounds of things to come. The thought spikes my heart with dread.

There is no other choice. It is Ivan, or me. Only one of us can rule Russia, the other one condemned to a living death. Reigning Russia is a right that has to be earned as much as inherited: he and my cousin, the Regent, doom the country to an eternity under a foreign yoke. The realm will be lost; the invisible holy bond between Tsar and people irretrievably torn.

I, Elizabeth, am the only surviving child of Peter the Great’s fifteen sons and daughters. Tonight, if I hesitate too long, I might become the last of my siblings to die.

Curse the Romanovs! I in vain try to bar the prophecy, which has blighted my life, from my thoughts. Puddles form on the parquet floor as slush drips from my boots; their worn, thigh-high leather soaked from my dash across St. Petersburg. Despite my being an Imperial Princess – the Tsarevna Elizabeth Petrovna Romanova – no footman had hooked a bear skin across my lap to protect me against the icy wind and driving snow while I sat snug in a sled; I had no muff to raise to my face in that special graceful gesture of the St. Petersburg ladies, the damy. My dash towards my date with destiny had been clandestine: snowfall veiled the flickering lights of the lanterns and shrouded the city. Mortal fear drove me on, hurrying over bridges, dodging patrolled barriers – the shlagbaumy – and furtively crossing the empty prospects, where my hasty passage left a momentary trace of warmth in the frosty air.

This was a night of momentous decisions that I would have to live with, forever. An anointed and crowned Tsar may not be killed, even once he is deposed, as it sets a dangerous precedent. Yet he may not live either – at least not in the mind of the Russian people or according to the diplomatic dispatches sent all over Europe.

What then is to become of Ivan?

I feel for his limp little hand. I simply cannot resist – never could – nuzzling his chubby, rosy fingers, which are still too small to bear the Imperial seal. We call this game a butterfly’s kiss; it makes him giggle and squeal, and me dissolve with tenderness. I suck in his scent of the talcum powder blended for his sole use in Grasse – vanilla and bergamot, the Tsar’s perfume – taking stock for a lifetime. The men outside fall quiet. They are waiting for my decision that will both save and damn me. The thought sears my soul.

In Ivan’s nursery, the lined French damask drapes are drawn. Thick, potbellied clouds hide the December new moon and stars, giving this hour a dense and dreadful darkness. During the day, the seagulls’ cries freeze on their beaks, the chill of night grates skin raw. Any light is as scarce and dear as everything else in St. Petersburg. The candle sellers’ shops, which smell of bees’ wax, flax, and sulphur, do brisk business with both Yuletide and Epiphany approaching. On the opposite quay, the shutters on the flat façades of the city’s palaces and houses are closed, the windows behind them dark. They are swathed in the same brooding silence as the Winter Palace. I am in my father’s house, but this does not mean that I am safe. Far from it – it means quite the opposite. The Winter Palace’s myriad corridors, hundreds of rooms and dozens of staircases can be as welcoming as a lover’s embrace or as dangerous as a snake pit.

It is Ivan or me: fate has mercilessly driven us towards this moment. The courtiers shun me: no-one would bet a Kopeck on my future. Will I be sent to a remote convent, even though I do not have an ounce of nun’s flesh about me, as the Spanish envoy, the Duke of Liria, so memorably described it? I had once been forced to see such an unfortunate woman in her cell; as intended, the sight instilled a terror that would last me a lifetime. Her shorn head was covered in chilblains and her eyes shone with madness. A hunchbacked dwarf, whose tongue had been torn out, was her sole companion, both of them shuffling about in rotten straw like pigs in their sties. Or perhaps there is a sled waiting for me, destination Siberia? I know about this voyage of no return; I have heard the cries, seen the dread and smelled the fear of the banished culprits, be they simple peasants or a Prince of Russia. By the first anniversary of their sentence, all had succumbed to the harsh conditions of the East. Maybe a dark cell in the Trubetzkoy Bastion, the place nobody ever leaves in one piece, will swallow me; or things will be simpler, and I am fated to end up face down in the Neva, drifting between the thick floes of ice, my body being crushed and shredded by their sheer force.

The soldiers’ impatience is palpable. Just one more breath! Ivan’s wet-nurse is asleep, slumped on her stool, resting amidst his toys: the scattered pieces of a Matryoshka doll, wooden boats, a mechanical silver bear that opens its jaws and raises its paws when wound up, and a globe inlaid with Indian ivory and Belgian émaille. One of the nurse’s pale breasts is still bare from the last feed; she was chosen for her ample alabaster bosom in Moscow’s raucous German quarter. Ivan is well cared for: Romanov men are of weaker stock than Romanov women, even if no one ever dares to say so. I celebrated his first year as a time of wonder, offering my little nephew a cross studded with rubies and emeralds for his christening, a gift fit for a Tsar, and put myself in debt to raise an ebony colt in my stables as his Yuletide present.

Ivan’s breathing is growing heavier. The regiment outside his door weighs on his dreams. As I touch both his sides, his warmth sends a jolt through my fingers, hitting a Gold in my heart. Oh, to hold him one more time and feel his delightful weight in my arms. I pull my hands back, folding them, though the time for prayers has passed. No pilgrimage can ever absolve me from this sin, even if I slide across the whole of Russia on my knees. Ivan’s lashes flutter, his chin wobbles, he smacks his pink and shiny lips. I cannot bear to see him cry, despite the saying of Russian serfs: ‘Another man’s tears are only water.’

The lightest load will be your greatest burden. The last prophecy is coming to pass. Spare me, I plea – but I know this is my path, and I will have to walk it to the end, over the pieces of my broken heart. Ivan slides back into slumber, long, dark lashes cast shadows on his round cheeks and his tiny fists open, showing pink, unlined palms. The sight stabs me. Not even the most adept fortune-teller could imagine what the future has in store for Ivan. It is a thought that I refrain from thinking to its end.

Beyond the door utter silence reigns. Is this the calm before the storm my father taught me to fear when we sailed the slate-coloured waters of the Bay of Finland? His fleet had been rolling at anchor in the far distance, masts rising like a marine forest. ‘This is forever Russia,’ he had proudly announced. ‘No Romanov must ever surrender what has been gained by spilling Russian blood.’ In order to strengthen Russia, Father had spared no-one. My elder half-brother Alexey, his son and heir, had paid the ultimate price for doubting Russia’s path to progress.

Steps approach. My time with Ivan, and life as we know it, is over. I wish this were not necessary. There is a knock on the nursery door, a token rasp of knuckles; so light, it belies its true purpose. It is time to act. Russia will take no more excuses. The soldiers’ nerves are as taut as the springs in a bear trap. I have promised them the world: in a night like this, destinies are forged, fortunes made and lost.

‘Elizabeth Petrovna Romanova?’ I hear the captain of the Imperial Preobrazhensky Regiment addressing me. His son is my godchild, but can I trust him completely for that? Suddenly, I feel like drowning and shield Ivan’s cradle with my body. In the gilt-framed mirrors I see my face floating ghostly pale above my dark green uniform jacket; my ash-blonde curly hair has slid down from beneath a fur cap. On a simple leather thong around my neck hangs the diamond-studded icon of St Nicholas that is priceless to me. They will have to prise it from my dead body to get it.

I am almost thirty-one years old. Tonight, I shall not betray my blood.

‘I am ready,’ I say, my voice trembling, bracing myself, as the door bursts open and the soldiers swarm in.

Everything comes at a price.

Q & A with the Author

● What was your inspiration for The Tsarina’s Daughter?

Peter the Great’s death in 1725 made Russia hold its breath. The greatest will to shape the world’s largest and wealthiest realm – a Tsar’s any decision was his entire Empire’s fate – had been extinguished, leaving an unimaginable vacuum of power. Furthermore, the Tsar, who had spent every waking minute plotting the progress of his people, had omitted to designate his heir. Peter had executed his sole male heir, Alexey, suspecting him of treason. His second wife Catherine, an illiterate former serf -’Tsarina’ – had tried and failed a dozen times to give him the desired son. At Peter’s deathbed, only two surviving daughters joined his cronies and his wife: Elizabeth and Anna. .

Who was to continue his momentous struggle? On one hand, the Westernisation had taken root and the foreigners in Peter’s pay were present and powerful at court. On the other hand, many invisible forces were already at work, wishing to turn clocks back by a century at least. The still surface of the glittering silver lake that was the Court of the Winter Palace hid a malicious maelstrom of deadly currents.

Elizabeth ‘Lizenka’ felt safe as long as their astounding mother took the throne as the first ever Empress of Russia. But after her death, friends turned foe and masks fell. The ‘world’s loveliest princess’ as the painter Louis Caravaque described her, fell from riches to rags, living isolated, and impoverished. Yet she refused to consent to a loveless, second-rate match or to retreat to a convent, but survived more than a decade of latent terrorism. In a gargantuan struggle, Elizabeth rose from rags to Romanov. Hers is the story of the birth of modern Russia; a young Empire in turmoil and change, the madness of war, and the reckless brutality of absolute monarchy when nothing is as abundant and worthless as human life. When the time came, she was swept to power in a single wave, marching on the Winter Palace, her people calling her matushka Rossiya, the pet-name normally reserved for the country itself.

How can you not be inspired by that :-)?

– What kind of research did you do for The Tsarina’s Daughter?

Historical Fiction is a tricky beast, expected to both entertain and instruct. We all remember the epiphany of reading THAT novel, which made us love the genre – for me, vintage classics such as ‘I, Claudius’ or ‘Sinuhe the Egyptian’. For an author this expectation can be daunting: how to ensure the reader is neither bored by a cold, hard re-telling of historical dates and facts, nor led astray by an unreliable, if not soppy romanticised version of events?

‘So how much fact is in this?’ people ask, sounding slightly suspicious, when hearing about my ‘Tsarina’ series, especially since both ‘Tsarina’ and ‘The Tsarina’s Daughter’ are the first novels ever about either, early Romanov Empress. As for the historical background, the years following Peter the Great’s death set the stage for a brutal battle for the reign in Russia, a struggle for survival of an entire nation. The throne was orphaned three times in five years – a revolving door in these most complex times in Russian history, which is rarely straightforward. The novel’s setting was like a loom a thousand strands strong, apt to weave a tapestry grand enough to fill the walls of the Winter Palace. Yet this historic background ought not weigh on the story, but make it float instead. The challenge equals doing a split. I did my homework, reading everything from Gogol, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy – to the point where a name without patronym looks bland to me! – to letters from foreign envoys at court and travel diaries of a 17th century merchant to Russian fairy tales – invaluable for understanding a people’s imaginary – and, last but not least, tomes such as Prof. Lindsey Hughes’ ‘Russia in the Age of Peter the Great’. A biography about the Empress Anna, who makes the most chilling comeback in history as a wonderful ‘goodie/baddie’ was also incontournable. The details provide a non-negotiable framework: clothes, food, furniture, travel and the aspect of cities and town. I take liberties with the language, though: my

heroines are not stuck in some weird period-drama, but are women of flesh and blood, who speak modern English. ‘Sod the caviar!’ Why ever not? During research, a writer WILL find the angle to reel a reader into his world and story. In the case of ‘the Tsarina’s Daughter’, these were the rumours surrounding Elizabeth’s birthplace, Kolomenskoe Palace, which is said to be haunted by soothsaying, malevolent spirits, and rumoured to be a gate to time travel. How seductive to provide my heroine with a Delphic prophecy, which accompanies her life like a choker of dark pearls; guidance, and warning in one. Finding my leading ladies, who like Tut-Ankh-Amun were hiding in plain view of other historical fiction authors, might have been an unbelievable stroke of luck; I prefer to think that they were waiting for me. Despite hooped skirts, candle-light and carriage drives, both ‘Tsarina’ and ‘The Tsarina’s Daughter’ are thoroughly modern novels. My heroines breathe with their hearts, surviving wars, vicious female jealousies, and callous court intrigues of the highest order, making for a marriage of dreams of fact and fiction and a sweeping epic cloaked in ice and snow.

● The setting for Tsarina is St. Petersburg, Russia. Did you visit that country to get inspiration and do some fact finding?

A visit to St. Petersburg was the nicest Christmas Present I ever got – my husband and I went AFTER I had written the novel, crazily enough. My family has an ambivalent relationship to Russia – my dad grew up in the GDR under the soviet controlled government, and fled on his own through a night forest when aged 16 with just a little backpack; my cousin’s Berlin-based publishing house on the other hand exclusively works with latter-day Russian intellectuals. Our trip was a shoestring operation: We took the public bus from the airport and on the Subway struggled with the Cyrillic letters, so people pushed us out where THEY thought we should be going. Our small hostel was on Stary Nevsky, the old part of the glamorous, world-famous avenue. We had breakfast in local bakeries (where people bought their vodka at 8am) and moved about on foot, by bus, underground, or simply flagging down a car – any car – on the road. The driver was so pleased with having us that he set his sound system to full blast – I still bounce about at the sheer memory of that bass! Little is left from Peter & Catherine’s days – his cabin (Peter the Great was a man of simple tastes), the buttercup splendor of the Summer Palace and, outside town, Peterhof: snow lay on the palace’s terraces and there were no other visitors, so we had a snowball fight with the actors who hung about, bored, and dressed up as Peter & Catherine. A special memory is seeing the Kirov ballet; and we LOVED the food everywhere. The Russian women are STUNNINGLY beautiful and very stylish, while I had packed wrongly and trudged about, wearing my husband’s socks in my sandals and his sweaters over my dress . Everybody thought I had got lucky hitting on a Westerner…

● What was your inspiration to write about Catherine I?

The fascinating story of Catherine I. of Russia had never left me, ever since I had first read about her when aged 13. In my parent’s library I had come across a book called ‘Germans and Russians’, charting the millennial history of those two people. Despite terrible tragedies

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and two horrendous wars, there is a deep fascination for each other. Two people that can toil and function to terrible ends, but who are equally endowed with an incredible soulfulness and depth, an innate understanding of beauty and life, of tragedy and fate. One chapter in ‘Germans and Russians’ was devoted to Catharine I: I think she is ‘my’ Tut-Ankh-Amun, as she was always there but had slid into the shadows of history. I was destined to find her, as when I had matured enough to write, I realized that amazingly enough, there was no book about her: no thesis, no biography, no novel, no nothing. Luckily, there were sources galore, and infinitely fascinating ones: early travel descriptions, such as the German merchant Adam Olearius visiting Tsar Mikhail Romanov (Peter the Great’s grandfather), letters of foreigners at the Russian Court such as Mrs Rondeau, watching Nureyev and Baryshnikov dance as well as the Dogma movie ‘The Ark’ and, last but not least, Prof. Lindsey Hughes unrivalled tome ‘Russia in the time of Peter the Great’. I slid deeper and deeper into the strange, shocking, sensuous world that is the Russian Baroque, and the Russian soul. Seemingly insurmountable contrasts are casually combined and lived out without any qualms. This absoluteness is fascinating. I read for almost a year before writing my first word, immersing myself completely into her life and rise. I even watched read Russian myths and fairy tales, which tell you everything about the mindset and the imaginary of a people – an invaluable help. I love Baba Yaga’s house and certain turns of phrases – e.g. how the storyteller mostly eats honey in the end . The book is stuffed to the brim with soul, detail, and truth – and an attempted answer to the question: So, what was her life really like? What makes the story extra special is the fact that she is a foreigner, as she was born a Baltic German. Thus, she observes the Russians with her own eyes – the reader is as fascinated by the opulence of the then Russian ruling class as much as they are appalled by the deprivation and helplessness of the Russian people. The writing was on the wall since long before the revolution and changes of the 20th century!

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● How long did it take you to write Tsarina?

I read for one year before daring to write the opening sentence – and while writing I had always at least 5 books open, all annotated and marked with post-its. One big challenge was to make this her book and not another oeuvre about Peter the Great, who tried to usurp the narrative with his larger than life character wherever possible – men!! Yet the writing itself was an all-encompassing endeavor – I did so whilst working nightshifts as a presenter on live breakfast TV. Normally I got up at 2am and left the house at 2.30 (my neighbor in the flat beneath thought I worked as an escort, as I cantered down the stairs at any ungodly hour!) came home at 12.00 noon, slept 3 hours, went running in the park, wrote. Repeat, for 1.5 years. In the end I suffered anxiety and depression from sleep deprivation. I really gave this book my all! From that original version 300 pages have since been edited out…

● What are some of your favorite hobbies?

I have a busy life as I also work as culture & lifestyle journalist for a number of international publications – I have always LOVED travelling and our honeymoon was spent backpacking round the world. As I have three sons, I bake and cook a lot and enjoy discovering new recipes; when my hands are engaged otherwise than writing, I have the best ideas! Other than that, I LOVE my garden – I have planted a maze & tiled a giant chess board in it, and nothing gives me more joy than see a humble seed blossom into a huge bush. Experimenting with interiors is a close second. I’d love to say painting, but I have not touched a canvas and brush for years. But ONE day I shall follow a portrait course – people’s faces tell stories, too!

● What is it that you enjoy about writing historical fiction?

The answer is a bit of a paradox – people long for more distance and mystery, as well as for more proximity and cohesion. The past, in which these rulers lived, seems to offer both. It is glossed over by the beautiful portraits showing us people covered in jewels, lace, velvet, and fur, forever frozen in their splendor, a remote, shining example of duty and virtue. People did not know about their affairs, sufferings, and illnesses. On the other hand, sociologically, reading today about their rise and fall, their fate and misfortune has a great cathartic effect: people, who are given so much still suffer as anybody else. Just think of both Peter the Great and the last Tsar Nicolas II – both so desperately longing for a male heir, both so stricken by destiny. The first murdered a healthy son with his own hands, only to be unable to ever replace him, the latter finally got his Tsarevich who was doomed by hemophilia and a monstrous, mollycoddled child. The olden societies seem to offer a proximity that gave solace, with close family structures such as multigenerational living, and a strict Religion. We are in want for that – friendship is preached as the new family, people turn to new age cults or seek solace in Asian religions, as Christendom fails to cater for these needs.

If reading an historic novel such as ‘Tsarina’ closes the gap of the paradox, I feel blessed.

● What does your writing space look like?

I used to just open my laptop wherever I could – the kitchen or the dining table, stealing an hour or two. Today, I have a ‘Lady Cave’, a small office, which is my den and my luxury. It gives on my garden, overlooking a maze and a ‘turn-of-the-past century’ beautiful wrought iron pavilion that is overgrown by wild roses. The shelves are stuffed with lots and lots of ‘Russian’ research books and foreign editions of ‘Tsarina’, which has sold all over the world. As a rug, I have a cowhide that has been painted with a golden zebra pattern – VERY glam and a hint of Africa, which I love as I was born and grew up in Kenya. A daybed is covered

with a HUGE handmade quilt (very US immigrant Shaker) that I incredibly enough bought for 1 GBP in a charity shop and some cushions by a Milanese interior design company. There is some quirky art on the walls, a venetian mirror and finally my desk, the crowning glory: it’s a beautiful baroque writing desk, which belonged to the British Ambassador to the Ottoman court, inlaid with vintage woods and with several hidden compartments. Here I settle every day at 9.30, hoping that my employee number 1. the muse also turns up . Next planned purchase is an ‘On Air’ sign that lights up when I am inside…

● What is your must have while writing?

Time. I hardly ever start if I don’t at least have an hour to write – with exceptions, such as just amending a sentence after I have thought about it when out running etc. If a story sears your soul, you HAVE to take that time, whenever, early mornings, after lunch or in the evening, when the children sleep, and you need to be serious about it and respect your creation. Yoga is my number two – only once I start my exercises, I realize how much my body has longed for them. It makes me happy and balanced and allows my mind to let go of the plot when it twists and turns like a caged weasel. I just received a really thick Yoga mat as a birthday present and it is lovely. A third ‘must’ is coffee! I have no expensive tap-dancing cake-baking musical-singing coffee machine though and I abhor Nespresso style tablets for how they pollute the planet. Be gone! No, I’m an instant girl, with lots and lots of hot milk added, to have a Café Crème. I call that ‘playing Paris’ as it reminds me of my student days in the French capital, when I sat for hours on end in cafes, people watching and making a café noisette last…

● Who do you admire most?

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I admire women with a seemingly small, personal courage that makes big waves – Rosa Parks is a firm favorite of mine. I admire women, who speak out for their gender, their issues and worries, against all odds and who are not afraid of being chastised by a male-dominated society, such as Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I admire women who by their cunning and patience out-maneuver a male dominated society or profession – think Angela Merkel. If only every country had someone so devoted, modest, and with cool intellect concluding the solution to a BIG problem, such as her, as a leader, we should be in less dire straits! So little wonder that I liked Catherine I: Tsarina is an historic novel, but in our age of female empowerment it feels shockingly modern and contemporary. Catherine is a woman who overcomes every obstacle, even if fate rages against her. Also, I am fascinated with Cinderella stories such as hers, as they speak of the strength of human nature and the will to survive. She was born as Marta, an illegitimate, illiterate daughter of a serf, and lower than the dirt between her toes. Every possible card in the world was stacked against her. But off she went and rose to the most unimaginable height of history: she was the first woman to be a crowned, reigning Empress of Russia, in her time the world’s largest realm. But not only her psychological strength is impressive, her physical condition, too: she bore the Tsar thirteen children only to see most of them die, she travelled with him all over Russia and Central Asia and accompanied him into the field. Even though she accepts his straying and his affairs, and she handles him with care and cunning, their relationship is also a very modern one: Peter the Great and her were lovers, yes, but above all they were great friends. He loved her practical jokes, her courage, and her level headedness. When we look at her portraits today, people might struggle to see her appeal – though her eyes sparkle with mischief and her mouth likes laughing. What else counts?

● Where did you find inspiration to write Tsarina?

The fascinating story of Catherine I. of Russia had never left me, ever since I had first read about her when aged 13. In my parent’s library I had come across a book called ‘Germans and Russians’, charting the millennial history of those two people. Despite terrible tragedies and two horrendous wars, there is a deep fascination for each other. Two people that can toil and function to terrible ends, but who are equally endowed with an incredible soulfulness and depth, an innate understanding of beauty and life, of tragedy and fate. One chapter in ‘Germans and Russians’ was devoted to Catharine I: I think she is ‘my’ Tut-Ankh-Amun, as she was always there but had slid into the shadows of history. I was destined to find her, as when I had matured enough to REALLY write, I realized that amazingly enough, there was no book about her: no thesis, no biography, no novel, no nothing. BUT there were sources galore, and infinitely fascinating ones: early travel descriptions, such as the German Adam Olearius visiting Tsar Mikhail Romanov, letters of foreigners at the Russian Court such as Mrs Rondeau, watching Nureyev and Baryshnikov dance as well as the Dogma movie ‘The Ark’ and, last but not least, Prof. Lindsey Hughes FABULOUS tome ‘Russia in the time of Peter the Great’. I slid deeper and deeper into the strange, shocking, sensuous world that is the Russian Baroque, and the Russian soul. Seemingly insurmountable contrasts are casually combined and lived out without any qualms. This absoluteness is fascinating. I read for almost a year before writing my first word, immersing myself completely into her life and rise. I even watched read Russian myths and fairy tales, which tell you everything about the mindset and the imaginary of a people – an invaluable help. I love Baba Yaga’s house and certain turns of phrases – e.g. how the storyteller mostly eats honey in the end . The book is stuffed to the brim with soul, detail, and truth – and an attempted answer to the question: So, what was her life REALLY like? What makes the story extra special is the fact that she is a foreigner, as she was born a Baltic German. Thus, she observes the Russians with her own eyes – the reader is as fascinated by the opulence of the then Russian ruling class as much as

😊

they are appalled by the deprivation and helplessness of the Russian people. The writing was on the wall since long before the revolution and changes of the 20th century!

● Who is your favorite character that you have written?

Other than Marta, my Tsarina, ‘my girl’? If every artist’s creation has a central theme, she is mine. I was destined to find her and destined to write about her. I feel so blessed: any writer dreams to come across a stunning, entirely unexploited character such as her. OK: Peter the Great, hands down! The hardest thing was to prevent him hijacking the novel! He looms impossibly large, soaking all and everything he sees and learns up like a sponge, and then squeezing that knowledge out over Russia, drowning his country in a flood of ideas. He turned the semi-Asian Muscovy into the semi-European Russia and is a simply fantastic character: interested in everything, callously cruel, with utter disregard to anything or anyone that doesn’t match his ideas, always ready to pay the highest possible price for the fulfilment of his wishes, a voracious appetite for all things sensual, be it food or love. I love his confidence in his fate and his destiny, the trust with which he pursued his dreams. He dreamed of conquering the Baltics and making that earth forever Russian by stomping St. Petersburg out of the earth, conjuring it up form muddy swamps. He is mesmerizing, but shocking as well, as multi-layered as any human can be: deeply disturbed ever since witnessing the brutal execution of half his family at the age of 9, he suffered from epilepsy and perhaps never quite trusted the sun to rise the next day. Was it for that that he loved ‘turning the world upside down’? Possibly his second wife, Catherine I. – a former serf and washer-maid, the heroine of ‘Tsarina’ – and his best friend Menshikov, a former pie-baker, are both the utmost expression of that desire, to fool them all! Had he wished for Catherine to rule? We don’t know, for the decision was taken off his hands…

● What was the most interesting thing you learned about Catherine 1?

Other than Marta, my Tsarina, ‘my girl’? If every artist’s creation has a central theme, she is mine. I was destined to find her and destined to write about her. I feel so blessed: any writer dreams to come across a stunning, entirely unexploited character such as her. OK: Peter the Great, hands down! The hardest thing was to prevent him hijacking the novel! He looms impossibly large, soaking all and everything he sees and learns up like a sponge, and then squeezing that knowledge out over Russia, drowning his country in a flood of ideas. He turned the semi-Asian Muscovy into the semi-European Russia and is a simply fantastic character: interested in everything, callously cruel, with utter disregard to anything or anyone that doesn’t match his ideas, always ready to pay the highest possible price for the fulfilment of his wishes, a voracious appetite for all things sensual, be it food or love. I love his confidence in his fate and his destiny, the trust with which he pursued his dreams. He dreamed of conquering the Baltics and making that earth forever Russian by stomping St. Petersburg out of the earth, conjuring it up form muddy swamps. He is mesmerizing, but shocking as well, as multi-layered as any human can be: deeply disturbed ever since witnessing the brutal execution of half his family at the age of 9, he suffered from epilepsy and perhaps never quite trusted the sun to rise the next day. Was it for that that he loved ‘turning the world upside down’? Possibly his second wife, Catherine I. – a former serf and washer-maid, the heroine of ‘Tsarina’ – and his best friend Menshikov, a former pie-baker, are both the utmost expression of that desire, to fool them all! Had he wished for Catherine to rule? We don’t know, for the decision was taken off his hands…

● How do you think Catherine changed the Russian monarchy?

Growing up as a serf – an unfree peasant attached to the estate of the Russian church in Swedish Livonia (today Estonia and Latvia) – did not allow for airs and graces. Marta, as she was known as a girl, was destined for a life of hard labour from dawn till dusk. When she met

Peter aged nineteen or twenty, her character was set, and her stratospheric rise did not change her. She wins Peter with her quick wit, her crude sense of humour – they both adored practical jokes – her level-headedness, her courage and also her soft heart: ‘Nobody can be so evil as for you not find some good in him’, he wrote to her. Peter’s world, too, was harsh, cruel, and lonely. She was his one true companion, an invaluable asset. As Tsarina, she preferred peace and prosperity, as well as a policy of contracts and alliances, to war-mongering.

During her years at the Tsar’s side she had carefully fostered and nurtured relationships – both her female friendships as well as with Peters cronies and companions, be they in the military or court administrators. Peter was incalculable in his ambitions and his anger, and she often softened the blow of his knout – quite literally. When he died, everyone at court owed her. Was this behaviour cunning, or simply her character? Probably a blend of both. She called in favours when the moment of all moments came: Peter the Great died without designating an heir and having abolished primogeniture. That is the starting point of my novel. She ruled for only two years, followed briefly by Peter II, and then the Empresses Anna I., Elizabeth I and of course finally, Catherine II, or the Great. She came to Russia as a German Princess, Sophie von Anhalt-Zerbst, and was welcomed into the Orthodox faith and baptised Catherine Alexeyevna in honour of Catherine I., my ‘Tsarina’. She married the heir to the throne, Peter’s and Catherine I’s grandson, living under the watchful and suspicious eye of the Empress Elizabeth, who worshipped her mother, and who had endured humiliation and hardship until she dared seizing power in a midnight military coup. The clever and careful woman that Catherine II was must have taken note of her namesake’s ascent, as ‘Tsarina’ set the scene for all that followed in Russia politically – an unprecedented century of female reign.

● How do you think the Russian population viewed Peter marrying someone from the common class, versus how other countries (like England) viewed such marriages?

Possibly Russia was the one country where such a match was possible in those times – the Russian Baroque was still far removed from any ideas of Enlightenment. The Tsar was an absolute ruler to an equally absolute degree. He was as infallible as the pope for believing Catholics and doubting him in thought or word utter sacrilege, which was punished in the harshest possible kind – people were being boiled to death, for slander, molten metal was poured down the throat and caps were nailed to foreheads if they weren’t pulled fast enough. Up to Peter the Great, Russian Tsars had wed the odd Rus or Viking Princess, or a boyar’s – the Russian nobility – daughter, whose family was noble enough to be linked to the Tsar, but not so noble as to inspire them to a revolution. Peter the Greats’ first wife had been Evdokia Lopukina, a boyar’s daughter. Only he later created the ‘Table of Ranks’ and introduced western titles such as Count or Prince. Even though he loved ‘turning the world upside down’- his best friend Menshikov was a pie baker’s son and ‘Tsarina’ an analphabetic washer maid and illegitimate serf – he was careful to base their elevation proper on a sound base. Menshikov rose to stellar position after having proven himself in battle. While Peter might have promised Marta marriage quite early in their relationship, he followed up on it publicly once she had saved Russia, and him, in the battle of Pruth. The PR effort was constant: even at her coronation, he had theatre troops in the roads performing a play about the Persian King Xerxes and his wise, foreign and low-born wife Esther, who saved the country through good counsel. A generation later, Versailles could still not fathom a marriage of Louis XV. to ‘The Tsarina’s Daughter’, Elizabeth.

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