This is a great piece of historical fiction. Subtitled A Novel of Catherine the Great, it’s really about the years before Catherine became the Great, beginning when she’s brought to Russia as a (relatively) poor, insignificant German princess named Sophie, to marry the Grand Duke Peter. The novel follows the twenty years from her arrival to her seizure of power. It’s all told through the eyes of a fictional character, Barbara (Varvara in Russian), a palace servant who becomes a spy and a close friend and ally to Catherine. Barbara is unswervingly loyal to Catherine amidst the power struggles of court, but how loyal can a ruler be to her friends and servants? This is the question at the heart of the story.
I read one nonfiction book, Robert Coughlan’s Elizabeth and Catherine, about this era in Russian history, many years ago. It’s not a period I’ve delved further into, but I retained an interest in it from that book, and The Winter Palace was a wonderful way to revisit that world through fiction. I now want to read Robert Massie’s biography Catherine the Great, and I’ve heard that Eva Stachniak is working on a sequel to The Winter Palace, set in the later years of Catherine’s reign. If that’s the case, I’ll devour that one just as eagerly when it appears!