It isn't incidental that award-winning Toronto novelist Eva Stachniak asks us to ponder the Winter Palace, in St. Petersburg, Russia, before she asks us to ponder Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia, and her predecessor, Elizabeth. The Winter Palace is a setting, a character and a symbol, and Stachniak lays out in riveting detail how life is lived there by all sorts of characters who are in thrall to the empresses, from the lowest seamstress to the most powerful courtesan.
In the course of the novel, one building, the Winter Palace of Peter the Great, a drafty, Flemish-inspired two-storey residence, is replaced by a much grander and more opulent rococo structure, but Stachniak's protagonist, Varvara, the daughter of a Polish bookbinder who is orphaned in her early teens and enters the court as a working girl, understands that the Winter Palace is in fact a world unto itself, from which the rest of Russia is only dimly visible.
Varvara's future at first looks unpromising. She incurs the wrath of the wardrobe mistress, whose job is to supply Empress Elizabeth with a new gown every single day. Elizabeth is not easy to please – ladies-in-waiting bring her dolls dressed in possible outfits and she chooses among them (or rejects them all). Under this sort of pressure, the fact that Varvara's awkward stitching must always be ripped out is bad business.
But the palace, full of abandoned rooms, provides an escape; in one of the rooms, Varvara finds a box of books. As she is exploring them, the chancellor, Count Bestuzhev, happens upon her. He is amazed to discover that a mere common girl can speak several languages and can also read. He decides to put her to work. Her job is to be as invisibly ubiquitous as possible, and to report everything she hears, word for word, back to him.
In her new role, the drafty Winter Palace is her ally – its floors and ceilings are full of cracks, its walls are backed by secret cupboards and pocked with spy holes. Sometimes, Varvara must seek information, but other times all she has to do is sit still and listen.
What she learns is that the political is personal. Elizabeth confides in her and relies on her. As a result, Varvara comes to know her empress – well-intentioned, but also selfish, arbitrary, vain and lazy. Since she has imprisoned her main rival for the throne and has no children, she is consumed by the necessity of cultivating an heir. When Catherine appears, she is a candidate for marriage to Crown Prince Peter, and an innocent, not very promising girl, slight and plain, a year younger than Varvara. Varvara's first impulse is to protect her.
Stachniak has uncovered a treasure trove of rich material, since the reigns of Elizabeth and Catherine are well documented and of considerable interest in terms of politics, culture and personality. Catherine and Elizabeth are fascinating individuals who contrast neatly with one another, but the real core of Stachniak's tale is that they are women, which means that their vulnerabilities and their weapons are entirely different from those of kings.
At the heart of Elizabeth's relationship to Catherine is Catherine's job as a broodmare – she must produce a son for Peter. Given Peter's imperfect gifts, a legitimate son is not possible. Catherine and Bestuzhev, and Varvara, too, fully understand that the thoughtless and impulsive actions of the men around them are not the truly important and historic events in the palace; it is the knowledgeable who survive to shape the future. This Machiavellian insight gives The Winter Palace an alluring, and convincing, air of menace. Varvara comes to understand that people are dangerous not because of their power but because of their vulnerability.
Stachniak's vision casts light over recent Russian history too, which is exactly what a piece of historical fiction should do. The Winter Palace is filled with a sense of disorienting vastness punctuated by particular rules and charms that people use to give themselves a feeling of control. The look on Vladimir Putin's face when he realized he hadn't prevailed in last year's elections? Varvara would have recognized it perfectly.
Jane Smiley is the author of Private Life, True Blue, and many other works of fiction and non-fiction.