Royal histories have enjoyed a resurgent popularity in recent years. Alive with electrifying drama, decadence and power-plays, these tales about kingship have a sensuous appeal that lifts us from the mundane settings of our everyday lives. At the same time, behind these regal visages, we are often struck by the ultimately human qualities that belay all rulers of old. Rome, The Tudors, The White Queen – our thirst for these heartrending histories is insatiable. Now, from Canada comes the long-awaited sequel to the story about one of the most powerful women of all time. Empress of the Night dramatically documents the reign of Catherine the Great, the living embodiment of the Russian Empire’s golden age. From cold Toronto, bestselling author Eva Stachniak sends warm greetings to Edinburgh Book Review, and shares her feelings about the woman behind the mask of empire.
Born in Wrocław, Poland, Eva Stachniak moved to Canada in 1981, where she taught English and humanities. Eventually picking up writing, her debut novel Necessary Lies won the Canada First Novel Award at Amazon in 2000. Emboldened, Stachniak turned her attention to the person of Catherine the Great, which had been a dark and enigmatic figure to her for as long as she could remember:
Eva Stachniak: Catherine the Great has never been absent from my consciousness. In Poland, where I grew up, she was remembered as the ruthless Russian Tsarina who wiped Poland off the map of Europe and put her cast-off lover on the Polish throne. Hated and feared, she was held responsible for the bloodshed of the 1794 Polish Insurrection against the Russian dominance. I didn’t know much more about her then. After I moved to Canada, in 1981, I noticed that Catherine merited a major biography every few years or sometimes even more often. In them she was a very different woman than the one I recalled from my childhood.
My own Catherine the Great period started when I was researching my second novel, Dancing With Kings where Catherine appears in a few scenes. As I was preparing to write them, I reached beyond biographies, and picked up Catherine’s memoirs. The memoirs show her as a young woman—still Russia’s Grand Duchess—a teenage immigrant arriving from Zerbst, trying to survive at a hostile court, and to justify her decisions. It was Catherine’s voice in these memoirs, which made me want to know more about her. I could tell where she was trying to manipulate the reader into accepting her point of view, and why she abandoned the memoirs, defeated by a myriad internal contradictions they revealed…but by then I was hooked.
Inspired to discover the depth of the character beyond the confines of her second novel, her new-found fascination with Catherine resulted in the critically acclaimed The Winter Palace, which was met with glowing reviews from The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, launching her into the limelight in 2012. The Winter Palace tells the enthralling story of Catherine’s troubled ascent to the throne through the eyes of her young friend Varvara. Still, after The Winter Palace, the author had some unfinished business with the Russian empress. In Empress of the Night, fans get the chance to find out about the costly realities underlying Catherine’s glorious reign, as well as learn of her ultimate fate. Has it always been the author’s intention to write a sequel, or was this a later consideration?
Eva Stachniak: It was always a two novel project. I knew I couldn’t do her justice in just one book. Catherine was too big, too complex, her story involved too many people, and too many key historical events. In The Winter Palace I approached her from the outside, watching her progress and her triumph through the eyes of Varvara, her spy and confidante, a woman clearly captivated by her mistress and thus, as a narrator, not always reliable. In Empress of the Night I turned the spotlight on Catherine herself.
In a sense, both novels ride the fortunate tide of historical fiction focusing on royalty. But in contrast to other popular royal court drama’s written nowadays, Stachniak’s novel focuses less on political manoeuvring and military conquest, choosing instead to concentrate on private moments and intimate relationships – with politics and conquest being only a faint whisper in the background. We asked her whether this was a conscious decision, and if so, what prompted it?
Eva Stachniak: It was a conscious decision prompted by Catherine’s memoirs where this intensely political woman chose to concentrate on the personal. And through this, she revealed far more about herself, her court, and 18th century Russia, than the most detailed description of political negotiations might. Catherine the Great left no detail of her life to chance. The size of her jewels advertised her power, the paintings on her dinner plates made sure her guests recalled her recent victories, potatoes served at every state banquet were to entice her subjects to accept them. Personal, after all, is as political as military conquests and political manoeuvring.
If there’s one place where the personal and the political intersect in Catherine the Great’s life, it’s in her tumultuous love life. At the time, she was infamous throughout Europe for her romantic escapades, seemingly involved with a whole parade of lovers. However, Stachniak’s novel shows the monarch in a very different light. Leading an isolated existence at the top of Russian high society, she depended on her favourites for political, as well as emotional support. We asked the writer if she has found one that stands out for her personally, and if there was one who she thinks made an enduring impression on Catherine’s reign?
Eva Stachniak: Grigory Potemkin was Catherine’s greatest love. He was a fascinating man and out of all favourites, he alone was able to participate in some of her political decisions. Catherine trusted Potemkin more than she trusted anyone else, and he trusted her. The last letters Potemkin wrote to Catherine, as he lay dying, are intensely moving. Theirs was a true marriage of minds and hearts, a union that survived scheming and calumny, and their own—mutual—inability to have a conventional relationship.
The emotional poignancy of Empress of the Night hinges on Eva Stachniak’s ability to create a unified, vivid character from so many interwoven personal memories of fragmentary episodes. One such episode that is particularly heartbreaking is the story of the young boy Taras, who after catching the attention of a caring empress, under her guidance builds a life for himself as an educated member of imperial society. In the end, his loyalty to Catherine will cost him his life as he is swept up in the violence surrounding a major rebellion against her rule. Stachniak tells us what inspired her to conjure up this moving image:
Eva Stachniak: I read Pushkin’s descriptions of the Pugachev’s rebellion and found enough in them to imagine a child like Taras who would have to pay the ultimate price for his desire to better himself. Catherine was known to pay for the education of many poor children, because she believed that only education could truly change someone’s life for the better. And as Pugachev went on his murderous rampage, many of Catherine’s subject lost their lives, for reasons very much like the one I invented for Taras.
A more recurring theme throughout Stachniak’s series is the troubled relationship between parents and their children at the Russian court. Does the writer think this kind of repeated family tragedy is unavoidable, perhaps in light of power relations within a dynasty?
Eva Stachniak: It’s not easy to be a child of an absolute ruler. I do believe conflict is inherent in the very core of this relationship, for absolute rule precludes the sharing of responsibilities.
In Catherine’s case there is the additional issue of her cruel separation from her first-born son, Paul, by the then-ruling empress, Elizabeth Petrovna. When Catherine was finally able to influence Paul’s education, he was already resentful of her, believing that she had robbed him of the crown. I’ve thought a lot about this troubled, destructive, and ultimately tragic mother-son relationship. Paul was clearly not as brilliant as Catherine, and he knew she didn’t think him capable of ruling Russia. A troubled man, most probably suffering from syphilis, he was doomed to madness and cruel death. His hatred of his mother made him wish to destroy her legacy, no matter how good it was for his kingdom.
Ultimately, even emperors cannot escape the temporary nature of their time on earth, For Catherine, it was a simple stroke that finally marked the end of a long and full life. It is this stroke that serves as the jumping-off point for the entire novel. One could wonder why Stachniak decided to give precedence to something so banal. However, the author counters with fierce enthusiasm – and unmistakable love for her character:
But this is the first moment when Catherine is truly powerless and alone in many many years! More powerless and more alone than when she arrived in Russia at 14. Her body betrayed her, her courtiers abandoned her, her grandson refused to obey her orders. This is a monumental and truly unsettling moment, which forces reflection on all that has led to it. This is why I wanted my novel to begin right then.
Now that the story of Catherine has come to a close, what are Eva Stachniak’s plans for the future. After Empress of the Night, can fans of her books expect her to ever return to the Russian court?
Eva Stachniak: Not the court, but I do have one more Russian book in me… I’m writing a new novel. It begins at the end of the 19th century and ends in 1939. My main character is Bronislava Nijinska, Vaslav’s Nijnsky’s younger sister, a wonderfully talented dancer in her own right, one of the first women choreographers. And ethnically Polish, though born and raised in Russia… Imperial dancers interest me more than the Romanovs, though both the dancers and the remnants of Russian aristocracy would rub shoulders in Paris, London, Berlin of the 1920s…
While she leaves us to ponder the significance of this interesting teaser, Stachniak can enjoy the rewards of her efforts; just last week, Empress of the Night reached the 7th position in the Canadian top ten of best-selling books.