Yesterday, I reviewed The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak. Today I’m thrilled to present a guest post by Eva about the research she did in writing this book:
When I decided to write about Catherine the Great I knew I had to go to St Petersburg and see the city where Catherine spent so many years of her life. I chose to go there during the white nights, because I live in Ontario, Canada, and I can imagine winter far easier than I can imagine constant daylight of the far north.
I knew it would be a unforgettable journey.
My husband knows how relentless I’m when I travel on a mission. I stop only when I’m too tired to make another step. Luckily for him, Russian food was on my research list, so we made frequent stops in Russian restaurants to sample bliny, smoked fish, borsch, and try some flavored vodkas.
What I searched for was imprints of Catherine’s presence. The Winter Palace itself offers some, but I knew the palace Catherine would’ve remembered burnt down almost completely in 1837 and has been extensively remodeled and rebuilt since. But some things didn’t change. The view from the windows on the Neva is still there, and so are the paintings Catherine collected, her jewels, her china, her carriage, her dresses. The Hermitage Museum also keeps a few rooms to illustrate how the palace looked under Peter the Great, and I could walk into these small, unassuming rooms, see tables covered by carpets rather than tablecloths, see his tools for he was an avid craftsman who loved to work with his hands.
The interiors least changed from Catherine’s times are located outside St Petersburg, in two magnificent palaces: Tsarskoye Selo (which in travel guides is called by its newer name Pushkin) and Peterhof. This is where I saw rooms commissioned by Catherine herself. I saw her study, her bedroom with a life-size porcelain figure of Zemira, one of her favorite greyhounds, her gardens, as well as paintings, sculptures and wall coverings she had commissioned at various points of her life.
This is where I fully realized how clever Catherine was in what we would now call self-promotion. A sculpture of her? Yes, but it has to show her victorious, a ruler over nations which are bending at her feet, all under a spiritual patronage of Peter the Great. A portrait? Yes, but it must reflect one of her key goals. Establish her legitimacy, for instance, or make her victories well-known. Viewed from this perspective it is easy to appreciate the wisdom of commissioning a giant sculpture of Peter the Great in St Petersburg with its laconic inscription “To Peter I from Catherine II.” Or to have so many various representations of Russian military victories: on snuffboxes, on cutlery, on plates. I can almost hear Catherine’s thoughts: when they finish their borsch let them discover a victorious scene emerging at the bottom of the plate. Let them remember that I vanquished Turkey!
What an empress! What a woman!
Thank you, Eva! Thanks to the publisher, I have one copy of The Winter Palace to give away. To enter, please fill out the form below. Open to US citizens only. The winner will be contacted via email on Monday, January 23.