Today on The Australian Bookshelf, author of Empress of The Night: A Novel of Catherine the Great stops by to chat about the inspiration behind her novel.
The Winter Palace re-imagined the rise of Catherine the Great through the watchful eyes of her servant.
Now, in Empress of the Night, Catherine takes centre stage, reliving her astonishing rule over an empire, and the sacrifices that made her the most feared and commanding woman of her time.
Catherine the Great has been in the news quite a lot these days. After all she was the Russian Tsarina who—with her lover and political partner Grigory Potemkin— took the Crimea from the Ottoman Turks in 1783. Her political goals were clear. Following in the footsteps of Peter the Great, Catherine wanted to assure Russia’s access to warm-water ports and secure Russia’s position as a formidable force at the political gaming table of the 18th century Europe.
I’ve given much thought to Catherine the Great’s life and her political decisions. I’ve written two novels about her. In The Winter Palace I showed her through the eyes of her spy and confidante; in the just published Empress of the Night I portrayed her as a politician and a woman. One of the sections of Empress of the Night shows Catherine during her famous Crimean Journey, a trip organized for her by Potemkin who wanted to present to his beloved matushka her newly conquered lands.
In April of 1787—as soon as the ice on the Dnieper River had cracked—a fleet of luxurious barges painted red and gold and decorated with the imperial double-headed eagle departed from Kiev carrying the empress and her courtiers. Potemkin made sure nothing went amiss. He had printed guidebooks with descriptions of towns and villages they would pass. He created instant gardens for his empress and her court at every stop, gardens he would order packed and recreated over and over again. Ever since the annexation of the Crimea, Potemkin had been building roads, establishing ports and towns, and —as Catherine demanded—integrating the Crimean Tatars into her Empire without destroying their Muslim culture.
The Crimean journey is a key section in Empress of the Night. Catherine was triumphant then, at the zenith of her power. Delighted with Potemkin’s achievements, she admired her newly established towns and met her newly acquired subjects. She received visitors, the Polish King and the Emperor of Austria among them, impressing them with Russia’s might.
But victories come at a price. The Polish King left the imperial barge a defeated man and, in a few years, Poland would erupt in another bloody uprising against Russian domination. The Ottoman Turks would be getting ready for another war by the time Catherine returned to the Winter Palace. I believe that in 1796 when Catherine lay dying, paralyzed by the massive stroke, her thoughts returned to these moments. Perhaps, by then—confronted with her own mortality—she realized that triumph can blind. That payments for all conquests may last many lifetimes.
As we are witnessing right now.
Eva Stachniak was born and raised in Wrocław, Poland. She moved to Canada in 1981 to pursue her post-graduate degree in English at McGill. She has worked for Radio Canada International (Montreal) and Sheridan College (Oakville) where she taught English and humanities. Her debut novel, Necessary Lies, won the Amazon.ca/Books in Canada First Novel Award in 2000. The Winter Palace, her first novel of Catherine the Great, an international bestseller, has been included in The Washington Post 2012 list of most notable fiction. Empress of the Night, her second Catherine novel, has just been published in Canada and the US. It is currently available in the UK, Australia and New Zealand as an e-book. Eva Stachniak lives in Toronto, where she is at work on her next novel which takes place in inter-war Europe among Russian exiles.