Snow blankets the ground for weeks on end; rivers become ice. In the depths of Winter Russia can be an unforgiving place. One might imagine that the Winter Palace, home to generations of Empresses and Tsars, would be a place of refuge, but as the orphaned Vavara discovers when she seeks shelter there following the death of her parents, it is anything but. Through her eyes we see the unfolding story of the ruthless Empress Elizabeth, her feeble-minded and politically incompetent nephew the Grand Duke Peter, and most significant of all, the diminutive German princess who will eventually become the notorious Catherine the Great. Vavara is singled out early on in her court life as a girl of unusual intellect with the potential to be of great use to those who are constantly trying to tip the balance of power and influence in their own favour – she is to become a “tongue”, a spy. Employed first of all by the Russian Chancellor to look after his interests by winning the ear of the Empress, Vavara creates for herself the persona of a girl who needs no companionship, who is valuable to those who require her services and invisible to those who don’t. In the precariously balanced world of the court, where loyalty can be bought and the most highly favoured can fall from grace in an instant, this seems like a sensible strategy of self-preservation; but human instincts inevitably prevail and under her tough exterior, Vavara really needs a friend. The young Catherine seems at first to be the answer to her prayers, but to be the friend and confidante of someone so politically significant is fraught with danger.
This novel certainly doesn’t shy away from showing us just how dangerous the wrong alliances could be at this time. I know next to nothing about Russian history in this period, but I can well believe that the extraordinary brutality depicted here is very close to the truth. There is an element of physical brutality certainly, with public floggings as well as various deaths that occur conveniently out of sight so that state involvement can never be proved. However, the most disturbing abuses committed by Elizabeth and her supporters are the emotional ones. There are some upsetting moments here without a doubt, the worst of which I won’t reveal so as not to spoil a major plot development, but it’s enough to say that as a woman I found it almost unbearable. The place of women in this world is a very interesting one; although there are a great many male characters there is always a sense that despite a great deal of male posturing women are the axis upon which every situation turns. There is an immense paradox here: women are at once the all-powerful manipulators (the vile Empress and the clever, scheming Catherine are perfect examples) and yet at the same time they are incredibly vulnerable to the whims of others who seek to use them. Sexual abuse and harassment of women and girls by the men of the court is so commonplace that nobody raises an eyebrow, and once they come of age any girl can be married off to a man of the Empress’ choosing. Curiously though, this is never about being a battle of the sexes: the worst atrocities and betrayals on display here are those inflicted by women on other women.
Appropriately enough, the backdrop for all this torment is a very bleak place. You might expect the Winter Palace itself to be sumptuous and luxurious, the epitome of soft living; you would be wrong. The author takes great pains to ensure we see the peeling paint and dirty floors, and feel the cold draughts that whistle through broken windows – to see, in other words, this epicentre of power as it really is: harsh, cold and uncomfortable. You couldn’t get a neater metaphor for the pitiless Russian ruling class than this crumbling building, magnificent when seen from the outside, but in reality rotten to its core.
I really relished the dark side of this novel. What makes it bearable are the brief glimpses of humanity, the signs, albeit short-lived, that there can still be some hope for those people who want to do the right thing by their fellow men and women. It’s pretty much a given that not everyone who deserves it is going to get a happy ending, and the author is honest enough never to seduce us with that possibility. Yet we read on, groping for the faint light at the end of the tunnel, wanting to believe that the emotionally wounded heroine Vavara will finally find security and happiness. It works both as a character study about the disturbing lengths people will go to in order to achieve power and control, and as a scintillating piece of history that makes you eager to go away and learn more. It’s a thrilling read and an absolute must for all lovers of historical fiction.