Book Talk: Maid's tale of Catherine the Great

Thu Jan 12, 2012 7:54am EST
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By Elaine Lies

TOKYO (Reuters) - Before Catherine the Great became a powerful Russian ruler, she was a naive German princess invited to court in St. Petersburg by her aunt, the Empress Elizabeth.

Catherine's early intrigues, her affairs, and her rise to power are narrated by servant and spy Varvara in "The Winter Palace" by Eva Stachniak, in the first of two books on the subject.

Stachniak, who came to Canada from Poland at 29, spoke about Catherine, who she feels has been misjudged by history.

Q: What is Catherine's appeal to you?

A: "I think that first of all, she is a very powerful woman. She's also a wonderful example of someone who, as an immigrant, is able to blend into another culture and make it her own and flourish in it. Because I'm an immigrant myself, I'm always fascinated by people who are able to shed one culture, enough to get into the skin of another, and function in another language.

"I grew up in Poland, where Catherine was always present. She was the Russian Czarina who destroyed Poland, basically. So she was always there, you always felt her presence. She was not very much liked, and so for me that was another very interesting challenge. As a writer, I love going into my Polish prejudices and shattering them."

Q: Was she different when seen from the outside?

A: "For me, I had to break through a sense of an evil empress, who was able to rule and fool everybody. That was the kind of press she had in Poland, that she was able to fool the West, present an enlightened facade and in fact ruled Russia the way Stalin ruled Russia. But when I started looking at her from the outside I realized she was far more complicated. Yes, of course, she had to rule Russia, and she was not able to rule Russia the way she wanted to. She wanted to tackle serfdom, and legislation, she wanted a lot of reforms, she called herself a republican. She was not a hypocrite. But she was a very pragmatic politician."   Continued...