Empress of the Night: A Novel of Catherine the Great

  • By Eva Stachniak
  • Bantam
  • 400 pp.
  • Reviewed by Alka Pradhan
  • April 16, 2014

An illuminating account of how an obscure German princess came to rule Russia.

Empress of the Night: A Novel of Catherine the Great

Catherine the Great once said, “I am one of those people who love the ‘why’ of things,” and the historical account of her long reign makes clear that she often discovered the “whys” of the problems that Russia faced, along with their solutions. At its heart, the story of Catherine the Great is simple and compelling: an obscure German princess, Sophie, navigates a difficult political landscape to marry Peter, the heir to the Russian throne – and then overthrows her husband and takes the throne herself.

There were enormous challenges inherent in Catherine’s rise, including learning Russian language and culture, cultivating political allies as a foreigner, and wresting and then holding power in an infamously fickle court for over 34 years. Also, yes, famously retaining lovers who could advise her and advance her agenda.

In The Winter Palace, author Eva Stachniak’s first book on Catherine the Great, a fictional confidante to the young princess Sophie narrates her ascension to the Russian throne, ending with her coronation. Stachniak characterizes Empress of the Night as a complement to The Winter Palace, and this time presents an inside view from Catherine herself, reflecting upon key episodes of her entire reign in flashback as a stroke slowly claims her at the age of 67. The empress recalls her first months in her new home as Princess Sophie, distancing herself from her scheming mother and assimilating into Russian life. Even as she seeks to please her foolish, mentally impaired husband, Sophie slowly accepts that hers would not be a loving marriage – in fact, courtiers whisper in her ear, there might not need to be a marriage at all.

The transformation in Catherine’s character from ingénue to hardened politician is startling, and peppered with appearances from personalities familiar to any Russian history buff, including the future king of Poland, Stanislaw Poniatowski; dashing officer Grigory Orlov (whose forces overthrew Peter); and statesman Gregory Potemkin. Stachniak deftly weaves back and forth in time, speeding up and slowing down moments to capture Catherine’s inner feelings and calculations.

Occasionally, that dance with time via Stachniak’s narrative choices leaves the reader confused, as when time suddenly jumps forward from young Catherine’s heady days post-coup to rest upon a seasoned, middle-aged monarch. In these jolts, Stachniak maintains continuity through the presence of Catherine’s lovers in succession, with Orlov and Potemkin given the most attention.

Yet anchoring the novel in recollections of her affairs reduces Catherine’s robust reign to a less dynamic tale of a woman led by forceful, manipulative men.

Catherine the Great took many lovers, discarded some, and kept others as trusted advisers. But much like Elizabeth I of England, her political acumen was her own. There is little reason to doubt Catherine’s preternatural control over Russian politics following her husband’s deposal, and more exploration of this – how she engaged with allies and gathered intelligence – would have been welcome.

Stachniak herself seems somewhat ill at ease with Catherine’s romantic relationships, composing dialogue between lovers that is at best overwrought and at worst unrealistic. An early example is the young Sophie’s first lover, Serge Saltykov, who awakens her sexual appetite and then harshly admonishes her, saying, “I’m a liar. I don’t care for any woman who has yielded to me. I wish it were not so, but this is how I am. I love only what I cannot have …[y]ou spoil my game with your pain.” One hopes that with such awkward admissions, Serge’s career as a playboy didn’t go far beyond the naïve princess.

Regardless, Stachniak captures well the physically and politically imposing empress during the scandals and glories of her later years, and the episodes Catherine relates of her efforts to secure her dynasty’s future are fascinating in large part because they are true. Catherine’s scorn for her heir, Paul (of whose paternity even she cannot be sure), emerges through her decision to keep him under virtual house arrest and her plot to replace him with her far more capable grandson.

Nearly half the novel details the slow negotiation between an elderly Catherine and the king of Sweden over what would have been a brilliant strategic marriage with her granddaughter Alexandrine, which derails on the engagement day itself over the king’s refusal to accept Alexandrine’s Russian Orthodox religion. In the novel, Stachniak evocatively describes the humiliation of the defeat, leading to Catherine’s decline and stroke several months later.

In fact, Stachniak’s account of the event mirrors the historical account perfectly, and provides a perfect moment of historical fiction where the characters truly come to life for the reader. At such points, Stachniak’s grasp of the “why” is illuminating, and Catherine herself would have nodded approvingly.

Alka Pradhan is a national security lawyer living in Washington, DC. She enjoys books of many kinds, but historical fiction above all else. 

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