In 1986, there was an absolutely superb TV mini-series about Peter the Great. They don’t make programmes like that any more! I found the story of his second wife, Martha Skavronskaya/Marta Skowronska, the peasant girl who ended up becoming Tsarina Catherine I, Empress of all the Russias, fascinating. So, 34 years later, I was so excited to find out that someone’d written a novel about her that I splashed out on the hardback version as soon as it became available. And I really did enjoy it. I’ve got a few quibbles about historical accuracy but, as no-one really knows that much about Marta/Catherine’s early life, it’d hard to criticise too much. However, what the book *didn’t* do was what it said on the tin. It was subtitled “the most powerful woman history ever forgot” – but it didn’t cover her time as tsarina regnant. It finished when Peter died, apart from a couple of pages covering Catherine’s death two years later. Why write a book about the incredibly story of an illiterate peasant girl becoming Empress of all the Russias but not show her actually, er, *being* Empress?! Very entertaining book, but what a strange ending.
I think of her as Martha Skavronskaya, but that’s the Russified version of her name. She was originally Marta Skowronska. Annoyingly, the book calls her Marta Skowronski, which is incorrect: that’s the masculine form of her name. In all the confusion in the Baltic between the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Swedish Empire and what became the Russian Empire, no-one’s very clear about her history, although the name’s Polish. She was born in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, somehow ended up as a maidservant in the home of a Lutheran pastor in what’s now Latvia, was married off to a Swedish soldier and, when Russian troops occupied the area during the Great Northern War, somehow (there are a lot of “somehows”!) came to be part of the Russian camp, went back to Moscow with the soldiers, became part of the household of Peter’s best mate Menshikov, and was then noticed by Peter and became his mistress.
Ellen Alpsten’s come up with a very lurid tale in which Marta was an illegitimate child brought up by a brutish father and wicked stepmother, sold to a landowner who raped all his maidservants, murdered the landowner, ran off to Latvia with the money she’d stolen from his household, was taken in by the pastor whilst starving on the streets, had an affair with the pastor’s son, was married off to the Swedish soldier, and was then raped by Russian troops whilst trying to get to her husband’s deathbed and was taken to the Russian camp by a general who took pity on her. As no-one actually knows the truth of it all, it’s hard to criticise an author for making up stories, but she should have said in the afterword that she’d made it up. It’s very annoying when authors don’t do that.
After that, things are pretty well-documented, or at least the subject of well-known and widely-accepted stories (like the one about Catherine’s lover, whose head Peter had pickled in a jar), and the book sticks fairly well to the known facts. Some bits are exaggerated – there are stories that Catherine had Peter’s baby son by his mistress Maria Cantemir poisoned, but I’m not sure where the story included here, about Catherine having Maria infected with smallpox, came from! – and there are a few careless errors (Peter’s mistress Anna Mons and her brother, Catherine’s probable lover William Mons, are described as being German when they were actually Dutch) – but there are no major inaccuracies.
It’s coarse, brutish and vulgar, but it was! The Most Drunken Synod and all that! And it sometimes seems as if half the book’s about Catherine’s pregnancies, but she did have twelve pregnancies – but, sadly, only two children who survived to adulthood. Her fascinating daughter Elizabeth’s bad reputation is exaggerated a bit, as well! It was nice to see Elizabeth as a young girl: I’m used to seeing her as the bossy aunt-in-law in books about Catherine II.
There’s a lot about the Great Northern War and the Russo-Turkish War, and a lot about court intrigue, but there’s not much about domestic politics. The Tsarevich’s links with the Old Believers are not even mentioned. Nor is the Table of Ranks. And there’s very little about things like Peter introducing Western dress. But, OK, it’s not a textbook, and the ins and outs of the Table of Ranks possibly wouldn’t be that interesting to the general reader. And it kept me gripped all the way through. Admittedly, a book about Imperial Russia would have to be really bad not to keep me gripped, but this wasn’t bad at all. It was just so strange that it didn’t cover Catherine’s time as ruling tsarina.
The reign of the empresses is fascinating in general, but Catherine I’s case is particularly fascinating. Catherine II was born a princess, albeit a very minor one. Catherine I was a peasant girl who never even learned to read and write. And she has been largely forgotten … although so has the Empress Anna; and even the Empress Elizabeth isn’t as well-known as she should be, overshadowed by Catherine II. It was wonderful to find a book about her, but so very odd that it didn’t actually cover her reign.