The Tsarina’s Daughter by Ellen Alpsten

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I’ve been waiting for decades to find a novel featuring the Tsarina Elizabeth as the main character, rather than as a minor character in a book centred on Peter the Great or Catherine the Great, so thank you to Ellen Alpsten for writing this, and thank you to Amazon for making it available on a 99p Kindle download.

However, it was quite an odd book: it couldn’t quite seem to make up its mind what it wanted to be.  Much of it was a historical novel, which was what I wanted, but there was a very odd fantasy (a nod to Game of Thrones?) passage about Elizabeth wandering into the mysterious Golosov Ravine and being attacked by evil spirits, quite a lot of very slushy romantic/sexual passages, and one bit, about Elizabeth making sweet bread with salt instead of sugar, which read as if it’d been written by Laura Ingalls Wilder or Elinor M Brent-Dyer and really did *not* seem to belong in a book about 18th century Romanovs.

All in all, it was a good read, though.  The Age of the Empresses is a fascinating period, but people just tend to jump from Peter the Great to Catherine the Great and ignore everyone in between.  However, Ellen Alpsten’s previous book focused on Catherine I, Elizabeth’s mother, and much of this book covered the reign of Anna Ivanovna.  It ended when Elizabeth deposed Anna Leopoldovna, Anna Ivanovna’s niece and regent for Ivan VI, but I think there’s a third book to come, which will cover Elizabeth’s own reign.  It’s fascinating that all these women ruled the vast Russian Empire in a man’s world.  And, indeed, that they all had lovers – in Anna Leopoldovna’s case, lovers of both genders – , which would have been considered very shocking at most European courts, but wasn’t in Russia.

Some of the lesser characters had been merged together, to keep the cast list down, but the author did explain that.  And Praskovia Ivanovna, the third surviving daughter of Ivan V, wasn’t mentioned at all, but, again, I suppose the author was trying to keep the number of characters down to levels she felt were manageable.  My one big gripe in terms of historical accuracy or inaccuracy was that the book suggested that Ivan V wasn’t actually the father of any of his daughters, which isn’t something that’s generally believed.

It even gave that as the reason why Elizabeth launched her coup, which I didn’t get at all. She launched her coup because she wanted to rule, and because the two Annas made a mess of things and were seen as allowing a German takeover of the court and causing great suffering amongst the Russian people.  Why not just stick with that?  Anna Ivanovna was absolutely vilified here, which is very much the Russian view and not always the international view; but the book was written from Elizabeth’s viewpoint, in the first person, so that fitted.

Despite the odd mishmash of styles, I did really enjoy this, and am looking forward to reading the third book in the series.  As I said, it’s wonderful to find books focusing on the women who ruled Russia in the period between the two “great” reigns.  Elizabeth made a huge contribution to Russian history, and indeed to European history, and she doesn’t deserve to be neglected in the way that she often is.  It really does annoy me how practically every book and TV programme on 18th century Russia just jumps from Peter the Great to Catherine the Great!  Well done to Ellen Alpsten for breaking that trend!

Tsarina by Ellen Alpsten

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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.