THE TSARINA’S DAUGHTER
Ellen Alpsten’s stunning novel, The Tsarina’s Daughter, is the dramatic story of Elizabeth, daughter of Catherine I and Peter the Great, who ruled Russia during an extraordinary life marked by love, danger, passion and scandal.
Born into the House of Romanov to the all-powerful Peter the Great and his wife, Catherine, a former serf, beautiful Tsarevna Elizabeth is the envy of the Russian empire. She is insulated by luxury and spoiled by her father, who dreams for her to marry King Louis XV of France and rule in Versailles. But when a woodland creature gives her a Delphic prophecy,
Ellen Alpsten’s stunning novel, The Tsarina’s Daughter, is the dramatic story of Elizabeth, daughter of Catherine I and Peter the Great, who ruled Russia during an extraordinary life marked by love, danger, passion and scandal.
Born into the House of Romanov to the all-powerful Peter the Great and his wife, Catherine, a former serf, beautiful Tsarevna Elizabeth is the envy of the Russian empire. She is insulated by luxury and spoiled by her father, who dreams for her to marry King Louis XV of France and rule in Versailles. But when a woodland creature gives her a Delphic prophecy, her life is turned upside down. Her volatile father suddenly dies, her only brother has been executed and her mother takes the throne of Russia.
As friends turn to foes in the dangerous atmosphere of the Court, the princess must fear for her freedom and her life. Fate deals her blow after blow, and even loving her becomes a crime that warrants cruel torture and capital punishment: Elizabeth matures from suffering victim to strong and savvy survivor. But only her true love and the burning passion they share finally help her become who she is. When the Imperial Crown is left to an infant Tsarevich, Elizabeth finds herself in mortal danger and must confront a terrible dilemma–seize the reins of power and harm an innocent child, or find herself following in the footsteps of her murdered brother.
Hidden behind a gorgeous, wildly decadent façade, the Russian Imperial Court is a viper’s den of intrigue and ambition. Only a woman possessed of boundless courage and cunning can prove herself worthy to sit on the throne of Peter the Great.
- St. Martin's Griffin
- March 2022
- 512 Pages
“Astonishing…the ultimate Cinderella story.” —Daisy Goodwin, bestselling author of The Fortune Hunter
“A fascinating and extraordinary ride.” —Booklist (starred)
“Alpsten shines.” —Publishers Weekly
“As detailed as the jewels and enamel inlay on the creations of Faberge.” —Adriana Trigiani, bestselling author of The Shoemaker’s Wife
“Masterfully researched and beautifully written.” —Nancy Goldstone, author of Rival Queens
“Intrigue, rivalry, and sumptuous decadence leap to vivid life.” —C.W. Gortner, author of The Romanov Empress
Game of Thrones without the dragons.” —Natasha Pulley, author of the international bestseller The Watchmaker of Filigree Street
“Tsarina should come with a health warning—once you start reading, it’s impossible to stop.” —Hannah Rothschild, bestselling author of House of Trelawney
“Alpsten’s colourful narrative does full justice to [Catherine’s] extraordinary career.” —Sunday Times (UK)
“An entertaining romp through the endless intrigue, violence and debauchery of court life.” —Mail on Sunday (UK)
“A vivid page-turner of a debut.” —The Times (UK)
1. Is Elizabeth a sympathetic heroine, and if not, do we always understand her decisions?
2. For history buffs: Is it justified to call her “The Other Elizabeth,” comparing her to Elizabeth I of England?
3. What are the turning points for Elizabeth’s character, moments that make her mature from ingenue to victim to strong survivor?
4. I was barely twenty and had lived enough for three lives. Discuss this sentence, comparing Lizenka to a modern twenty-year-old.
5. What did you know about the early Romanovs—either from your own studies, or as portrayed in popular film/television adaptations—before reading this novel?
6. How, if at all, did it teach you about, or change your impression of, this important moment— the making of the Russian nation?
7. To what extent do you think the author took artistic liberties with this work? What does it take for a novelist to bring a “real” woman to life?
8. Who, apart from Lizenka, is your favorite character in the book and why?
9. Whom would you like to cast as the tsarina’s daughter if there were a TV or movie adaptation?
10. We are taught, as young readers, that every story has a “moral.” Is there a moral to this novel?
11. What can we learn about our world—and ourselves—from Lizenka’s story?
EIGHTEEN YEARS EARLIER—SPRING 1723
We had gone to Mother’s palace in Kolomenskoye, as always when we needed safety, solace, and strength. Ever since my elder half-brother, the Tsarevich Alexey, died, Mother had struggled to give Father, Tsar Peter the Great of All the Russias, an heir to the world’s largest and wealthiest realm. A couple of weeks prior to our departure, she had been delivered of yet another stillborn son.
It was a relief to leave St. Petersburg shortly after Easter: I had hardly known my half-brother, as Alexey had been eighteen years older than I. Mother’s recent misfortune weighed on me more heavily. Still, we had celebrated Easter, the most joyous and sacred of Russian holidays, as usual by handing out brightly painted eggs to all the courtiers and wishing them well: Christ had risen. While our own plates remained as good as untouched, we watched them feast on kulich—a sweet, yeasty, dome-shaped bread—and pashka—a custard made of cheese curd, almonds, and dried fruit.
When I stepped out of the Winter Palace shortly after dawn, I felt like drinking in the cool spring air, to chase away any memory of the long, stuffy, dark months of winter and the atmosphere of dread and sorrow that still lingered inside. Morning slid into the dawn light as smooth as a dove’s wing, offering us a first glimpse of the sunrises of summer: a hazy blend of mauve, mustard, and mother-of-pearl. The ottepel, or great thaw, had begun, and already winter’s stark handover from day to night was beginning to fade, the harsh contrasts softening. No change in Russia comes about easily, not even the shift in the seasons. The ottepel’s strength shocked us anew, year after year, as it made rivers swell and tore open the earth. Our jaded spirits lifted as snow and ice receded, the light lingering longer day upon day for the span of a cockerel’s crow. Sunshine warmed the frozen earth and thawed the frost and rime from our veins, stirring the blood, quickening the heartbeat. The spring winds scattered seeds over the land, bringing with them the promise of fertility; they blew the cobwebs from our minds, rousing Russia from its drowsy stupor.
My sister Anoushka was older than I by a year, and we knew Mother’s palace of Kolomenskoye well. We had spent the first years of our lives there, before our parents were married, and before each of us was proclaimed Tsarevna, Imperial Princess. Mother, the Tsaritsa, had always accompanied Father wherever he went, be it in the field of the Great Northern War against Sweden—a struggle for Russia’s survival that had weighed on our country for almost two decades—or on his travels to the West and all over Europe.
Despite being the Tsar’s daughters, at Kolomenskoye we roamed as freely as peasant children. Our nurse Illinchaya let us run barefoot in the red dust beneath the poplar trees, wearing loose plain dresses, and fed us soups and stews, staples of a Russian peasant kitchen. Under her watchful eye, we visited the dovecotes of the Tsar’s falconer and reared kittens in spring, picked berries in the forest or swam in clear lakes in summer. In autumn we foraged for mushrooms or played hide-and-seek in gigantic heaps of rustling leaves. In winter we went ice-skating and tobogganing or built igloos and once even a portly snow woman, which looked suspiciously like Illinchaya herself. She had laughed so much at the sight; she coughed and wheezed. In the evening she climbed into bed with us—“Come here, my little doves, and tuck your beaks beneath my wings!”—and told us old Russian fairy tales, all set in Kolomenskoye, which we were told teemed with evil spirits, beautiful maidens who were abducted, and strong young men who saved them. “This is old earth. I have seen these things happen myself,” Illinchaya declared and crossed herself with three fingers, signifying the Holy Trinity of the Russian Orthodox Church.
“I did not get to say goodbye to Father,” I said as Anoushka and I walked to the carriage. She shook her head at me in a silent warning, her gaze searching the windows of the Tsar’s apartment in the upper reaches of the Winter Palace. The curtains were still drawn; Father slept on after emptying at least two or three bottles of vodka on his own the evening before. A chamberlain’s bare belly would serve as his pillow. Only the warmth of flesh on flesh kept his demons at bay: he’d feared sleep ever since Alexey’s death.
“Nobody has seen Father since Mother was brought to bed last, Lizenka,” Anoushka reminded me, calling me by my pet name. “He had hoped so much for a son. Russia needs an heir. The Old Believers blight his life.”
The Old Believers hated the Tsar for his reforms and the change he had brought to Russian life: Father had twisted the country about like a doll’s head, making his people turn from the East to the West. The Tsarevich himself had been the leader of the Old Believers. When my half-brother had been accused of high treason and sentenced to death, the unthinkable had happened. Driven mad by disappointment and fear for the future of his realm, Father had executed his only son and heir with his own hands. Ever since, all mention of Alexey was forbidden.
“I need him,” I said, my voice small. Could I not simply sneak up into Father’s rooms and take my leave? No.
“Russia needs him more. Careful, Lizenka. Think of how he treats little Petrushka.”
Petrushka was Alexey’s young son. Father had removed the boy—his only grandson—from his and our lives, tearing our nephew from the family as he would twist a tick from behind his mongrel dog’s ear. Petrushka should not be a pawn in the Old Believers’ hands. Any chance of him, a traitor’s son, ever ruling, had to be eradicated. No wonder that nightmares plagued Father: the wardens in the Trubetzkoi Bastion, where Alexey had died, swore that the Tsarevich’s soul had fled his body in the shape of a crow. After that the Tsar had called open season on the hapless birds all over his Empire. Farmers caught, killed, plucked, and roasted them for reward. None of this helped: silently, at night, the bird would slip into Father’s bedchamber. In the cool shadow of its ebony wings, the blood on the Tsar’s hands never dried. It could be horrid to witness Father in the grip of this delusion: he roused the Winter Palace with his screams. Only Mother could soothe him then.
“Let us hope he will be better when we see him in June, to celebrate his name day,” I said. I was still not quite able to link the terrifying authority of the Tsar, who was tortured by his deeds, to the warm and embracing father on whose knees I loved to climb so that his dark, bristly mustache tickled me—“Come here and pull my whiskers, Lizenka!” He had taught me how to lathe a timber plank—“If my hands are busy I have the best ideas!”—and to tack a boat, the power of the wind delighting him: “Keep your head down and hold the rudder tight!”
“Come time, he will accept God’s will, as always. Now do not dawdle. Get in.” Anoushka pushed me inside the carriage, a gaily painted little house on wheels. Mattresses layered with thick polar bear skins and embroidered velvet cushions had been spread copiously for our comfort, but I loathed the journey: several arshin of ice and snow melting in the thaw had turned the roads to bog. Kolomenskoye lay a good six hundred versty away from St. Petersburg, which would take us only three or four days in the freeze while sitting in big, comfortable sleds, instead of the two weeks it would do now. The rivers were swollen and the barges leaky, while the roads were pockmarked with treacherous potholes and deep, muddy ruts. Inside the carriage we bumped into each other like hams dangling in the flue of a smokehouse. Normally these mishaps would make us laugh aloud, shoving each other even harder, breathless with mirth after taking tumbles. Now, though, we sat up again, resuming our former places, sighing but otherwise silent. Father had sent his favorite Portuguese dwarf, d’Acosta, along to amuse us. But after an ill-judged jest in which the imp had shoved a cushion underneath his shirt, moaning and arching his back like a woman suffering from birth pangs, Mother’s lady-in-waiting had slapped and gagged him. Now d’Acosta cowered in a corner, bound like a chicken for market, cheeks bulging and eyes watering. By the third day the gag was no longer necessary: he sat as silent and sullen as any of us—Mother, her lady-in-waiting, Anoushka, and me.
As any dacha along the road still lay deserted, we slept in inns. D’Acosta relished using his whip to chase grown men off the top of the gigantic flat oven—whose steady heat warmed the room, roasted the pork and poultry, dried the clothes, and served the innkeeper’s family for a bed at night—clearing space for our party. We rarely had our own rooms but stretched out on the rough benches or on bedding rolled over the soiled straw.
“Why can’t we sleep beneath the stars and cook on an open fire? That is what spring means to me,” I whispered to Anoushka one night, curling up close, my body pressed tightly against hers.
“You will have to wait for Kolomenskoye for that,” was the answer. “Mother needs to rest and try to forget her cares. Once she is more settled, you can do whatever you want.”
“I wish!” I giggled, then lay in silence, hoping to feel less sick in a while after yet another supper of kasha—a salted millet porridge greasy with bacon—or some fermented cabbage, the sauerkraut that innkeepers invariably offered us. At the end of winter, the storerooms and larders were emptying fast, and people scraped the barrel literally. For me this was yet another reason to look forward to the bounty of spring. It provided Russians with delicacies such as fish, pork, poultry, caviar, mushrooms, berries, and honey, while new crops of rye, wheat, barley, and millet allowed for our variety of breads, little pastries, pierogi, pelmeni, and pancakes such as blintshiki. At least we moved on quickly: in an inn we could easily change horses. D’Acosta took his pick from the stables, never paying.
What belonged to any Russian, first and foremost belonged to the Tsar.
“After everything that has happened, this will be good for us,” I said, as the six strong horses harnessed in single file before our carriage crossed the orchards and the vast park surrounding Kolomenskoye. An endless number of carts followed. They were laden with stout chests secured with chains and locks, holding all our belongings: furniture, rugs, china, crystal, bedding, and chandeliers. The Tsar’s palaces stood empty during his absence, as the risk of fire ravishing them, or else thieves burgling them while the guards lay in a drunken stupor, was too great to leave them fully furnished. Next to our wagon train roamed livestock—cows, goats, chickens, and sheep—to supplement the provisions in Kolomenskoye’s kitchen. Red dust billowed underfoot, suffusing the last pale rays of the setting sun. Our throats were parched as the dust passed easily through the mica panes of the ancient carriage’s doors, settling in our pores, eyes, mouths. I hoped Illinchaya, who now acted as a housekeeper for the palace, still had some of last year’s elderflower cordial left to blend with fresh cool water from the estate’s spring. It was so deliciously refreshing I would have liked to bathe in it.
“Why are you saying this?” Mother looked worn, I noticed, from her recent blood loss, exhaustion from the journey, and more. Her slanted green eyes lacked fire; her full lips seemed bloodless. Her maid had struggled to coif her dark tresses, which hung limp and dull.
I sat up defiantly. “We have to heal and not silence our sorrows. Feofan Prokopovich told me that grief swallows the soul. And isn’t he the Archbishop of Novgorod and the wisest priest in Russia, who always gives Father the best counsel?”
“Lizenka is right,” Anoushka chimed in. “We must not fear. We know how much Father loves us all, despite what he did to—”
Mother pressed a warning finger to her lips, reminding us that Father had forbidden us to speak Alexey’s name ever again. “Silence protects, too,” she said. “Least said, soonest mended.” Then, though, her eyes lit up. “Feofan Prokopovich has told me something, too.”
“What did he say?” I asked.
“Come the day of reckoning, I shall have given the Tsar an heir for Russia.” She crossed her arms defiantly, her fingers brushing the deep scars on her lower inner arms. When I had first seen these gashes some weeks ago, after Feofan Prokopovich had hastily blessed and buried my stillborn brother’s small corpse—much too small to go into the earth like that, alone—the wounds’ frightening precision had terrified me. “Why could God not leave me this son?” Mother had wailed, lying in her bed. “Why did he not take another … Anoushka, or you, Lizenka? You are only girls.” Her lady-in-waiting had ushered me out, whispering: “It is unbearable. The Tsaritsa has lost so much blood that the doctor has forbidden her any further pregnancies. There will be no son. Pray for Her Majesty, Tsarevna Elizabeth.”
“As you say, Feofan is the wisest man in Russia. So, all hope is not lost for me,” said Mother, pushing Anoushka and me into an answer that would ease this greatest of her worries.
“Of course not. You will give Father an heir. We will not stop believing this, whatever happens,” Anoushka said.
“You know what Father says: never give up!” I added.
“My girls. I love your spirit,” Mother said, a hint of pride in her brittle voice.
“Guess where we get it from,” I said, and gently took hold of her hands so that they no longer cradled her empty womb.
* * *
The carriage rattled on toward the palace: finally we had arrived! The poplar trees growing all around Kolomenskoye were in blossom. Wind-borne seeds—pukh—billowed in clouds like snow in spring and hazed the air. They settled like a halo over Mother and Anoushka’s dark tresses as I poked my head out of the window and quickly ducked back: the horses kicked up mud and loose stones that could take out an unwary traveler’s eye.
“I can see Kolomenskoye,” I shouted, delighted. “God, it’s been so long. Look! Just look!”
Anoushka and I scuffled for the best view: Moscow was a jumble of brightly painted wooden houses of every size crammed around its thousand churches and their spires. The city coiled around its dark and brooding heart, the Kremlin. Somewhere a church bell was always giving tongue in Russia’s former capital, calling for hours of devotion in a long service or else honoring a saint, rendering conversation impossible. The city had grown as rampant as a weed over the centuries, the stronghold of Rus, the territory from which our great country grew. By contrast, in St. Petersburg—Father’s shiny new “paradise”—every street and canal had been carefully planned, copying the best features of cities he had seen and admired on his travels in the West. The Italian envoy called it “a kind of bastard architecture, which steals from the Italian, the French, and the Dutch.” Palaces, mansions, and houses with elegant flat façades were strung like pearls along the Neva’s embankments and the dozen man-made waterways. Crossing the city’s streets on a stormy day was like a steeplechase: the wind dislodged any loose tiles, sending them crashing down, narrowly missing people, or not, as they ran for their lives, tripping and falling on the uneven, sloppily laid cobblestones.
Kolomenskoye, however, arose as if from an ancient dream: my grandfather Tsar Alexis, the second Tsar of All the Russias in the Romanov line, had built this palatial hunting lodge above the River Moskva. It sat on a ridge like the colorful crest of an undulating wave of green parkland, forests, brooks, and ravines. The ground floor, with its stables, storerooms, and pantries, was built from timber and now-crumbling wattle and daub—a mix of bleached clay, sand, and dung. Behind its tiny windows—mere unglazed gaps—the servants would huddle together with the livestock, bodies and breath mingling. Bundles of boiled moss still filled cracks in the rendering here and there, but the flaking patches of tar would not keep out the cockroaches this summer. Also the walls urgently needed new whitewash to prevent wasps building their nests on them. On the first floor, where we would live, light and a steady stream of drafts flooded the palace from its countless big, ill-fitting windows with proper glass panes, the timber surrounds brightly painted. Yet Kolomenskoye’s roof was the house’s crowning, messy glory, despite its myriad missing slates. It was inspired by the different shapes and styles of roofs throughout All the Russias: be it rising like a staircase, bulging out like onion-shaped Byzantine cupolas, lying hipped and deep-drawn like a Polish cap, or, in a finishing touch, piercing the late-afternoon sky with sharp spires as pointy as needles.
Even Mother pressed herself up to the window: “I love this place especially,” she said. “It was my first proper home. When your father gave it to me, I was not yet even his wife. He wanted to reward me for your safe arrival, Anoushka. And just a year later, you were born here, Lizenka, on the day of the big parade after Poltava—”
“—when Father and Russia celebrated his victory over the Swedish devils, under the December stars, with my feet coming first, and Illinchaya, who brought you chicken broth to help you recover your strength, paled with fear at this sign, while Father threatened to flog and flay her, but you pleaded for her life, saying she should not be punished for helping you survive such a difficult birth,” I rattled off. I had heard the story so often that I knew it by heart.
For the first time in what felt like an eternity, we all laughed together—even the dwarf d’Acosta forgot all the callous jesting, slapping, and gagging—just as the carriage pulled up in Kolomenskoye’s graveled courtyard.
A Conversation with Ellen Alpsten
Could you tell us a little bit about your background, and when you decided that you wanted to lead a literary life?
I was born in the highlands of Northern Kenya, at the foot of mystical Mount Elgon, where life glows in Technicolor. My father is a vet, my mother taught at a local school. We had no TV, but a big garden, plenty of pets—a wounded serval cat, a grumpy polo pony called Calypso, and at times even a baby crocodile—and lots of books: my godmother sent me a monthly book parcel. I read, I drew, I wrote in my diary (recording things like: This morning there was a nine-foot python curled up in the tree above my swing). While my two older brothers were away at boarding school, I dressed up my four dogs and three cats and told them stories. Storytelling has a huge tradition in Africa, transcending age, race, and gender. I love reading the new, female gritty voices coming from Africa, especially Nigeria, such as His Only Wife or The Girl with the Louding Voice. Aged eighteen, I moved to Paris, from the savannah to the salons of the 16th arrondissement. I was lucky to be admitted to the IEP de Paris, which had schooled such great, diverse minds as Christian Dior, Alexandre Jardin, and Emanuel Macron. I walked the city’s roads endlessly and wrote long diary entries. I also won my Grande Ecole’s short story competition with the novella “Meeting Mr. Gandhi.” This encouraged me to continue honing my craft, living a literary life.
Is there a book that most influenced your life?
That must be a very early read—The Brothers Lionheart by Swedish author Astrid Lindgren, the most brilliant children’s book, combining a faultless plot teeming with the big motives of storytelling— Good vs. Evil, Overcoming the Monster, a Quest, Cinderella, and Voyage and Return—with a deep spirituality, offering faith, hope, and theories of an afterlife. When my eleven-year-old read it recently, he came into my study afterward, welling up in tears, saying: “I have finished Brothers Lionheart.” Knowing what that meant, we hugged, long and in silence. The book challenged me to make my writing consequential; our lives have become so crowded that a reader gives me their most valuable commodity—not money, but attention, time, and thought. I want to thank them for that.
Or inspired you to become a writer?
Entering high school, my teacher asked me to write a theater piece together with her. Thankfully, it is lost, and I have no recollection of its subject. But I had done it—plotting and finishing a literary piece, a formative experience that shows what a good teacher can do! I had long and lonely teenage years. My only salvation was going to the library, wiping clean shelves of books into a washing basket (literally!) —mostly historical fiction, which offers the triple E of entertainment, education, and escapism.
How did you become a writer?
Upon graduating, I moved to London for a graduate trainee program in a PR agency. I hardly earned any money and I had few friends. So, after years of dreaming and dabbling, I started writing for real, in the evening, ensconced in my little room. Very soon, I even wrote shamelessly during work hours as well—not surprisingly, I was the only graduate who was not offered a job come the end of that year. I started to write my debut, Tsarina, the first book in a planned quartet of books and the first-ever novel about the rise of Catherine I of Russia from serf to empress—the world’s most astonishing Cinderella story. The Tsarina’s Daughter is book two, but you can read it as a stand-alone. I wrote while working gruesome night shifts for Bloomberg TV, as a producer and an anchor. My neighbor thought I was an escort, as I cantered down the stairs at any ungodly hour. It was exhausting, and I was ill for three months with anxiety and depression after I had finished Tsarina. Today, I manage my resources much better.
Would you care to share any writing tips?
Getting published is artistically the hardest task. You judge a painting in a second. You listen to a song in three minutes. But reading a six-hundred- page tome about a forgotten Russian empress as my debut Tsarina was? Well…So, here we go: watch the market, but don’t follow it. Write what you love reading; tread that fine line between inspiration and imitation. Remember that Fifty Shades of Grey started out as Twilight fan fiction? Your book will never end how it started— give it a go. Make sure to resource yourself— writing a diary helps to develop an inner voice. Delve into your thoughts and emotions. Keep on going. Make space for it in your day—even if this means rising at 5 A.M. It’s a privilege to be on your own with your morning tea and your characters. Check your work and enjoy that feeling when the “lid” lifts and the story comes, such as a golden flow. Be serious about your writing, and be proud of your progress. Set yourself a goal for, say, 1,500 to 2,000 words a day. Read, read, read.
And, most important, enjoy the ride.
For getting published, I investigated which publishers published the best historical fiction— my writing could have no better home in the US than St. Martin’s Press! I also did my homework to determine which agents represented similar books. After watching top UK agent Jonny Geller’s TED talk on agenting, I decided to submit to him despite all warnings to debut novelists not to. After two days of silence, the morning of Valentine’s Day, a heron settled in my garden. I took it as a sign. The same evening, my phone pinged with a new email: Geller’s assistant asked me to send the full manuscript. This was the first contact with my agency, Curtis Brown, where today Alice Lutyens is my agent. In the US, I am lucky to be represented by Deborah Schneider. Once Tsarina was offered it was sold on a global scale within three days. We can’t help but be fascinated by Russia and the Romanovs.
You, too, can find your fabulous, unique, and touching subject!
What was the inspiration for this novel?
The Tsarina’s Daughter is a roller coaster called Romanov! Elizabeth, the only surviving sibling among Peter the Great’s fifteen sons and daughters, was dubbed “the world’s loveliest princess” (on an early portrait done by Caravaque she looks like a young Marilyn Monroe, all dewy-eyed and rosy cheeked) before falling from unimaginable riches to rags, to then gather her strength and rise from rags to Romanov. I can’t believe my luck that once more this is the first novel proper about the metamorphosis of Empress Elizabeth of Russia from spoiled young girl to strong, savvy survivor, who defies the expectations of her time and makes hard decisions to rise to the challenge of her heritage and her fate. A free-spirited, brave, modern woman in a stunning, shocking, strange, sensuous setting:
How could I resist?
Can you tell us about what research, if any, you did before writing this novel?
The research is providing a frame to an author’s picture painted by the imagination. I read divers oeuvres ranging from Tolstoy, Pushkin, Gogol, and Dostoyevsky to sociological studies such as the deeply disturbing but very important The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexeyevich and Young Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore. I have watched Russian movies such as Battleship Potemkin and the experimental Russian Ark. Even though my Russian is patchy at best, there are original and of course secondary sources galore, and infinitely fascinating ones: early travel descriptions, such as the German merchant Adam Olearius visiting Tsar Mikhail Romanov, letters of foreigners at the Russian Court such as Mrs. Rondeau, Robert Massie’s and Henri Troyat’s biographies about Peter the Great, and, last but not least, the fabulous tome by Professor Lindsey Hughes (of the London School of Slavonic Studies) Russia in the Time of Peter the Great. This turned out to be my bible as I slid deeper and deeper into the strange, shocking, sensuous world that is the Russian history and the Russian soul. In the end, I read for almost a year, immersing myself completely into the Russian baroque. I even read Russian fairy tales, which disclose so much about the imagination of a people. This allows me to attempt an answer to the question: So, what were my hitherto hidden historical heroines’ lives really like? The journey from fact to fiction is thrilling and arduous, like weaving a tapestry on a thousand-strand loom, ending up with a work large enough to fill the walls of the Winter Palace!
Doing all that research made me realize why there was no novel about Elizabeth’s rise from tsarina’s daughter to ruler of Russia: we are facing one of the most complex phases in Russian history, which is so rich in complications. It took a long process of patient plotting to get things straight, comprehensible, and most important, captivating!
Do you have firsthand experience with its subject?
I have visited Russia and the Germano-Russian ambivalence runs straight through my family: my father grew up in the GDR, still remembering the people’s terror when the US tanks withdrew one morning, and the Soviets rolled in after renewed territorial negotiations. As a surgeon’s son, he was not allowed to study and fled one night at age sixteen through a forest, his passport and some warm clothes his sole luggage. Today, it takes him three cognacs and two cigars to sing the Soviet national anthem. On the other hand, my cousin owns a high-brow publishing house that publishes nothing but latter-day Russian intellectuals.
Did you base any of the characters on people from your own life?
Elizabeth’s faithful hired Frenchman Jean Armand de L’Estoque is an amalgam of the many playful, surprising, food-loving, and individualistic Parisians I’ve met! My favorite character though is the dwarf D’Acosta, who so effortlessly slides between worlds, seeing it all, knowing it all. His is the smallest hand which tips fate’s mighty scales in the end.
What is the most interesting or surprising thing you learned as you set out to tell your story?
Both researching and writing The Tsarina’s Daughter made me think a lot about women. People often speak of the “good old days,” thinking of social cohesion and man’s limited horizons, which made for a simpler life, but for women those were frankly terrible days, offering no education other than household chores, early marriage to a man who suited your parents, annual childbirth, no privacy, no dreams, your frustrated husband probably turning violent with drink, just toiling, toiling, toiling from dawn till dusk. Life was marginally better for women of high standing and the Petrine laws of inheritance changed their situation; as always, war was also a harbinger of progress. If all men are out in the field, the women have to run the shops. If all sons fall in battle, an unmarried eldest daughter must be allowed to inherit, while a widow will have property. If in the story of Tsarina we witness a milestone in female emancipation and empowerment, The Tsarina’s Daughter takes things a step further, defying all expectations living her choices, emboldened by a big, impossible love story.
Are you currently working on another book?
After initial second-novel jitters, I was surprised to see that many reviewers and readers in the UK preferred The Tsarina’s Daughter to Tsarina. While the first book was written using heart blood instead of ink, The Tsarina’s Daughter is a more mature, carefully planned, and certainly “softer” novel. I am now writing book three of the series—its subject will surprise everybody!—and am once more infatuated by my heroines. Once more, this will be the first novel about an incredible woman who sets the stage for a unique century of female reign in Russia. So, after Marta/Catherine and the Empress Elizabeth,
I am adding two more “girls” to my coop of hidden historical heroines. I feel so lucky!
And if so, can you tell us what it’s about?
Unfortunately, no. It’s top secret at the moment, but as they say, watch this spot and thank you for bearing with me!