Tsarina by Ellen Alpsten

Tsarina is the story of Catherine I of Russia – not to be confused with Catherine the Great! Born Marta Skowronska in 1684, we first meet her as an illiterate peasant growing up in Livonia. When a rich merchant passes through her village, Marta’s family sell her to him as a maidservant and she is forced to leave her home behind and embark on a new and very different life. From these humble origins, we follow Marta’s rise to become the most powerful woman in Russia, first through her marriage to Peter the Great, who renames her Catherine Alexeyevna, and then as Empress in her own right.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book. I had initially been put off by the cover, which hinted that it would be more of a bodice ripper than the serious sort of historical fiction I prefer, but as I had seen some very positive reviews I decided to give it a try anyway. Although I’ve read quite a lot of novels set during other periods of Russian history, I’ve never read any that cover the life of Catherine I, so I thought if nothing else this would be a good introduction to a woman of whom I previously knew very little. And in that respect, it was a success because I finished it feeling that I’d learned a lot and had come away with a good knowledge of Catherine’s life and significance, while remembering that the book is a work of fiction and not everything in it can be assumed to be completely true – particularly in the early chapters, as so little is known for certain about Catherine’s early years.

Tsarina is a long novel and I could tell the author had put a lot of effort into researching it and trying to create a complete and believable 18th century Russian world. The book begins with a map of Russia under Peter the Great and a full list of characters, including all the members of the Tsar’s large family, the many courtiers at the Russian Imperial Court and the serfs and peasants with whom Marta/Catherine grew up in her village in the Baltics. Despite all of this I didn’t find the book quite as immersive as I would have liked, and although some parts of the story are certainly very gripping, I found myself struggling to get through other sections. As I’d suspected, there’s a lot of focus on Catherine’s sex life and many pregnancies, as well as a lot of long and graphic descriptions of the general violence, drunkenness and debauchery of Peter’s court – and while I’m sure it was all quite accurate, it did become repetitive after a while.

Still, it would be hard not to have some admiration for a woman like Catherine who overcame so much hardship in life (I won’t spoil the plot for those of you who know nothing about Catherine, but the novel shows how she was repeatedly exploited as a young woman and treated with brutality and unkindness) and even after she began to rise to power, she knew that her position was precarious and that she couldn’t afford to be caught off guard even for a moment. As for Peter, the author captures the many different facets of his personality, from his monstrous cruelty and ruthlessness to his intelligence and his vision of Russia as a modern western empire.

Although this wasn’t really the right book for me (or maybe I was just in the wrong mood for it) it was good to have the opportunity to get to know Catherine I. If any of you have read any other books about her, I would love to hear about them.

Thanks to Bloomsbury for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 1/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list.