Catherine the Great suffers a debilitating stroke and reflects back on her life, loves and country in Stachniak’s second in her series (The Winter Palace, 2012, etc.) about the Russian empress.
Unbeknownst to those holding vigil, Catherine is still in control of her mental faculties and aware of the activities around her in the hours before she dies. Although she is paralyzed and appears lifeless, she retains her ability to remember her rise from humble beginnings in Prussia as Sophie, the princess of Anhalt-Zerbst, to be the powerful ruler Catherine of Russia. Betrothed at a young age to her second cousin, Peter, the heir to the Russian throne, Sophie is taken under the wing of Empress Elizabeth, renamed Catherine Alekseyevna, and diligently studies the language and acclimates to her new country. However, she soon realizes Peter would rather play with his toy soldiers and spend time with his mistress than be with her. And Elizabeth’s initial support has turned into open hostility. Saved from a collapsing house by a palace guard, Serge Saltykov, Catherine takes him as a lover. Their affair produces a son, Paul, who’s immediately swept away and raised by Empress Elizabeth until her death. (Catherine bears two more children with other lovers, although one dies, and the other is delivered in secret.) As Catherine wrests power from Peter III and ascends to the throne, she has affairs with several more suitors, including Grigory Potemkin, who’s devoted to her and with whom she shares a singular love. While expanding the Russian Empire, quelling uprisings and amassing wealth, Catherine also tries to ensure her grandson’s succession—but even she cannot guarantee the course of events from beyond the grave. Although Stachniak creates a noteworthy representation of life at the Russian court during Catherine’s rule, she fails to draw readers into the political and personal intrigues. Rather than a vibrant, earthy, intelligent woman, Catherine seems disappointingly mundane, and her court contains an endless succession of names and nicknames with few distinguishing features.
An unremarkable account of a remarkable reign.