“[Alpsten] recounts this remarkable woman’s colourful life and times." —Count Nikolai Tolstoy, historian and author
Before there was Catherine the Great, there was Catherine Alexeyevna: the first woman to rule Russia in her own right. Ellen Alpsten's rich, sweeping debut novel is the story of her rise to power.
St. Petersburg, 1725. Peter the Great lies dying in his magnificent Winter Palace. The weakness and treachery of his only son has driven his father to an appalling act of cruelty and left the empire without an heir. Russia risks falling into chaos. Into the void steps the woman who has been by his side for decades: his second wife, Catherine Alexeyevna, as ambitious, ruthless and passionate as Peter himself.
Born into devastating poverty, Catherine used her extraordinary beauty and shrewd intelligence to ingratiate herself with Peter’s powerful generals, finally seducing the Tsar himself. But even amongst the splendor and opulence of her new life—the lavish feasts, glittering jewels, and candle-lit hours in Peter’s bedchamber—she knows the peril of her position. Peter’s attentions are fickle and his rages powerful; his first wife is condemned to a prison cell, her lover impaled alive in Red Square. And now Catherine faces the ultimate test: can she keep the Tsar’s death a secret as she plays a lethal game to destroy her enemies and take the Crown for herself?
From the sensuous pleasures of a decadent aristocracy, to the incense-filled rites of the Orthodox Church and the terror of Peter’s torture chambers, the intoxicating and dangerous world of Imperial Russia is brought to vivid life. Tsarina is the story of one remarkable woman whose bid for power would transform the Russian Empire.
ELLEN ALPSTEN was born and raised in the Kenyan highlands. Upon graduating from L'Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris, she worked as a news anchor for Bloomberg TV London. Whilst working gruesome night shifts on breakfast TV, she started to write in earnest, every day, after work and a nap. Today, Ellen works as an author and as a journalist for international publications such as Vogue, Standpoint and CN Traveller. She lives in London with her husband, three sons and a moody fox red Labrador. Tsarina is her debut novel
"A fascinating and extraordinary ride from slavery to royalty...[for] fans of historical fiction, Russia, political intrigue, and powerful women." —Booklist (starred review)
“Alpsten shines...Lovers of Russian history, strong women protagonists, and sweeping historicals will savor this vivid portrait.” –Publishers Weekly
“Astonishing...the ultimate Cinderella story [that] makes Game of Thrones look like a nursery rhyme.” —Daisy Goodwin, bestselling author of The Fortune Hunter
"As detailed as the jewels and enamel inlay on the creations of Faberge...[a] crisp, elegant fictional account of history, woven with emotion and brio." —Adriana Trigiani, bestselling author of The Shoemaker's Wife
“Gripping...Love, sex, and loyalty vie with war, intrigue, and treason to create an epic canvas as exotic and powerful as eighteenth-century Russia itself. Masterfully researched and beautifully written, this is historical fiction at its best.” —Nancy Goldstone, author of Daughters of the Winter Queen and Rival Queens
"The extraordinary life and career of Catherine I of Russia is brought to life in Alpsten's colourful novel." --Sunday Times, Summer Reading Picks 2020 (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)
“Intrigue, rivalry, and sumptuous decadence leap to vivid life in this fascinating story of Peter the Great’s second wife...conjuring the gorgeous marble of the Winter Palace and deprivation of Russia in the 18th century, the perilous ascent to power of the first woman to rule as empress is a gripping and unforgettable journey.” —C.W. Gortner, author of The Romanov Empress
“[Alpsten] recounts this remarkable woman’s colourful life and times." —Count Nikolai Tolstoy, historian and author
“Luscious…Alpsten has clearly done some brilliant research. It reads like 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
Buy Link: https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250214454
Social Links: https://www.curtisbrown.co.uk/client/ellen-alpsten
What does your writing space look like?
I used to just open my laptop wherever I could – the kitchen or the dining table, stealing an hour or two. Today, I have a ‘Lady Cave’, a small office, which is my den and my luxury. It gives on my garden, overlooking a maze and a ‘turn-of-the-past century’ beautiful wrought iron pavilion that is overgrown by wild roses. The shelves are stuffed with lots and lots of ‘Russian’ research books and foreign editions of ‘Tsarina’, which has sold all over the world. As a rug, I have a cowhide that has been painted with a golden zebra pattern – VERY glam and a hint of Africa, which I love as I was born and grew up in Kenya. A daybed is covered with a HUGE handmade quilt (very US immigrant Shaker) that I incredibly enough bought for 1 GBP in a charity shop and some cushions by a Milanese interior design company. There is some quirky art on the walls, a venetian mirror and finally my desk, the crowning glory: it’s a beautiful baroque writing desk, which belonged to the British Ambassador to the Ottoman court, inlaid with vintage woods and with several hidden compartments. Here I settle every day at 9.30, hoping that my employee number 1. the muse also turns up 😊. Next planned purchase is an ‘On Air’ sign that lights up when I am inside…
What is your must have while writing?
Time. I hardly ever start if I don’t at least have an hour to write – with exceptions, such as just amending a sentence after I have thought about it when out running etc. If a story sears your soul, you HAVE to take that time, whenever, early mornings, after lunch or in the evening, when the children sleep, and you need to be serious about it and respect your creation. Yoga is my number two – only once I start my exercises, I realize how much my body has longed for them. It makes me happy and balanced and allows my mind to let go of the plot when it twists and turns like a caged weasel. I just received a really thick Yoga mat as a birthday present and it is lovely. A third ‘must’ is coffee! I have no expensive tap-dancing cake-baking musical-singing coffee machine though and I abhor Nespresso style tablets for how they pollute the planet. Be gone! No, I’m an instant girl, with lots and lots of hot milk added, to have a Café Crème. I call that ‘playing Paris’ as it reminds me of my student days in the French capital, when I sat for hours on end in cafes, people watching and making a café noisette last…
Whom do you admire most?
I admire women with a seemingly small, personal courage that makes big waves – Rosa Parks is a firm favorite of mine. I admire women, who speak out for their gender, their issues and worries, against all odds and who are not afraid of being chastised by a male-dominated society, such as Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I admire women who by their cunning and patience out-maneuver a male dominated society or profession – think Angela Merkel. If only every country had someone so devoted, modest, and with cool intellect concluding the solution to a BIG problem, such as her, as a leader, we should be in less dire straits! So little wonder that I liked Catherine I: Tsarina is an historic novel, but in our age of female empowerment it feels shockingly modern and contemporary. Catherine is a woman who overcomes every obstacle, even if fate rages against her. Also, I am fascinated with Cinderella stories such as hers, as they speak of the strength of human nature and the will to survive. She was born as Marta, an illegitimate, illiterate daughter of a serf, and lower than the dirt between her toes. Every possible card in the world was stacked against her. But off she went and rose to the most unimaginable height of history: she was the first woman to be a crowned, reigning Empress of Russia, in her time the world’s largest realm. But not only her psychological strength is impressive, her physical condition, too: she bore the Tsar thirteen children only to see most of them die, she travelled with him all over Russia and Central Asia and accompanied him into the field. Even though she accepts his straying and his affairs, and she handles him with care and cunning, their relationship is also a very modern one: Peter the Great and her were lovers, yes, but above all they were great friends. He loved her practical jokes, her courage, and her level headedness. When we look at her portraits today, people might struggle to see her appeal – though her eyes sparkle with mischief and her mouth likes laughing. What else counts?
Where did you find inspiration to write Tsarina?
The fascinating story of Catherine I. of Russia had never left me, ever since I had first read about her when aged 13. In my parent’s library I had come across a book called ‘Germans and Russians’, charting the millennial history of those two people. Despite terrible tragedies and two horrendous wars, there is a deep fascination for each other. Two people that can toil and function to terrible ends, but who are equally endowed with an incredible soulfulness and depth, an innate understanding of beauty and life, of tragedy and fate. One chapter in ‘Germans and Russians’ was devoted to Catharine I: I think she is ‘my’ Tut-Ankh-Amun, as she was always there but had slid into the shadows of history. I was destined to find her, as when I had matured enough to REALLY write, I realized that amazingly enough, there was no book about her: no thesis, no biography, no novel, no nothing. BUT there were sources galore, and infinitely fascinating ones: early travel descriptions, such as the German Adam Olearius visiting Tsar Mikhail Romanov, letters of foreigners at the Russian Court such as Mrs Rondeau, watching Nureyev and Baryshnikov dance as well as the Dogma movie ‘The Ark’ and, last but not least, Prof. Lindsey Hughes FABULOUS tome 'Russia in the time of Peter the Great'. I slid deeper and deeper into the strange, shocking, sensuous world that is the Russian Baroque, and the Russian soul. Seemingly insurmountable contrasts are casually combined and lived out without any qualms. This absoluteness is fascinating. I read for almost a year before writing my first word, immersing myself completely into her life and rise. I even watched read Russian myths and fairy tales, which tell you everything about the mindset and the imaginary of a people - an invaluable help. I love Baba Yaga’s house and certain turns of phrases – e.g. how the storyteller mostly eats honey in the end 😊. The book is stuffed to the brim with soul, detail, and truth – and an attempted answer to the question: So, what was her life REALLY like? What makes the story extra special is the fact that she is a foreigner, as she was born a Baltic German. Thus, she observes the Russians with her own eyes – the reader is as fascinated by the opulence of the then Russian ruling class as much as they are appalled by the deprivation and helplessness of the Russian people. The writing was on the wall since long before the revolution and changes of the 20th century!
Who is your favorite character that you have written?
Other than Marta, my Tsarina, ‘my girl’? If every artist’s creation has a central theme, she is mine. I was destined to find her and destined to write about her. I feel so blessed: any writer dreams to come across a stunning, entirely unexploited character such as her. OK: Peter the Great, hands down! The hardest thing was to prevent him hijacking the novel! He looms impossibly large, soaking all and everything he sees and learns up like a sponge, and then squeezing that knowledge out over Russia, drowning his country in a flood of ideas. He turned the semi-Asian Muscovy into the semi-European Russia and is a simply fantastic character: interested in everything, callously cruel, with utter disregard to anything or anyone that doesn’t match his ideas, always ready to pay the highest possible price for the fulfilment of his wishes, a voracious appetite for all things sensual, be it food or love. I love his confidence in his fate and his destiny, the trust with which he pursued his dreams. He dreamed of conquering the Baltics and making that earth forever Russian by stomping St. Petersburg out of the earth, conjuring it up form muddy swamps. He is mesmerizing, but shocking as well, as multi-layered as any human can be: deeply disturbed ever since witnessing the brutal execution of half his family at the age of 9, he suffered from epilepsy and perhaps never quite trusted the sun to rise the next day. Was it for that that he loved ‘turning the world upside down’? Possibly his second wife, Catherine I. – a former serf and washer-maid, the heroine of ‘Tsarina’ – and his best friend Menshikov, a former pie-baker, are both the utmost expression of that desire, to fool them all! Had he wished for Catherine to rule? We don’t know, for the decision was taken off his hands…
In the Winter Palace, 1725
He is dead. My beloved husband, the mighty tsar of all the Russias, has died—and just in time.
Moments before death came for him, Peter called for a quill and paper to be brought to him in his bedchamber in the Winter Palace. My heart almost stalled. He had not forgotten, but was going to drag me down with him. When he lost consciousness for the last time and the darkness drew him closer to its heart, the quill slipped from his fingers. Black ink spattered the soiled sheets; time held its breath. What had the tsar wanted to settle with that last effort of his tremendous spirit?
I knew the answer.
The candles in the tall candelabra filled the room with a heavy scent and an unsteady light; their glow made shadows reel in corners and brought the woven figurines on the Flemish tapestries to life, their coarse faces showing pain and disbelief. Outside the door, the voices of the people who’d stood there all night were drowned out by the Febru- ary wind rattling furiously at the shutters. Time spread slowly, like oil on water. Peter had pressed himself into our souls like his signet ring in hot wax. It seemed impossible that the world hadn’t careened to a halt at his passing. My husband, the greatest will ever to impose itself on Russia, had been more than our ruler. He had been our fate. He was still mine.
The doctors—Blumentrost, Paulsen, and Horn—stood silently around Peter’s bed, staring at him, browbeaten. Five kopecks’ worth of
medicine, given early enough, could have saved him. Thank God for the quacks’ lack of good sense.
Without looking, I could feel Feofan Prokopovich, the archbishop of Novgorod, watching me, along with Alexander Menshikov. Pro- kopovich had made the tsar’s will eternal and Peter had much to thank him for. Menshikov, on the other hand, owed his fortune and influence to Peter. What was it Peter had said when someone tried to blacken Alexander Danilovich’s name to him by referring to his murky business dealings? “Menshikov is always Menshikov, in all that he does!” That had put an end to that.
Dr. Paulsen had closed the tsar’s eyes and crossed his hands on his breast, but he hadn’t removed the scroll, Peter’s last will and testament, from his grasp. Those hands, which were always too dainty for the tall, powerful body, had grown still, helpless. Just two weeks earlier he had plunged those very hands into my hair, winding it round his fingers, inhaling the scent of rosewater and sandalwood.
“My Catherine,” he’d said, calling me by the name he himself had given me, and he’d smiled at me. “You’re still a beauty. But what will you look like in a convent, shorn, and bald? The cold there will break you, your spirit, even though you’re strong as a horse. Do you know that Evdokia still writes to me begging for a second fur, poor thing! What a good job you can’t write!” he’d said, laughing.
It had been thirty years since Evdokia had been banished to the convent. I’d met her once. Her eyes shone with madness, her shaven head was covered in boils and scabs from the cold and the filth, and her only company was a hunchbacked dwarf to serve her in her cell. Peter had ordered the poor creature have her tongue cut out, so in response to Evdokia’s moaning and laments, all she was able to do was burble. He’d been right to believe that seeing Evdokia would fill me with lifelong dread.
I knelt at Peter’s bedside and the three doctors retreated to the twi- light at the edge of the room, like crows driven from a field: the birds Pe- ter had been so terrified of in the last years of his life. 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 Pe- ter: silently, at night, the bird would slip through the padded walls and locked doors of his bedchamber. Its ebony wings blotted the light and in
their cool shadow, the blood on the tsar’s hands never dried. His fingers were not yet those of a corpse, but soft, and still warm. For a moment, the fear and anger of these past few months slipped from my heart like a thief in the night. I kissed his hands and breathed in his familiar scent of tobacco, ink, leather, and the perfume tincture that was blended for his sole use in Grasse.
I took the scroll from his hand—it was easy enough to slide it out, although my blood thickened with fear and my veins were coated with frost and rime like branches in our Baltic winter. It was important to show everyone that I alone was entitled to do this—I, his wife, and the mother of his children. Twelve times I had given birth.
The paper rustled as I unrolled it. Not for the first time, I was ashamed of my inability to read, and I handed his last will to Feofan Prokopovich. At least Menshikov was as ignorant as I. Ever since the days when Peter first drew us into his orbit and cast his spell upon us, we had been like two children squabbling over their father’s love and attention. Batjushka tsar, his people called him. Our little father tsar.
Prokopovich must have known what Peter had in mind for me. He was an old fox with a sharp wit, as comfortable in heavenly and earthly realms. Daria had once sworn that he had three thousand books in his library. What, if you please, can one man do with three thousand books? The scroll sat lightly in his liver-spotted hands now. After all, he himself had helped Peter draft the decree that shocked us all. The tsar had set aside every custom, every law: he wanted to appoint his own successor and would rather leave his empire to a worthy stranger than his own, unworthy child.
How timid Alexey had been when we first met, the spitting image of his mother, Evdokia, with his veiled gaze and high, domed forehead. He couldn’t sit up straight, because Menshikov had thrashed his back and buttocks bloody and sore. Only when it was too late did Alexey grasp his fate: in his quest for a new Russia, the tsar would spare no one, neither himself, nor his only son. You were no blood of my blood, Alexey, no flesh of my flesh, and so I was able to sleep soundly. Peter, though, had been haunted by nightmares from that day on.
My heart pounded against my lightly laced bodice—I was surprised it didn’t echo from the walls—but I met Prokopovich’s gaze as calmly as I could. I wriggled my toes in my slippers, as I could not afford to faint.
Prokopovich’s smile was as thin as one of the wafers he would offer in church. He knew the secrets of the human heart; especially mine.
“Read, Feofan,” I said quietly.
“Give everything to . . .” He paused, looked up, and repeated: “To . . .” Menshikov’s temper flared; he reared as if someone had struck him with a whip, like in the good old days. “To whom?” he snarled at Pro-
kopovich. “Pray tell, Feofan, to whom?”
I could hardly breathe. The fur was suddenly much too hot against my skin.
From Tsarina by Ellen Alpsten. Copyright © 2020 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Publishing Group.