Empress of the Night
Destination / Reading
In partnership with Penguin Random House
She throws herself into work. One can be too successful, too bright, too visionary. In European games, power is thrown on the apothecary’s scales. If they do not balance, trouble ensues. Russian victories have made the Prussians uneasy and the Austrians frantic. The coded dispatches sent from court to court demand curtailing Russian gluttony.
From the novel by Eva Stachniak — Photos by Andrew Moore & Cedric Angeles
How much would she give up for not fueling Turkish wrath?
She is tempted to give up nothing. For months, she pores over maps, adds and subtracts the numbers. How much does a war cost? How much does it bring in return? These are not crass calculations. Prussia and Austria want chunks of Poland. The Empress of Russia can help herself to her share, too. A lion’s share, Frederick of Prussia tempts. Far greater than what we get.
It’s a hard bargain. Isn’t Poland hers already? Isn’t Stanislav doing what she instructs him to?
How much shall she pay for peace? She cannot wage two wars, can she?
Giving up chunks of Poland? Is it worth it? What if she stalls? Refuses?
The Empire is like an old quilt in need of constant tending. As new patches are added, old ones thin and tear.
In the Urals, a Yaik Cossack is gathering disgruntled mine workers and runaway serfs. They have just attacked yet another estate. Robbed the cellars, stole the gold and silver and ran away. At the foundling hospitals, the mortality rate is 99 percent. Doctors give her long lectures on the balance of humors and declare the medical art helpless against the immoral habits of the poor. Paul, her son, has reached the age of majority and hints that Maria Theresa is teaching her son and heir how to rule.
The throne is a lonely place.
From Gatchina, Grigory Orlov is sending emissaries. Brothers, cousins, even his old servants, whose toothless mouths blend pleas and spit. Grigory wants to see her, his beloved matushka, the only joy of his life, one last time. Only one. How can she deny it to him after all that has joined them? How can she be so cruel?
In her inner rooms, the timid lover’s voice quivers. Vasilchikov’s body gives off a whiff of stale cheese. He hasn’t seen her for three full days. She has not replied to his latest question. She walked away while he was still speaking.
The memory of his touch grows faint and fleeting. The lover’s hour is for caresses not accusations.
My mistake, my fault, she thinks of him. Made of desperation.
Should she not have listened to Panin? Should she have sent for him, instead?
He, Potemkin, is at the Turkish front. There is nothing they say about him that she doesn’t know already. Nature has made Grisha a Russian peasant, and he won’t ever change. He fears bad omens. Trails after charlatans and tricksters. Chews on raw turnips. He’s moody. Indolent. Slovenly. Vain.
So why does he make friends faster than kvass breeds flies?
Her desk is piled high. Letters, proposals, petitions, drafts of treaties she needs to analyze and amend. Reports on the dyeing of silk, the feasibility of building a china manufactory, summaries of books she has no time to read. Five secretaries work around the clock and yet the tidal wave of papers does not diminish. “Still think you are better than me, Catherine?” the late Empress’s voice mocks. “That you can do it all alone?”
Lieutenant Potemkin appears at court unannounced. He throws himself at her feet, like the thespian he has always been. Her ladies-in-waiting scamper away, lean against the walls, blend into tapestries on which nymphs escape their pursuers, hunters aim arrows at giant stags.
A lean, pale face. A black patch over his left eye. A Cyclops, she recalls Grigory Orlov’s old taunt. Blacksmiths, she has since learned, cover one eye to minimize the power of flying sparks to blind them.
The same cleft chin, full lips. No longer a boy but a man toughened by hardships. Attacked and outnumbered by the enemy, he was the hero of the victory.
Still in love with her after twelve long years.
You can see my zeal. You will never regret your choice. I am Your Imperial Majesty’s subject and slave.
Let it be, she thinks. I won’t fight it anymore. In her mind, for some time now, she has been making amends to the timid lover. An estate, a generous pension, a few trinkets from her latest Parisian shipment. How long will it take to move Vasilchikov’s things out? A day? Then another day for Grisha to move in. She already has her first gift to him: a promotion.
The simplicity of these arrangements tickles like an ostrich feather.
“Stand up, Lieutenant-General Potemkin,” she orders. “Your Empress is extremely grateful for all you have done for Russia. You are very, very dear to her heart.”
He rises with awkwardness, which amuses her greatly, and gives her a pained look. “Why is my Sovereign dismissing me?” he asks.
“Dismissing you?” Has she not just given him a sign? Could it be that she has not been clear enough? But deep inside her, she knows that he has read her thoughts and found them wanting.
His good eye doesn’t let go of her.
He shakes his auburn hair. He abhors coyness. He doesn’t care about promotions, but now that his Empress has just given him one, he is going back to the south to earn the honor. He thanks God Almighty that the peace treaty with the Ottoman Porte has not yet been signed. That there are still skirmishes on the border.
Her shoe grinds against the carpet. There will be a hole there, afterward, matching the size of her heel.
Grisha Potemkin does not flinch against her anger. His last words to her before he leaves are: “Step on me, obliterate me, or take note of my love.”
You won’t think of him, Catherine orders herself. It is that simple. Not easy, perhaps, but it can be done. There is her son’s wedding to plan and arrange. Guests to receive. To dazzle with how much she has achieved already.
If this is not enough of a distraction, in the Urals, the Yaik Cossack declares himself Peter III. “With the help of a faithful servant I’ve escaped my wife’s murderous hands,” he announces, clearly with someone’s expert help. “I’ve come back to free my people from this sinful German usurper. I’ve come to put my son on the throne that is rightfully his.”
Empress of the Night
In this historical novel from Penguin Random House, Catherine the Great muses on her life, her relentless battle between love and power, the country she brought into the glorious new century, and the bodies left in her wake. By the end of her life, she had accomplished more than virtually any other woman in history. She built and grew the Romanov empire, amassed a vast fortune of art and land, and controlled an unruly and conniving court. Now, in a voice both indelible and intimate, she reflects on the decisions that gained her the world and brought her enemies to their knees.
About the author
Eva Stachniak was born in Wrocław, Poland. She moved to Canada in 1981 and has worked for Radio Canada International and Sheridan College, where she taught English and humanities. Her debut novel, Necessary Lies, won the Books in Canada First Novel Award in 2000. Her first novel of Catherine the Great, The Winter Palace, was included in The Washington Post’s 2011 list of most notable fiction. Stachniak lives in Toronto, where she is at work on her next novel. evastachniak.com
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left: THE OPERA HOUSE IN IRKUTSK, THE “PARIS OF SIBERIA”; BELOW: MEMBERS OF THE BOLSHOI BALLET WARM UP BEFORE A PERFORMANCE; PREVIOUS SPREAD: A GUARD AT THE TOMB OF THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER BY THE KREMLIN WALL; SAINT BASIL’S CATHEDRAL, A CHURCH TURNED MUSEUM IN RED SQUARE; OPENING SPREAD: ROTARI’S GALLERY IN THE PETERHOF GRAND PALACE, SOMETIMES KNOWN AS THE “RUSSIAN VERSAILLES”