Recounting a Royal Metamorphosis

by Diana Grier Ayton
(Painting: Georg Christoph Groot's)

Author Eva Stachniak, PhD’88, began 2012 doing her least favourite thing – touring to promote her latest book. Whatever her feelings about the process, by the end of February The Winter Palace was at the top of bestseller lists across the country. Hailed as “extraordinarily absorbing” by the Daily Mail in Britain, and “as gorgeous, opulent and lush as its titular location,” by the National Post, Stachniak’s novel records the transition of teenaged Sophia, a minor German princess, into Catherine the Great, who expanded and modernized Russia, presiding over the country’s Golden Age.

Stachniak has known success before. Her debut work, Necessary Lies, won the in Canada First Novel Award in 2000. But it was a bang that soon fizzled, she says. “When I got the award I thought ‘Fantastic! That’s it. People are going to notice me; my writing will be read!’ And then nothing happened. It was lovely to be recognized and get good reviews, but it didn’t matter.”

Now that she has a few books under her belt, the rewards are more tangible. “I’m so happy that The Winter Palace is number one on the best seller list because people are going back to my other books. And suddenly my old stories are being read. Writing is a business where you really have to have a long view. It’s not an instant thing.”

Novelist Eva Stachniak's fictional take on the rise of Russia's Catherine the Great has topped bestseller lists for weeks

In The Winter Palace, Catherine’s story is told by a young woman named Varvara, who becomes a palace spy and the reader’s guide to life at court. For a time, she is a favourite of Empress Elizabeth as well as a confidante of Catherine. The fictional Varvara lives on a knife edge, however, as power shifts erupt around her and she learns that vulnerable people are the most dangerous.

Catherine’s 1745 marriage to the immature and disagreeable Crown Prince Peter is unhappy and places her under pressure to produce an heir. When she eventually bears a son (very unlikely Peter’s), the baby is immediately removed by Elizabeth and raised by her. A daughter, born four years later, is also taken from her and dies within a few months. After the death of Elizabeth in 1761, Catherine and Peter succeed her. A palace coup mounted six months later by troops loyal to Catherine unseats the despised Peter and she is suspected of having him killed. As the ambitious Catherine declares herself sole ruler of Russia, Varvara, who knows too many secrets to be safe, withdraws into exile outside the country.

Thus the stage is set for Stachniak’s next book, The Empire of the Night, which is already well under way and covers the 34 years of Catherine’s reign.

Stachniak, who came to Canada from Poland, says she identifies with Sophia/Catherine’s reinvention of herself. “I had to do it. Every immigrant has to. What becomes important is not what you learn about your new home or how it changes you. It’s what from your past withstands the test of time – that forms the core of the new you. And you’d be surprised how much of your old self has to go.”

That burning away is not viewed by Stachniak as a loss, but something positive. “All the things that go get replaced by a much wider self, much more open towards nationalism, in my case towards tribal loyalties. You really become a citizen of the world. And Canada is the perfect place for people like us because it doesn’t frown on that. You can have your distance and yet feel accepted and part of the society.”

Stachniak says she also felt warmly accepted at McGill from the time she arrived as a visiting scholar, later becoming a graduate student. “The way I was greeted by everyone – I was absolutely in love with Montreal and McGill and the English department. People I didn’t know the day before would stop me and invite me home, to their cottages, or just talk to me to make me feel welcome.”

Having taught in an English department in her native city of Wroclaw, Stachniak calls her immigration “a very soft landing. Many immigrants are totally deprived of their professional identity when they come; they have to leave everything and then slowly rebuild it.”

Stachniak says she will always be grateful for the help and friendship she received from professors like Irwin Gopnik, Louis Dudek, whose family had come from Poland, and Leanore Lieblein, with whom she is still friends. “You arrive, thinking that nothing connects you to this place and discover that everything connects you to this place. You are welcomed and you see all these extended hands. To me, it was magical.”