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Using Catherine The Great’s Memoirs When Researching My Novel ‘The Winter Palace’, by Eva Stachniak

For a writer of historical fiction, period memoirs promise to be the ultimate primary source, a treasure trove of inspiration for a novel’s scenes and the language in which those scenes are couched. But memoirs are not always entirely reliable and need to be read with caution. It may be that what they do not mention is far more important than what they do. The Memoirs of Catherine the Great provide an illuminating example.

Catherine the Great started writing her memoirs a few times in her life, but none of these attempts were ever finished. The longest attempt and her final one – abandoned in 1794, two years before her death – begins with the following sentence: “Fortune is not as blind as people imagine. It is often the result of a long series of precise and well-chosen steps that precede events and are not perceived by the common herd….” To a careful reader, it quickly becomes quite clear that the memoirs themselves constitute one of these well-chosen steps. For what Catherine is giving us is not an act of confession – so popular in the 18th  century – but a carefully woven story produced by a savvy politician who knows what she wants.

I’ve read and re-read these memoirs many times in the course of doing research for my own novel and, every time I reach for them, I’m awed by the perfect pitch of Catherine’s reasoning and her guiding objectives. Her writing is lucid, straightforward, and logical. She assumes that the reader is familiar with the facts of her reign, so what she provides are the intimate details behind the facts and her thoughts, all carefully chosen to justify why she had the right, moral if not legal, to claim the Russian throne. Before we learn of her orderly habits, her work ethic, and her readings, she makes sure we learn that her late husband was inept, slovenly, and fond of drink. That instead of accepting the Orthodox religion as she did, he “took it into his head to dispute every point”. That he was childish and “resistant to all instruction”.

In contrast to Peter III, we read, Catherine II did everything to be a good wife to her inept husband and a loyal subject to empress Elizabeth Petrovna. Bit by bit she produces further evidence of his unstable character. Peter III, we learn, once executed a rat; he also tortured her, his long-suffering wife, with his fiddle playing. Incidentally – in a telling admission – Catherine also confesses to being tone deaf and finding all music to be an infernal noise.

Catherine presents further evidence of her credentials. She doesn’t spare the details of how she was mistreated – her aunt-in-law left her unattended after childbirth and refused to allow her to see her newborn son – but she also makes sure the reader knows she is not vindictive and doesn’t indulge in self-pity. Yes, she tells us, I was mistreated but I raised myself up and worked with whatever life brought my way. She makes sure we learn of her fortitude, her cheerful disposition, but most of all of her good sense and judgment. For this captivating account is Catherine’s way, not just to elicit our sympathy, but to sway us to her way of thinking. After putting the book down, the reader must be convinced that Catherine deserved to become empress because she was wise and enlightened, a just monarch who had the right to the absolute power she had seized.

Yet, as we read these memoirs we can see how Catherine writes herself into a corner. It soon becomes clear that no matter how enlightened, just, and reasonable she is, she cannot justify her husband’s murder. Yes, he was immature, silly, inept. But was he a threat? Was he the monster she wants us to see in him?

In the end Catherine gives up. The memoirs end in 1759, when she is still Grand Duchess and empress Elizabeth Petrovna is very much alive and in charge of the Russian court. The last few pages are notes for the subsequent chapter, ending with the following words: “… things took such a turn that it was necessary to perish with him, by him, or else to try to save oneself from the wreckage and to save my children, and the state.”

A tall order.

I can imagine her staring at these notes, wondering how on earth she is going to convince the reader that this was the case. And at the end abandoning the whole project altogether.


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