Thursday Reviews at Inklings

'Tsarina': A remarkable woman's rise to power

Review by Irene Pearcey

I have always enjoyed books that uncover the hidden and often overlooked influence strong women have had on historical events. When my copy of “Tsarina” by Ellen Alpsten arrived, I was excited to enter once again the world of Imperial Russia of the 1700s.

Inside the Winter Palace, Peter lay dying, at his side his second wife, Catherine Alexeyevna. Before he could finish his will, the quill slipped from his hands as he drew his last breath. Catherine knew she must act quickly to ensure that her beloved Russia did not fall into chaos and that she herself did not end up banished to a nunnery, or worse in the icy waters of the Neva. Still enticingly beautiful and remarkably shrewd, Catherine must now play out a game of palace intrigue that would destroy her enemies and place her at long last as Tsarina, Russia’s crowned leader.

Born Marta in the small village of Livonia in 1699, at the age of 9 she is sold to Vassily, a traveling merchant, to be his maidservant. When she can no longer endure the almost nightly rapes at the hands of Vasilly, Marta in a fit of passion and hatred murders him and must escape into the harsh Russian landscape or face death herself. Aided by another of Vassily’s servants, Marta makes her way to Marienburg. It is here that she meets Shermetev, a Russian general. It is in his tent where she encounters “the most powerful among the powerful, the tsar’s most loyal and absolute friend,” Menshikov, the man who would be her stepping stone to Peter.

Marta, the young girl who was sold into servitude, who can neither read nor write, through shrewdness, cunning and beauty became the second wife of Peter the Great and upon his death the crowned ruler of Russia.

This is a historical fiction novel not only about Catherine and her rise to power but also about Peter and his unrelenting desire to take Russia from isolationism into an empire that would cast off medieval practices and embrace the culture of a more refined Europe, no matter the cost.

As harsh and as beautiful as Russia itself, this novel left me enthralled with the beauty of Imperial Russia and the strength of both Catherine and her beloved Peter. I was not prepared, however, for the level of gratuitous rape and violence that played out in explicit detail within the pages of this book. The brutality for the sake of brutality has haunted me. It is a story worth telling and one worth reading, but be forewarned this book comes, in my opinion, with an R rating for sex and violence.