Review: Tsarina –a dazzling glimpse into the mad world of Russian autocracy17 May 2021
As described by the acclaimed historical fiction writer Daisy Goodwin, the 500-page mammoth of a book Tsarina “makes Game of Thrones look like a nursery rhyme,” as it follows the thrilling tale of Catherine the First of Russia.
Full disclosure, I haven’t read Game of Thrones, but I can certainly confirm that Tsarina is an addictive, dynamic and intense portrayal of the rise of Catherine the First, also known as Marta.
Ellen Alpsten’s debut novel begins in 1725, the year Russia’s famous sovereign Peter the Great lay dying after a reign of reform, terror, and war. Alpsten then transports the reader back to 1699 and begins telling us the terrific tale of Peter’s future wife, Marta, in vivid and extraordinary detail.
A hardened third-year history student, I set out on the adventure of Tsarina with more than a few trepidations. Was this historically accurate? How would the Kenyan-European background of the author impact their reading of Russian culture? Would our 21st century attitudes plague our interpretations of the actions and motivations of 18th century figures?
My doubts were promptly swept away. Historical accuracy ceases to matter when the author skilfully whisks the reader away into a world of poverty, great war, love, and heartbreak. Alpsten assumes the voice of the young peasant girl with ease, from her small hometown somewhere in modern day Poland or Lithuania, all the way to her rise to the most powerful woman in the Russian Empire. Perhaps the harshness of peasant life in those early days was glossed over, but Marta’s complicated family life is drawn vividly, along with the loves and fears she held. The emotional intensity increases as the novel carries on, in the rapid pace adventure of Marta’s life, as she moves from a small village and faces violent aristocratic masters, destructive war, fickle men, and the endless lust and madness of the Russia’s own Peter the Great.
Reading Alpsten’s work, one gets a great sense of anxiety that was characteristic of the inner echelons of Russian autocracy. Power was contingent on the Tsar’s favour, which was capricious and generous at the same time. In this world, poor baker boys and peasant girls rise to the highest honours that could be bestowed from the sovereign, and sons of royal blood are brutally tortured to the point of death. There is a feeling of breathlessness in Alpsten’s portrayal of Russian politics. Peter was ambitious, madly so, and one feels his stress, hope, and anxiety over his attempts of his plans to modernise Russia through the eyes of his second wife.
Despite the sheer distance in years separating the reader from Marta, Alpsten also identifies key characteristics of womanhood that resonate with the modern reader. Marta’s fear of men with bad intentions, her pain at unrequited love and the anxiety of seeing a male partner turn their eyes towards other women are recognisable in the modern literature and lives of women in the 21st century.
The writing is at times distant – readers may have to fill in the gaps as to the true inner workings of Marta’s mind and heart. The portrayal of emotion is often told rather than shown, but enough is given to keep the reader turning the pages of this comprehensive, dramatized account of the extraordinary Catherine the First and the relentlessly difficult world she lived in.
Although the world of Russian aristocracy may seem daunting to the uninitiated reader, with patronymics, words such as ‘tsarevich’, and references to unfamiliar cities and places to a western audience, Tsarina is accessible to all readers, and well worth a read for all as well.