In celebration of Women’s History Month, we’ve asked our authors to write about the strong women their books focus on. This week, Eva Stachniak, author of Empress of the Night, a book about Catherine the Great of Russia, gives us a peek at the Queen’s story.
Creating fiction around a historical figure, especially a powerful woman monarch, is a vivid reminder that such women were blazing new trails, not just in politics. They were pushing the boundaries of our understanding of gender roles and the mysteries of the human heart.
As I prepared to write Empress of the Night I often reflected on Catherine’s love affairs. In spite of what had frequently been said about her, Catherine the Great was a serial monogamist, always seeking love that would last. As one relationship ended—most often not because she herself wished it—she craved another one. I cannot live an hour without love, she had repeated often. Her relationship with Stanisław Poniatowski lasted three years, ending when he was expelled from Russia. Grigory Orlov had been her partner for twelve years, until his infidelities became too numerous and too humiliating. There had been mistakes, too, like Alexander Vassilchikov with whom Catherine took up for a few months on the rebound, a decision she bitterly regretted and felt very bad about. There were also painful and unexpected betrayals, one lover taking up with her best friend, another falling in love with one of her ladies-in-waiting. There were tragedies, too, like that of Alexander (Sasha) Lanskoy, Catherine’s best, dearest, and kindest friend, who died after a brief illness at the age of twenty-six. I am plunged into the most profound grief and my happiness no longer exist, Catherine wrote at that time to one her friends. I have become a desperate, monosyllabic creature. I drag myself about like a shadow. I cannot set eyes on a human face without tears choking my mouth.
In 1789, when she turned sixty, Catherine the Great took Platon Zubov as her twelfth and last Favourite. He was twenty-two at the time, a minor noble and a captain in her Horse Guard Regiment. Exceedingly handsome, muscular yet frail, he had caught her eye at court. A dark, little one she called him in her letters to Grigory Potemkin, by then her best friend and political partner. Our baby, as she also called Zubov, weeps when denied the entry into my room. In the matter of days, the handsome captain was promoted to colonel, offered costly gifts and rooms at both The Winter Palace and Tsarskoye Selo. Catherine didn’t hide her feelings for him, declaring that she loved this child who is really very interesting.
Did she mind the constant gossip her love life generated? The disapproval of the European courts? The French pamphlets calling her a harridan, an insatiable hag feeding on young flesh? Did she ever wonder if her Favourites loved her or the power her love bestowed on them? If she did, she never let on. Catherine was too sure of her own worth, too convinced that she had a world to offer to a willing young man who caught her eye. After all she never forced herself on the men she fell in love with. They were vying for her attention, and once chosen, thought themselves lucky. Sure, she was older, sometimes many years older, but besides the allure of power she had wit and charm and energy, all ageless attributes. And yes, power is an aphrodisiac, but she didn’t want to depend on it. When the Favourite who had betrayed Catherine with her lady-in-waiting—mourning the prestige he had lost—deluged His Beloved Tsarina with letters bemoaning his decision, begging her to take him back and restore his privileges, she didn’t even reply.