A Q&A about the Making of 'Tsarina' with BBC History REVEALED
Why were you drawn to writing 'Tsarina'? How did you ‘discover’ her?
Catherine I. of Russia's rise from the illiterate, illegitimate serf to first ever reigning Empress of Russia, which morphed from backward country to superpower, fascinated me ever since I discovered her character while reading a book called ‘Germans and Russians’, when aged 13. Author Leo Sievers charted the shared millennial history of those two people. When I had matured enough to be an author, I was stunned to see that nothing more could be read about her: no thesis, no biography, no novel. At times I believe I was destined to find her, a bit like Howard Carter ‘discovered’ Tut Ankh Amun!
Why do you think she has been overlooked by history in favour of her name-sake Catherine the Great?
Most people assume that ‘Tsarina’ is about Catherine the Great, who arrived in Russia as a German Princess, the bride-to-be for the heir to the throne. Not to belittle her achievements, but she -’my’ Catherine’s grand-niece - became the Empress her education had prepared her for and had 34 years of rule to make her mark. The two decades following the death of Peter the Great in Russia form an extraordinarily complicated tableau of opposing forces threatening to tear the country apart. His death left his realm stuck mid-reform, settling into a fragile peace, fearing the lingering threat of attack by either of its neighbours, its government at the mercy of foreign fortune-hunters. If Catherine’s reign was brief – two peaceful and prosperous years, an exception in the Russian history – she continued his strive for discovery and improvement. Her final act was to finance Bering’s ships, allowing the explorer the quest for his eponymous strait.
How did you immerse yourself in 19th-century Russia? How and where did you start your research?
I had of course read ‘The Russians”, such as Tolstoy, Gogol, and Pushkin, as well as Russian fairy-tales, which offer invaluable insight into a country’s imaginary: the storyteller invariably gets rewarded by eating honey! The research proper for ‘Tsarina’ was more focused on the early Romanovs, such as watching Sukorov’s take on the Dogma movie, ‘Russian Ark’, or reading the often hilarious and shocking travel diaries of the 17th century German merchant Adam Olearius, visiting Russia and the first Romanov Tsar. My ‘bible’, however, was Prof. Lindsey Hughes’ tome 'Russia in the time of Peter the Great'. Regrettably, I was never able to meet her. Following a year of research, I dared drafting the novel’s opening sentence. Also, I had a very stringent writing-routine, as I worked as a presenter on Financial breakfast TV, often leaving the house at 2.30 a.m. I wrote every afternoon, after a nap and a run in Hyde Park, half a dozen books surrounding my pc, their pages marked with post-its and highlighter.
'Tsarina' is a real rags-to-riches Cinderella tale – what sense did you get of her character?
Initially, I fell for her life’s catchphrase: from serf to Empress, from backward nation to superpower. Yet there is so much more to it: A rising Empire in the turmoil of change. The madness of war. The reckless brutality of an absolute monarchy in which nothing is as abundant and as dispensable as human life. My fascination grew proportionally to my research. How impressive are her psychological make-up and her physical strength? She never surrendered; but enhanced her strengths while going with the flow and worked on her weaknesses. Her mind was never academically schooled; instead, she acted with courage and cunning. The Russians are a communal people - the word for happiness ‘shast’ye’ means being part of something bigger – and she counted on family and friendship. Yet if many women wanted what she had, woe the one who attempted to take what was hers!
How did her meteoric rise change her do you think?
Catherine’s life may seem like a milestone in female empowerment, and whilst she matured, change might be too big a word. Her world of ever shifting circumstances bore too many threats for her not to have been hard headed and steadfast from the beginning on. For all its apparent splendour, her life was as incalculable as any Russian’s. Nowhere the wheel of fortune spins faster, and with more fanciful ferocity. From the moment she relied on her own wits for survival, she pushed herself relentlessly: constantly pregnant, yet accompanying Peter the Great into the fields of the Great Northern War, and on his travels in Russia, Europe, and Central Asia. She displayed courage and prudence, next to maintaining a forgiving nature: those traits never changed. A contemporary wrote: ‘She wasn’t beautiful, but as warm as an animal,’ describing her innate indomitable spirit, as much as about her smouldering sex-appeal.
What was the most surprising thing you learned from your research?
Researching and writing ‘Tsarina’ made me contemplate the female condition. People speak of the 'good old days', longing for more social cohesion and the comfort of limited horizons, yet for normal women those were frankly terrible days. No education, early marriage, annual childbirth - which was a gamble of life and death -, no privacy, no horizons. Life was marginally better for high-born women. The Petrine laws of inheritance changed this - as often, war was a harbinger of progress. If all men are in battle, women have to run the trade. If sons stay in the field, unmarried daughters ought to inherit. So, while equality brings its own challenges, I do prefer to live today. The choices we have are a tremendous luxury and a true achievement.
What one thing would you like readers to take away from your book?
The French Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu coined the immortal phrase: ‘Plus ça change, plus ça reste pareil. That is the case for Russia, too: What surprises us today was already present in the nation’s social make-up back then. Winston Churchill said: ‘Russia is once more a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma’. Putin is a quasi-absolute ruler – a Tsar - of Russia. If ‘Tsarina’, who observes her adopted home-country with the keen eyes of a foreigner, helps a reader t understand the Russian soul further and inspires him to learn more about this mighty country, I am delighted. I perceive the novel as a piece of literary diplomacy! Catherine overcomes a fate raging against her. Her ascent bears testimony of the strength of human nature and the will to survive. When looking at her portraits today, people might struggle to see her appeal – that, too, is a very modern message. You can succeed without adhering to any norms, let alone beauty ideals.
Why did you choose to write 'Tsarina' in the form of a novel rather than as a work of non-fiction?
The sheer scope of it required the sprawling canvas and the huge cast that only a novel can offer. Her life was marked by opposites as surprising as the Russian Soul: callous cruelty and overwhelming empathy; overt hostility towards all things foreign, yet selfless hospitality to strangers; freezing, interminable winters - zima –, and the summers’ balmy white nights. There are tantalising blanks in her life, which I filled with my imagination.