The Tsarina’s Daughter by Ellen Alpsten tells us the tale of Empress Elizabeth of Russia, the daughter of Peter the Great and Catherine I of Russia. Born in 1709, when her parents were not yet officially married, Elizabeth’s road to the throne would not be an easy one. It follows the book Tsarina, about Catherine I, and while it does overlap a bit, both books can stand alone.
The Tsarina’s Daughter begins when Elizabeth makes one of the most difficult decisions of her life before jumping back in time to her childhood with her sister Anna. She and Anna were their parents’ only surviving children, although her mother had given birth at least 12 times. From her father’s first marriage, they had a half-brother Alexei (who died in 1718) who had a son, the future Peter II of Russia, and a daughter. But they are not the only players – Peter the Great had co-ruled with his elder brother Ivan V, due to his mental state. Yet, he fathered three daughters, with the elder daughter Catherine having one daughter (known as Christine throughout the book – later baptised Anna Leopoldovna) who became the mother of Tsar Ivan VI. Are you still following?
After Peter the Great dies, the throne is seized by his widow Catherine, who becomes the first woman to rule Russia in her own right. We then follow her daughter Elizabeth as her fortunes rise and fall throughout the four reigns, with her standing on the threshold of becoming Empress one day herself. After her mother’s brief reign, her young nephew Peter II succeeds, but his reign too last just three years, and with him, the male Romanov line becomes extinct. From the female members remaining in the family, the second daughter of Tsar Ivan V, Empress Anna, is chosen as his successor. As Anna lies dying after a reign of ten years, she appoints the two-month-old son of her niece as the next Tsar. Little Ivan would be deposed by Elizabeth just one year into his reign under his mother’s regency. Both he and his mother, Anna, would never know freedom again.
Tantalizingly, this is where The Tsarina’s Daughter ends. Overall, I enjoyed the story, and despite the many characters, it is always clear who is who. What is less clear, however, is where we are in the timeline and how much time has passed. I went in knowing that Elizabeth would eventually succeed as Empress, and this became a disadvantage as I spent the entire book waiting for it to happen. Nevertheless, it’s a smouldering tale of love and tragedy at the Russian court and a worthy successor of Tsarina.