Tsarina by Ellen Alpsten is a novel of the story of Catherine I of Russia, born a peasant named Marta Helena Skowrońska, who became the mistress and later wife of Peter the Great. After his death, she became the first Empress of Russia in her own right. History of Royal Women got to ask Ellen some questions about her book, and you can find those below!
1. How was Catherine influenced by the loss of so many children?
For modern Western women, Catherine I’s plight is unimaginable – in her younger years, she was constantly pregnant and still lived on ferociously, never letting the Tsar out of sight. Also, it seems a paradox that Peter so longed for a son and heir and still extraordinarily little care was taken of her when pregnant – she rode like a soldier and drank like a sailor. Every birth was a gamble of life and death; loving and losing yet another child was always in the cards. I cannot imagine that she ever adopted Peter the Great’s own, stoic stance at this particular subject, who wrote to a friend who had lost a son: “I am so very sorry about your loss of a fine boy, but it is better to let go of the irretrievable rather than recall it; we have a path laid before us, which is known only to God. The child is now in heaven, the place we all want to be, disdaining this inconstant life.’
2. What was Catherine’s relationship like with her daughters?
I have just finished writing the sequel to ‘Tsarina’, a portrait of her daughter Elisabeth’s own journey to hell and back. Elizabeth and her sister Anna had a lonely childhood: they grew up running wild in a vast, dilapidated castle. Later, their aunts Natalya – Peter’s sister – or Praskovia – Tsar Ivan’s V. widow – took care of them. Catherine surely left them behind with a heavy heart, wishing to spend more time with them; yet she had made different choices. The surviving letters by Peter to his daughters are very loving and close, calling them by their nicknames’ Lizenka’ and ‘Anoushka’. Eventually, both girls were made Crown Princesses – Tsesarevny – for lack of a male heir, though they were never meant to rule. Peter saw them as political pawns and mere marriage material. Catherine’s trailblazing seizing of the crown changed the Russian political landscape forever. She also felt for her daughters’ happiness: Only months after Peter the Greats death, she married Anna off in a sumptuous happy feast, ignoring the court’s period of mourning.
3. How did Catherine deal with her husband’s first wife, Eudoxia?
Did she ever meet or see Eudoxia? Possibly during Alexey’s trial, when Peter unleashed a proper witch-hunt in Russia. The meeting taking place in the novel, in the early morning hours of a cold Kremlin corridor, stems from my imagination. Surely, she felt safer once the divorce was through and Eudoxia finally had been bullied into taking the veil, which she had long refused to do. Despite being a bigot, Eudoxia was no pushover, once having thrown a vase at a young Tsar Peter, when he returned from one of his mistresses. Her fate – locked up, her head shorn, in a monastery with a hunchbacked, babbling, tongue-less dwarf as her only companion – certainly served Catherine as a dire warning. She took care to support the Tsar in everything and tried to give him a son and heir.
4. How did Catherine manage to take power?
During her years at the Tsar’s side, she carefully fostered and nurtured relationships – both her female friendships as well as with Peters cronies and companions, be they in the military or court administrators. Peter was incalculable in his ambitions and his anger, and she often softened the blow of his knout – quite literally. When he died, everyone at court owed her. Was this behaviour cunning, or simply her character? Probably a blend of both. She called in favours when the moment of all moments came: Peter the Great died without designating an heir. That is the starting point of my novel.
5. How did Catherine’s upbringing influence her reign?
Growing up as a serf – an unfree peasant attached to the estate of the Russian church in Swedish Livonia (today Estonia and Latvia) – did not allow for airs and graces. Marta, as she was known as a girl, was destined for a life of hard labour from dawn till dusk. When she met Peter aged nineteen or twenty, her character was set, and her stratospheric rise did not change her. She had won Peter with her quick wit, her crude sense of humour – they both adored practical jokes – her level-headedness, her courage and also her soft heart: ‘Nobody can be so evil as for you not find some good in him’, he wrote to her. Peter’s world, too, was harsh, cruel, and lonely. She was his one true companion, an invaluable asset. As Tsarina, she preferred peace and prosperity, as well as a policy of contracts and alliances, to war-mongering.
6. Is there any proof that Catherine II (Catherine the Great) was influenced by the actions of Catherine I?
Catherine II came to Russia as a German Princess, Sophie von Anhalt-Zerbst. She was welcomed into the Orthodox faith and baptised Catherine Alexeyevna in honour of Catherine I., my ‘Tsarina’. She married the heir to the throne, Peter’s and Catherine I’s grandson, living under the watchful and suspicious eye of the Empress Elizabeth, who worshipped her mother. The clever and careful woman that Catherine II was must have taken note of her namesake’s ascent, as ‘Tsarina’ set the scene for all that followed in Russia politically – an unprecedented century of female reign.