I can’t recall the last time I read a book so intriguing as Ellen Alpsten’s gripping (although at points a touch unbelievable) Tsarina, the story of Peter the Great of Russia’s second, last, and longest-lasting wife.
Marta is born onto an estate of serfs in the Baltics in the late 1600s. Raised by a resentful stepmother and her drunk father, Marta’s family, among countless others, is the property of a local monastery. A universally acknowledged beauty, at fifteen Marta is sold to a Russian trader, Vassily, who sexually assaults her. After experiencing months of such violence, Marta kills Vassily in an act of self-defense. She flees and after nearly being sold into prostitution and dying of exposure, she finds herself taken in and working for a genuinely kind Lutheran priest and his wife. Unfortunately for Marta, she’s seduced by the priest’s insincere son, and is soon pregnant with his child and compelled to marry a local soldier instead. Then Tsar Peter’s army arrives, and Marta, widowed and the mother of a stillborn son, is caught and gang raped by the invading army. A Russian general stops her rapists and ushers her into the world of the Russian court, where she meets Peter, a legendary leader in the making. Marta, renamed Catherine by Peter, will, over the course of twenty years, be the tsar’s lover, mother of twelve of his children, and his empress.
Thanks to the marketing for Tsarina – the hardcover reads SERF. MUDERESS. EMPRESS – one is prepared for a lurid story of political gamesmanship, headlined by a machinating Lady Macbeth of a heroine. Alpsten, however, portrays Marta as surviving more on impulses, luck, and guidance from others. One of the moments I found most frustrating is when Marta is taken in by the Russian general and he tells her “use life’s surprises to your advantage. See your power over men like a hand of cards; play them, to trump your life”. It seems unlikely that Marta, whose life has been defined by her beauty and men’s reaction to it, wouldn’t have come to that conclusion herself, but would need to have it spoon-fed to her.
The story is told entirely in the first person by Marta, except for the epilogue (which is written from the perspective of a French diplomat, depriving Marta of the last word in her own story). Her narration is surprisingly quiet; she has little inner life, no apparent intellectual curiosity, and observes rather than critically analyzes the extraordinary things going on around her. Peter, early in the book, instructs Marta about the responsibilities of his romantic partner – essentially, smile and don’t bother him – and Alpsten’s Marta draws much of her power from doing as told, until the final fifth, when she indulges in what I can only describe as a wildly reckless midlife crisis (when Alpsten has Marta eschew her worldly power in favor of giving head to her young lover, claiming “his lust was the only realm I ever wanted to rule” I scoffed).
Peter is a manic, brilliant man. Sexually insatiable and profoundly alcoholic, he descends into rage and insanity. Near the end of his life, Peter laments to Marta “in the end, you, too, did not truly understand me”, and it’s a convincing statement. Their love affair, in Alpsten’s telling, is shallow, more the companionship of drinking buddies than anything else. This, I struggled to accept. Peter, an exceptionally willful genius of a man, married Marta by choice, stayed with her despite all the other women in and out of his life, kept her as his wife even when they were unable through twelve pregnancies to produce a male heir, and made her empress. The idea that he would behave with such loyalty and – in some ways, for Peter – fidelity, towards Marta without having a profoundly intimate and complex relationship with her is a hard sell. Tsarina misses out on a chance to show in detail a richer love story.
It should be noted that throughout the book, Alpsten weaves mentions and depictions of graphic sexual assault, incest, torture, and the death of children due to disease, stillbirth, and malice. She does not linger on these moments and much of their inclusion does serve character development and reinforce the impression of Marta’s world as a nearly untenable one that it’s a feat to survive.
Despite the book’s flaws, I am recommending it and here’s why: I credit this book with greatly improving my dinner conversation. After nine months of the pandemic, I don’t often have a lot of new things to relate to the dear person I share my house with. Reading Tsarina, however, I always found I had something to discuss – the subtleties of power, historical fiction we’ve read about female monarchs, and lifelong love. Alpsten does a great service to Marta and readers by letting us know this woman and this love story existed at all. The well of Marta’s story isn’t close to dry, and I hope many authors and historians in the future draw from it.