19 June 2020

Special Guest Post by Ellen Alpsten, Author of Tsarina

Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US

Spring 1699: Illegitimate, destitute and strikingly beautiful, Marta has survived the brutal Russian winter in her remote Baltic village. Sold by her family into household labour at the age of fifteen, Marta survives by committing a crime that will force her to go on the run.

The Forgotten Empress

Never before has there been so much interest in female power, and female reign, be it historically, or in current politics. Literature and TV adaptations are no exception: ‘So, is it another novel about Catherine the Great?’ People asked about my epic debut ‘Tsarina’. Yet the two women bearing the same name, ruling the same country, in the same century, could hardly be more different! ‘Tsarina’ tells for the first time ever the astonishing rise of Catherine I. of Russia from illiterate and illegitimate serf girl to Empress of the world’s largest and wealthiest realm. It is also the story of the birth of modern Russia, of a rising Empire in turmoil and change, of the madness of war, the recklebrutality of absolute monarchy when nothing is as abundant and worthless as human life.

Catherine’s story had fascinated me ever since I read about her in a book called ‘Germans and Russians’, which charts the joint millennial history of those two people. I liken her to Tut-Ankh-Amun: The Tsars preceding and succeeding her had shed so much light, that she slid into the shadows of history. The research, until I dared to enter her shocking and sensuous world, drafting the opening sentence of ‘Tsarina’, was arduous, and the writing-routine stringent, as I worked as an anchor for Bloomberg TV, mostly rising at 2am.

‘My’ Catherine overcomes a fate raging against her and embarks on one of the world’s most astonishing, passionate, and lasting love-stories. Her story is as marked by surprising opposites as the Russian Soul itself: 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. Yet her world of constant change and ever shifting circumstances bore many threats.

Female maltreatment was rampant and her life with the Tsar was like a river tearing her along: sink – or swim. Daisy Goodwin called ‘Tsarina’ the ‘ultimate Cinderella story’, yet Catherine pushed herself tirelessly: bearing the Tsar thirteen children, travelling all over Russia, Europe, and Central Asia, and even accompanying him into the field. Next to being passionate lovers they were great friends. She stood up to him and supported him through hardship and moments of doubt; she remained level-headed and merciful, yet ruthlessly defended what she had gained. If a contemporary observer wrote: ‘She wasn’t beautiful, but as warm as an animal,’ he spoke of her smouldering sex-appeal, as well as of her indomitable spirit. Her ascent bears testimony of the strength and the will to survive.

Yet while she managed to overcome a fate raging against her and rose far beyond the strictures imposed on her by a male-dominated society and world, the ‘good old times’ were not such for most women. People’s longing for more social cohesion and the comfort of limited horizons might explain the renewed passion for historical novels, yet for normal women those were frankly terrible days. My research made me think a lot about the female condition in the past - no education, early marriage, annual childbirth - which was a gamble of life and death - no privacy, neither horizons nor hope for any change to the better, ever. 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.

Interestingly enough though, when looking at Catherine’s portraits, people might struggle to see her appeal. Though this, too is a very modern message. You can succeed without adhering to any norms, let alone beauty ideals. Also, Russia is once more a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma for the Western World; What surprises us today was already present in the nation’s social make-up back then. Finally, Vladimir Putin is Russia’s quasi-absolute ruler, a country which ‘Tsarina’ observes with a foreigner’s keen eyes. So, the book – albeit being presented in a historical framework – answers to a lot of contemporary questions.

Peter the Great loved ‘turning the world upside down’: Catherine exceeded her brief, setting in motion everything that was to follow in Russia politically: a century of unprecedented female reign. She ruled a mere two, peaceful and prosperous years, a rarity in Russia. As a lasting legacy she financed Bering’s ship to find his eponymous strait.

Nobody who reads ‘Tsarina’ shall ever forget ‘my’ Catherine again. 

Ellen Alpsten

'Alpsten's colourful narrative does full justice to her extraordinary career' 
Sunday Times

'With its sprawling canvas and huge cast ... it's an entertaining romp through the endless intrigue, violence and debauchery of court life'
Mail on Sunday

'A vivid page-turner of a debut'
The Times

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About the Author

Ellen Alpsten was born and raised in the Kenyan highlands. Upon graduating from the l'Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris, she worked as a news-anchor for Bloomberg TV London. While working gruesome night shifts on breakfast TV, she started to write in earnest, every day, after work, a nap and a run. Today, Ellen works as an author and as a journalist for international publications such as Vogue, Standpoint, and CN Traveller. She lives in London with her husband, three sons, and a moody fox red Labrador. Tsarina is her debut novel. Find out more at Ellen's website www.ellenalpsten.com and find her on Facebook and Twitter @EAlpsten_Author

1 comment:

  1. I love strong female protagonists, Ellen. This story about the rise of Catherine I of Russia sounds intriguing. All the luck with this debut. Have a beautiful summer, Tony and Ellen!


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