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Tsarina by Ellen Alpsten

There is something about Russian tsarist history that continues to fascinate me as much as it repels. So I selected Tsarina by Ellen Alpsten with the hope that it would afford me the opportunity to learn more about Catherine the First and immerse me into the brutal but exciting world of feudal Russia. While Ms. Alpsten paints a vivid picture of historical Russia, the image of Catherine the book presents leaves a lot to be desired.

The strength of Tsarina lies in its portrayal of Russia in the 1700s. Ms. Alpsten excels at showing the brutal life of the serf as well as the complete lack of options available for women at any level. She does not shy away from showing the near-constant violence towards women at any level in society, which is not surprising considering the extremely patriarchal society that was Russia at this time. The picture Ms. Alpsten paints is one of abject poverty and near-constant violence alongside the shocking excesses of the elite.

While the purpose of Tsarina is to show how remarkable Catherine the First was, she failed to impress me. Instead, to me, the image Ms. Alpsten presents is simply a girl who caught the eye of the Tzar and who used her understanding of the shifting politics of the court to her advantage. She used liberal amounts of sex and emotional manipulation to keep her relevant even though the tzar could and did literally sleep with any woman/girl he wanted. I have no doubt that there was genuine feeling between the two, but I don’t think it makes her impressive. If anything, it makes her an opportunist and nothing more.

Historically speaking, we don’t know much of Catherine’s serf origins. It appears as if Ms. Alpsten took the most scandalous of the hypotheses to create Catherine’s backstory, complete with a sale to a new master, rape, murder, escape, war, and being in the right place at the right time. Sure, it makes for an interesting story, but to me, that is all it is.

Tsarina is too much fiction and not enough history. I did enjoy the parts where we get to see Peter the Great exert his will into modernizing Russia and establishing St. Petersberg. Unfortunately, these scenes are few and far between. For too much of the story, we see Catherine having sex and flirting her way into power and influence. While I recognize there were not many other options for women at that time, Catherine’s story leaves me unimpressed and questioning her so-called brilliance.

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