Book Review: Tsarina by Ellen Alpsten


About the Book:

Lover. Murderer. Mother. Meet TSARINA, the most powerful woman history ever forgot.

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.

A world away, Russia’s young ruler, Tsar Peter I, passionate and iron-willed, has a vision for transforming the traditionalist Tsardom of Russia into a modern, Western empire. Countless lives will be lost in the process.

Falling prey to the Great Northern War, Marta cheats death at every turn, finding work as a washerwoman at a battle camp. One night at a celebration, she encounters Peter the Great. Relying on her wits and her formidable courage, and fuelled by ambition, desire and the sheer will to live, Marta will become Catherine I of Russia. But her rise to the top is ridden with peril; how long will she survive the machinations of Peter’s court, and more importantly, Peter himself?

My Thoughts:

‘My life began with a crime.’

This is was quite a novel, both in size and scope. It falls easily into that category of ‘epic saga’ and while it weighed heavily in my hands, I really couldn’t put it down. The edition that I was reading was an ARC and it didn’t yet have the historical notes or acknowledgements included in the back that I expect the finished edition to have. As such, I’m not able to confirm how closely the events in the novel align with the actual true history; a bit of a shame as I always enjoy finding out what is based on truth and what is fully made up. Nevertheless, just from reading this novel I am able to judge that the author has done an immense amount of research on Russian history. And this is where the novel fully earns its five stars from me. The author has detailed such exacting descriptions of life in Russia during the set era, from the customs to the food to the weather and even the way the cities would have smelt. This novel truly is a history enthusiasts dream and if you are keen on Russian history, then you will be in raptures even more over it.

However, if you are expecting a story about a glamourous royal court giving birth to an emerging Russian culture, hold that thought. Time and time again I was astonished at the depravity and general brutish, uncouth, and uncivilised nature of the people who made up Russia’s elite. Take this as an example:

‘We left Mon Bijou two days later. I felt sorry for the Queen of Prussia once again as I walked through her small palace’s once perfectly presented rooms. Many of the high, polished windows had been shattered and shards of glass lay everywhere. The Persian rugs were trampled and I spotted burn holes from cigars or careless fire-laying. Belgian damask curtains hung in tatters and the gilded wall panelling in one room had been demolished. Chandeliers of Bohemian crystal and candlesticks of ivory had been smashed; Delft tiles lay broken while soot covered the fine parquet. On the furniture, carving skills had been practised. The faces in some of the gilt-framed portraits had been cut to pieces by countless blades. Oh, yes, Peter’s men had felt at home in Berlin. I doubted we would be invited there again.’

There was, in general, such little regard, not only for property, but for the lives of others. It was disconcerting to read about children throwing rotten vegetables at the servants for fun; even more so to read of the adults doing it! But this was very much a top down approach, with Tsar Peter the worst offender of all. His entire Russian empire was built on the skeletons of those who were forced into his armies. St Petersburg itself was raised out of the swamps by the slave labour of serfs. If you ran away once, your nose was cut off. If you ran away again, your ears were cut off. A third time? Further torture that you may or may not survive; it didn’t matter either way because your life was worth nothing and there were millions with which to replace you. I cannot even imagine what moving, much less working, in such cold and arctic conditions must have been like. But being born as anything other than a serf didn’t guarantee your safety either. This is a Tsar who tortured his own so to death for a reason of his own making. Everyone’s life was dispensable; everyone was just one whisper away from being tortured or sent to work in mine camps or convents, or worse. There was always worse.

‘During my years with the Tsar I had witnessed many atrocities. Men had their caps nailed to their heads because they did not pull them off fast enough upon Peter’s arrival. Monks and nuns had their guts slashed because they had dared to call his decisions blasphemous. Old-fashioned Muscovites who had questioned the direction Peter was taking the country in, were smothered with molten metal.
Nothing had prepared me for what it meant to die on the stake. The man’s screams tore apart the air of the hot Moscow summer’s day before they faded to a faint whimper at nightfall, after endless hours of pain. His dark blood kept on seeping over the stones of the Red Square, which was true to its name that day, and the stench of his dying drifted into the Kremlin, strangling my soul.’

Peter the Great was very much a man of enormous vision. He had been educated in Europe and saw so much potential for Russia, and yet his vision extended beyond advancement. He wanted to refashion Russia into something it wasn’t. A conversion of East to West. There appeared to be only one peaceful year for Russia in Peter’s entire reign; he was always warring for further territory. St Petersburg, his jewel of a city, created for the new Russia, was built on what had formerly been Swedish lands. He was effectively moving Russia out of the East, geographically, not just symbolically, and setting it firmly into the West. The cost of this was catastrophically enormous. He was a madman. Absolutely diabolical. Riddled with syphilis, and by the time of his death, he was completely out of control.

‘One could for ever and ever praise the merits of the dead Tsar Peter, the greatness, the uniqueness, the wisdom of his rule. But his work brought pain to all the people who came close to him. He disturbed peace, prosperity, the strength of his empire. He violated the dignity, rights, and well-being of his subjects. He meddled insultingly in all matters: from religion to the family to the holy church. Can one love such a despot? No, never. Such a ruler is nothing but hateful.’

So what of Catherine, the woman whose perspective steers this novel? She was a survivor, that’s for sure. Cunning and smart in a way that belied her lack of education. If she had been less beautiful, she’d likely have been dead in a ditch by seventeen. Luck came her way on account of her looks, but it was her intelligence that ensured this luck was not wasted. Her life was far from easy though. Thirteen pregnancies, twelve with Peter, and only two daughters survived into adulthood. I can’t help but wonder though if all of the vodka drinking may have had a hand in this. Her uterus must have been fairly pickled.

‘Twelve times God had given me the chance to give Russia an heir. Twelve times I had failed.’

Catherine lived by dancing on the edge of a knife with Peter. He had already cast one wife aside, and she had actually birthed him a son – just one he happened to deem as weak and inadequate. So for Catherine, whose boys were all sadly either stillborn or died in infancy, her position was forever precarious. And yet, Peter was besotted with her. Her bravery superseded many of the men he was surrounded by and her wits on more than one occasion led to a situation saved for him. Her compassion operated as a temperance between Peter and his courtiers, even a buffer at times, as she was the only one who could calm his rages and soothe his ego. She manipulated him masterfully – seriously, the woman was a goddess. And yet, he still openly disrespected her, more and more as he got older. It was actually pretty repulsive to be honest, this man with symptomatic syphilis having open affairs with other women at court, including his own niece at one stage, while Catherine watched from the sidelines, pregnant again. I am astonished she did not contract syphilis herself and really can’t fathom why she didn’t. In the end, I championed her fate. No one was more deserving than her of becoming the next leader after Peter’s death. No one had earned it more through sheer grit, tears, and even blood. She gave birth thirteen times and mourned the loss of a child eleven times. Rode alongside Peter to war for years, mucking in and nursing the wounded. She endured fear and tyranny on a daily basis, witnessed atrocities that beggar belief, survived repeated rape, was sold by her own family, and was forced to kill in self-defence. The loyalty that was shown to her in the end was more than earned. I thought she was magnificent. And that revenge she took on the upstart that threatened her position as Peter’s wife? Gold. If you’re going to send someone a clear message, make it a worthwhile one and go full Catherine on them.

‘The generals kneel; countless times I have sat with them by the campfire, celebrating their victories and lamenting their defeats. I tended to their wounds at Poltava, and spooned thin soup into their bowls underneath the beating Persian sun. I was always there, for as long as they can remember. I protected them, their goods and their families, against Peter’s wrath. At his side, I had learnt what it took to rule Russia. This is the way it should be: Peter is dead. My beloved husband, the mighty Emperor and Tsar of All the Russias, has died, and not a moment too soon.’

This is no fairy-tale story of a rags to riches princess fulfilling her destiny. This is a brutal account of the birth of an empire made out of blood, sweat, and tears, its existence defying all possibility. It’s the story of a woman who, despite being born into serfdom, despite being sold, used, and discarded, despite being a woman in the first place, ended up still alive, stepping out of the shadow of a despot and reigning supreme, loved by her people and deserving of their honour. This novel is dense with war and politics, riddled with sex and debauchery, saturated with villainy, manipulations, and betrayal: just about everything you could ever want from historical fiction and then some.


Thanks is extended to Bloomsbury for providing me with a copy of Tsarina for review.

Published by Bloomsbury Publishing
Released 28th April 2020

18 thoughts on “Book Review: Tsarina by Ellen Alpsten

  1. It’s interesting, isn’t it, that we know so little about Russian history… we know all about the Tsar and his family being killed during the revolution, but not much before that…
    When we were in Moscow, we went to a great dance performance by the Kostroma Dance Group (see and they do a history of Russia in dance and song. It was so interesting to see their representation of Russia’s history that goes back to the era that we tend to know about for Britain — I mean, we all know about the Vikings, right?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Did you like Moscow?
      I can’t help but wonder if Russia’s history itself is why we know so little about it. They were cut off for so long as the USSR and prior to that, information was kept under a tight lid by Stalin. Maybe we’ll learn more now as time goes by and authors as well as historians produce more work that is readily accessible.
      This account seemed to indicate that prior to Peter the Great, Russia was pretty much in the dark age. He was the one who began the decades long war in that part of Europe. But I’d still be interested in going back a bit further, to the origins of the royal family at least. Who was the first royal and did they crown themselves, that sort of thing.


      • I loved everything about Russia. I grew up during the Cold War, and all my impressions were of grim-faced men in grey military attire, and James Bond outsmarting their spies at every turn. Like everyone else, I thought they were out to obliterate us with their nuclear weapons.
        But now that I know about their tragic history of WW2, I know that the *last* thing any of them wanted was another war. Because I’d learned a little Russian, I had that as an ice-breaker so I was able to have conversations with lots of people, because so many of them speak English. They were lovely. They have a great sense of humour, and they are philosophical about the past. And Moscow is a wonderful city. So much to see and do. The image I grew up with, the Kremlin full of military hardware, is so different to the reality: Kremlin just means fortress, and inside its walls there is a beautiful palace and stunning churches, and a beautiful garden, just like other European palaces except more so, because Russia was the richest country in the world in the C19th. If you ever get a chance to go, don’t hesitate!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I like the sound of this but the cover pisses me off no end! Do we really need to look at the boobs of this woman like that? Seriously! Yes, I know they dressed like that back then but still… It just seems… gratuitous to me.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow, what a fantastic review! I’ve read a couple of books now set in Russia, though I’m still in two minds if I’d be interested in reading more. There is really nothing about Russia I find fascinating or that interests me. It could be the stories my mum told me about the Russians when she was living in East Germany with her mum, her sister and other members of the family. I can’t really recall the stories but I remember she was always upset when she spoke of the Russians.
    I quite like the cover, I didn’t even notice the boobs, hahaha. The dress caught my eye 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I quite like the cover but I can see why it irkes as well. But it sort of suits the book.
      I guess there are some places and topics that interest people and then for others it’s different. There is no doubt a complicated history between East Germany and Russia that would account for your mum’s feelings.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s