For those who didn’t know yet: Tsar Peter the Great (1672-1725) was seen by many as the antichrist in his time. He forced his nobles to shave off their beards and exchange their caftans for Western garb, during his many wars he occasionally set fire to a monastery, looted church treasures, beheaded monks. At the same time, with St. Petersburg, he founded a modern capital full of Baroque palaces, educational institutes, scientific academies, commercial offices, factories, hospitals and barracks, reformed the navy and army to attack hereditary enemy Sweden and introduced a new form of government through a service nobility in to feed. But above all, he was capricious and cruel, even to his closest friends, relatives and mistresses, who could fall into disgrace from one moment to the next.
In the history books, Peter’s main achievement is often stated that he was the first tsar to travel abroad to study the sciences, to forge new alliances, to work in Amsterdam in the shipyards of the VOC and to use all that acquired knowledge to explore his country. to modernize. Under Peter’s rule, Russia changed from a dark Asian empire into a European superpower, which could terrorize its western neighbours. The current tensions with the West over Ukraine’s future show that meddling on a daily basis.
Many historical studies have been published about the turbulent time in which Peter lived and about his person. But as far as I know there has been no novel yet, while a rambunctious person like him lends itself perfectly to it.
The Lithuanian writer Kristina Sabaliauskaite (1974) gave it a try and wrote a dazzling historical novel with Peter’s Empress, which is an unprecedented bestseller in Lithuania, a country of 3 million inhabitants, with 100,000 copies sold. The main character is not Peter or his legal wife Jevdokia, whom he had locked up in a monastery after she had attempted a coup against him, but his mistress Marta Skavronska (1684-1727). She would bear him twelve children, succeed him after his death and become the first woman to rule the Russian Empire as Catherine I. Sabaliauskaite portrays her lifelike and sparkling, allowing you to travel with her through the cruel and almost inhumane Russia of the eighteenth century.
Marta tells her story from her deathbed in her palace in Tsarskoye Selo. It’s not clear what she has, but she’s swollen, her mouth is full of blood, she’s letting everything run, she’s short of breath, is in a hallucinatory state. As a 5-year-old child, after the death of her impoverished noble parents, she was placed in the family of a German pastor in the Lithuanian fortified town of Marienburg, which was then in the hands of the Swedes. When the pastor’s son falls in love with her and wants to marry her, she is married off to a Brabant trumpeter from the Swedish army.
Fate takes a drastic turn when the Russians take the town in 1702 and start raging like beasts. Marta is the victim of a gang rape. But just as she threatens to succumb, she is spotted by an officer who finds her so beautiful that he has her taken captive to Russian headquarters. Initially she is the laundress and sex slave of Field Marshal Sheremetev, but the latter sells her under duress to the right hand of Tsar Peter, Aleksander Menshikov, who is also of impoverished Lithuanian nobility. A passionate love develops between the two that lasts until Marta’s death.
Menshikov is terrified of becoming a love rival to the Tsar and falling into disfavor when the latter finds out about his affair with Martha. That is why he chooses to be on the safe side and introduces the girl to Peter, who immediately falls for her. What starts as an imperial sex adventure with yet another mistress, turns into a great love. And although the Tsar regularly cheats on Marta, he becomes more and more dependent on her. Also because, unlike his long-time ‘principal mistress’ Anna Mons, she bears him children and seems to really love him. You always taste a certain degree of sophistication in her, because you know that as Peter’s protégé she is safer than anywhere else, although she too has to take into account that she can lose favor at any moment. At the same time, she enjoys the opulence with which she is surrounded and longs for the moment when she officially marries Peter in 1712 and becomes Tsarina Catherine. Sabaliauskaite manages to portray that discord of desire very cleverly.
Menshikov plays a decisive role in this combined and true play of power and love. Out of self-interest, because with his pawn Marta at Peter’s side, his own influence at court is increasing. In the end, he is even promoted to prince. Menshikov is therefore the genius Macchiavellist, for whom you feel a lot of sympathy, also thanks to his playful humor and inventive cunning.
Besides the story of a love, Sabaliauskaite shows how violent things were in Peter’s Russia. In fact, no one was sure of his life, with the unpredictable, tall, bear-strong and epileptic Peter as the absolute ruler whom everyone feared.
The characters of Marta, Peter and Menshikov truthfully breathe life into Sabaliauskaite. They are very similar to what historians have learned about them. She also shows how much Russia differed from Western Europe, where, unlike in Peter’s empire, there was a certain degree of civilization, order and material beauty directed by princes.
In this successful historical novel, you can taste between the lines the Russian inferiority complex towards the West and the great distrust of the Russian population towards its rulers. Suddenly you realize that little has changed in this regard. So she makes Marta say, ‘Dear Lord, what have you done to us? You have so scourged us with calamity all our lives that we have become like dogs that are constantly beating. We can no longer confidently accept a benevolent outstretched hand.’
There are also striking parallels in relation to the current political tensions between the West and Russia. For example, when Peter defeated the Swedish King Charles at Poltava in 1709, you read that ‘Europe understood that Russia meant power. A savage one, a barbarian one, admittedly one that won all the victories with a disproportionate number of its own victims, but still – power.’
In between all that power and brutality, there is Peter, who dreams of a modern, more humane Russia. ‘Just a little more patience,’ he tells Marta, ‘we will educate our people, so you won’t see any difference with Germans. They will be better, because a Russian has more talents. He creates miracles out of nothing. You just have to whip them on, because they’re lazy.’ You would almost think that Tsar Vladimir Putin is speaking.
Kristina Sabaliauskaite: Peter’s Empress. (Petro imperatore) Trans. Anita van der Molen. Prometheus, 352 pp. €22.50
A version of this article also appeared in NRC on the morning of January 21, 2022