In the Winter Palace
Russian Life|November/December 2020
In this prologue to Alpsten’s new historical fiction novel, Tsarina, we meet Catherine I at the critical turning point in her life: the death of her husband Peter I (the Great).
Ellen Alpsten

He is dead. My beloved husband, the mighty Tsar of all the Russias, has died – and just in time.

Moments before death came for him, Peter called for a quill and paper to be brought to him in his bedchamber in the Winter Palace. My heart almost stalled. He had not forgotten but was going to drag me down with him. When he lost consciousness for the last time and the darkness drew him closer to its heart, the quill slipped from his fingers. Black ink spattered the soiled sheets; time held its breath. What had the Tsar wanted to settle with that last effort of his tremendous spirit? I knew the answer. The candles in the tall candelabra filled the room with a heavy scent and an unsteady light; their glow made shadows reel in corners and brought the woven figurines on the Flemish tapestries to life, their coarse faces showing pain and disbelief. Outside the door, the voices of the people who’d stood there all night were drowned out by the February wind rattling furiously at the shutters. Time spread slowly, like oil on water. Peter had pressed himself into our souls like his signet ring in hot wax. It seemed impossible that the world hadn’t careened to a halt at his passing. My husband, the greatest will ever to impose itself on Russia, had been more than our ruler. He had been our fate. He was still mine.

The doctors – Blumentrost, Paulsen, and Horn – stood silently around Peter’s bed, staring at him, browbeaten. Five kopeks-worth of medicine, given early enough, could have saved him. Thank God for the quacks’ lack of good sense. Without looking, I could feel Feofan Prokopovich, the Archbishop of Novgorod, and Alexander Menshikov watching me. Prokopovich had made the Tsar’s will eternal and Peter had much to thank him for.

Menshikov, on the other hand, owed his fortune and influence to Peter. What was it Peter had said when someone tried to blacken Alexander Danilovich’s name to him by referring to his murky business dealings? “Menshikov is always Menshikov, in all that he does!” That had put an end to that.

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