Sometimes spin is everything. This is something that Catherine the Great knew very well. As Eva Stachniak, author of the instant national bestseller The Winter Palace got ready for her book launch, I imagined her in Catherine’s shoes. It wasn’t difficult. We were playing princess, donning period costumes and preparing our hair and makeup for the ball. As I chatted with Eva, I learned that a party was never just a party for Catherine. It was an opportunity for political posturing; for hobnobbing with the young, the beautiful and the powerful; for making alliances; and above all else, for making a statement.
Every day, Catherine spent two to three hours getting dressed. And as her maids coiffed her famously beautiful black hair into an elaborate bouffant with trailing tresses, Catherine wasted not a moment of her time. A steady flow of petitioners met with the Empress in her boudoir. She’d do business with them while being transformed from a woman into the living portrait of an imposing monarch—all part of the spin.
I study Eva as she tells me this. She’s dressed in her elaborate Baroque gown, her skirts a cascade of royal burgundy and gold, the jacket of The Winter Palace coming to life before my eyes. “Everything with Catherine was propaganda,” she says, examining herself in the mirror. Her hair stylist has just placed the finishing touch: a glittering tiara completes the portrait. There’s a shift in Eva’s posture—a magical lift as she channels an imperious regality from a character and an era she knows so well.
The rest is a mad rush as we dash out the door, trying to arrive to the party as Catherine would—fashionably late but not so late as to cause consternation among the guests. The four-wheeled carriage awaits. We barely fit into it with our dresses. The carriage departs, encountering traffic along the way. “But of course,” says Eva. “When Catherine was racing by carriage to St. Petersburg on the day she took the throne, she had to switch to stronger horses midway, and her hair dresser did her hair en route. Imagine that.” Eva looks out the window. The CN tower is lit up behind her.
We arrive at the party perfectly late. We struggle out of the four-wheeled carriage and enter the Pravda Bar in Toronto. Eva takes off her coat, shedding the last vestige of the modern world. She is standing in front of me, poised, majestic. She takes my breath away. “Ready?” I ask. “Ready,” she says. I watch as she ascends the staircase and makes her magnificent entrance to the ball. She is Catherine. She is every inch an empress.